I saw the new Will Smith movie, I Am Legend, last night. In short, it was far worse than I expected, with a drawn out and rather boring beginning (Smith is lonely, everyone is dead except for his dog. Got it), and the ending felt like a stapled-on feel-good absurdity that didn’t follow from the premise—and is only a happy ending if your dream of paradise is an armed camp of Christians. The only virtue I’d heard about the story is that the hero is openly atheist … but that was a disappointment, too, because I discovered he was the wrong kind of atheist.
Atheists in the movies aren’t that common. Most seem to be cast as amoral opportunists — the villains. They are rarely cast as the hero, and when they are there is only one atheist stereotype allowed in that role, and Will Smith filled it perfectly.
The acceptable atheist is the one who has faced so much tragedy, whose life has been damaged by cruel fate to such a degree that his declaration that there is no god is understandable. He is a failed Job; he’s portrayed not as an actual contented atheist, but as someone who has broken under the burden a god has placed on him, and is therefore a sympathetic figure, and also is implicitly endorsing the audience’s beliefs about god. Job without god, after all, is just a deluded loser.
That’s the standard trope: the atheist is a broken man, a nihilist, a cynic, someone who has come to his disbelief as a consequence of a devastating emotional experience. This is the kind of atheist theists are comfortable with — but it’s not the kind of atheists the New Atheistswann are, and especially not the scientific branch. We don’t fit into their unthinking convention, which is probably why they stuck us with the label “new”.
There are atheists who look on a tragedy and cry, “There is no god,” in despair. But we are atheists who look on beauty and complexity and awesome immensity and shout out, “There is no god!” and we are glad.
That’s the distinction we’ve got to get across. We are fulfilled, happy atheists who rejoice in the superfluity of the old myths. We generally don’t have a tragic backstory — quite the contrary, we’ve come to our conclusions because we have found natural explanations satisfying and promising.
wann: who are not “new”.