Thanks! I try.
Addressing your question, Sstavix:
Perhaps there could have been, for lack of a better term, a less universal portrayal in the film. For instance, there are many kinds of Christianity. I've also met many different kinds of atheists. Some broach on the level of arrogance seen in the film, yes. Some are among the nicest people I've ever met.
It's a bit like the issue of portraying racial groups and stereotypes. It's a fine line between using the stereotypes to make a point, and using them in an offensive manner. For instance, let's look at the portrayal of racial stereotypes in comedies (Heck, let's just use Mel Brooks as a comparison here) vs in films such as The Birth of a Nation or other films from that era.
In the case of Mel Brooks, racism is often a comedic device. It's offensive, yes. But it can be used as a tool, if you will, to get something out of the movie. I found a blog post
about Blazing Saddles that goes into some examples.
The short version is this: Blazing Saddles arrived during the height of Postmodernism. How do we know? See Spoiler tags below. But I'll continue: Because the film portrays itself as postmodern, we know there is some deeper meaning behind the overt silliness of it all. The blogger suspects that Brooks was trying to show that society is so anarchic that the parody and the real thing are indistinguishable.
This is in contrast, by the way, to the method used in more serious movies such as those of Stanley Kubrick. In Kubrick's movies, the symbolism and hidden messages are all over the place, but they aren't drawn into the spotlight like with Blazing Saddles.
But let's talk about The Birth of a Nation for a minute. As it almost 100 years old, times were different. The message of the film was for a different audience. I'll directly quote from the wikipedia entry because I'm tired. XD
University of Houston historian Steven Mintz summarizes its message as follows: Reconstruction was a disaster, blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals, and the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government. The film suggested that the Ku Klux Klan restored order to the post-war South, which was depicted as endangered by abolitionists, freedmen, and carpetbagging Republican politicians from the North. This reflects the so-called Dunning School of historiography.
At the time, black characters were portrayed by white actors wearing blackface. Blackface is honestly pretty offensive. It was used to comedic effect in Tropic Thunder without coming across as mean-spirited, but the original blackface arose (I'm heavily distilling it here) because no one wanted to hire black actors, no executives thought people would watch movies with black people in them, and white actors didn't want to work with black actors. My inner historian is crying at reducing it to such simple and overly-generalized terms, but I don't think a full-on analysis or discussion would benefit the topic at hand.
So let's reduce what I'm saying to a simpler point: Blazing Saddles is racist to make a point about society, and that's what critics got out of it. The Birth of a Nation is often seen as racist not because it was intended to be an offensively racist movie, but because it directly inspired the second generation of the Ku Klux Klan and because it's historical inaccuracy is portraying racism in a positive light.
I don't really know what D.W. Griffith was trying to say with The Birth of a Nation, and I haven't found much strong evidence that says. Maybe he was trying to be a parody like Mel Brooks. Maybe he was trying to inspire racism (Although given his reactions to criticism that this movie was racist, I think not) . Maybe he was just trying to make an epic movie. I really don't know.
But I can say that the immediate aftermath probably means that his message, whatever it was, was lost on the moviegoers. Griffith would later make the film Intolerance (Whose Babylon set marked the L.A. landscape for years), which was a response to the bans and censorship of this film. The film, a remarkable technical achievement for the time, is infamous because of the events surrounding it.
So that's the difference between different types of racism. What does this have to do with the topic? Well, let's go back to the portrayal of Atheists in the film. In some ways, it parallels the topic of racism: It's a prejudice, or negative view on a group of people. This analogy is obviously not perfect, so bear with me here.
The real question is what is the film trying to say? Well, I definitely got the impression that the film is trying to say "God exists!" The problem with such a statement, as is the problem with any film trying to prove a point rather than raise a question, is that it requires an argument to go along with it.
Just so we're on the same field, here are some things about arguments so we can get definitions on the same page. There are three main types of arguments: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Logos is basically logical reasoning: X implies Y, and Y implies Z, therefore X implies Z. Pathos is basically an appeal to emotions and emotional responses: Often campaign ads use this. Ethos is more or less an appeal to a sense of right and wrong, or to ethics. Often arguments will use more than one of each type. More often than not, though, a strong argument is based on Logos with support from Pathos and Ethos as persuasive elements. Essentially, "This is why the position is correct (Logos), and here is why you should take action about it and/or care (Pathos and Ethos".
There's also a kind of faulty or insufficient argument called a Fallacy. There are multiple types of Fallacy: Fallacies of presumption fail to prove the conclusion by assuming the conclusion in the proof. Fallacies of weak inference fail to prove the conclusion due to insufficient evidence. Fallacies of distraction fail to prove the conclusion due to irrelevant evidence, like emotion (For instance, using Pathos when Logos should be used). Fallacies of ambiguity fail to prove the conclusion due to vagueness in words, phrases, or grammar.
The problem with God's Not Dead is that in it's attempt to argue the position that God exists, it uses logical fallacies. Now, this isn't necessarily uncommon, and doesn't have to make the movie bad. However, the fallacies pertaining to the topic at hand are the Straw Man: Discrediting the argument by misrepresenting the argument, and Ad Hominem: Attacking the person instead of the argument. In this case, both times it attacks the villains, the Athiests, instead of the arguments. Now let's not get confused: I'm not talking about Josh's arguments with the atheists. I mean that by portraying atheists as arrogant, rude pricks who only disbelieve because of personal demons is an argumentum ad hominem. But this is also a Straw Man: By building up atheists in the ways described, it represents and unfair portrayal of the other side of the debate. The argument practically hinges on the fact that atheists don't believe in God because they had personal issues in the past: The straw man, if you will. The movie ends with the "Success" of knocking down the straw man.
I know, it sounds like I'm rambling. But this is, ultimately why God's Not Dead fails as a movie: It presents itself as an argument, and then argues poorly.
So Sstavix, assuming you haven't fallen asleep yet, what could they have done to make the portrayal less insensitive? A couple things come to mind, but they don't involve just the rewrite of the atheist character.
The first would require serious rewrites to the plot and characters. To engage in a polemic debate on this subject (The existence of God) is a very hard task. To succeed at what this movie was shooting for, it would have needed stronger arguments, and fewer fallacies. Portray atheists as people too. Somehow, I don't think this is possible for a film where the debaters are as emotionally invested in the topic. It also doesn't fulfill the "Atheists are all evil and Christians are awesome!" narrative that inspired my parents to go see it. (-_-)
The second would be to rewrite the atheist in a less derogatory light, and leave some ambiguity to the existence of God as well as reduce the heavy-handedness of the debate aspect. Maybe this is my Kubrick fanboyism, but I don't like a movie telling me what I need to take away from it. As I had said in an earlier post, art is what you make of it. This film is like looking at a piece of art, and having the wonder and joy of determining what it means to you ruined by having the painter lecture you on what it means. The strength of 2001: A Space Odyssey is that it doesn't give you answers. You must derive your own meaning from the movie. God's Not Dead doesn't give you that option.
The final option would be a little easier: Include atheist characters who aren't caricatures. Radisson isn't necessarily a bad character. He's got personal issues that make him as angry as he is. But the movie, by making all atheist characters the same way, is saying that ALL atheists are atheists because they had issues in the past. That's an unfair representation. Maybe something like this: Radisson does his little "Write God is Dead" thing. Josh has another professor who's an atheist, but not a jerk. When talking with this person, Josh realizes that Radisson isn't an atheist because he's thought through the issues, but because he's mad at God.
Anyway, sorry for the massive post.