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”.


  1. #1 David Marjanovi?, OM
    January 6, 2008

    What about Homer in The Simpsons Movie? His character is a bit **ahem** two-dimensional and too broadly written, but really he is the perfect “every man” and apparently a non-believer even if he isn’t outspoken about it.

    “This book doesn’t contain any answers!!!”

    But he asks the very reasonable question, if there is a creator who wants us to know about her, why isn’t there some incontrovertible evidence? Then he provides it. Boo!

    I haven’t seen the movie or even read the book, but AFAIK he merely explains what incontrovertible evidence would be — something very, very different from anything anyone claims to have found so far (well, except maybe the TimeCube guy).

  2. #2 uncle frogy
    January 6, 2008

    been reading the blog “religiously” for some time and have not felt I could add anything to the thread most of the time.
    When I was younger if we wanted to see a movie that was challenging or serious truly moving we would never go to see a Hollywood movie we would go to a foreign movie.
    except for some “independent movies” and rare exceptions when has Hollywood done anything else I mean where did the expression Hollywood ending come from?
    part of this discussion reminds me of all the criticism leveled a Hollywood for its portrayal of (you supply the “minority” here) Hollywood makes money/product not art. When it has made “art/truth” it has done so only by subterfuge or clout of the parties involved or dumb luck.
    I have not seen “I am Legend” yet nor read the book I did see “the Omega man” a previous version of the book I think. It to was pretensions and over done and absurd in parts indeed hard to believe but a fun movie all the same. One thing Hollywood almost always gets wrong is time, from the descriptions and the preview/trailers looks more like 30 years not 3. I want to see it just to see New York gone deserted and over grown I will not be to surprised by the “Hollywood” ending. Few are the movies that end without some hope things returning to normal, Hollywood is not very big on irreversible change though nature and history seem to not posses the same bias.

    One of my favorite parts of “Star Trek” were the encounters with gods and “super aliens” They were always seen as beings that were different and maybe more powerful in some way but just that a being of some kind subject to the “laws of nature”, scientific understanding as anything else.

    I will cast a vote for Sherlock Holmes for the “atheist” character most who most often solves the crime/problem with reason and analysis and never faith or mysticism

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    January 7, 2008

    When confronted by an angry goddess demanding to be worshipped, Buffy just says “we don’t bow down to gods anymore,” and proceeds to fight her as though she was just some superhero. The “religious” humans in that universe are mostly morally weak. (Or dupes who just don’t get that being supernatural doesn’t make you special in the requisite way to inspire worship.)

    Three words: Conan the Destroyer.

    (Sure, Conan is not an atheist, but he’s way off in the deist direction.)

    Here’s an intuition pump to get some thinking going about all that: What if you saw a drop-dead convincing theoretical argument about something that we could likely never prove in principle (like, what would be found if we could go through a wormhole, but anything entering would be destroyed completely – something like this might actually be argued.) Would you let the argument convince you, and shrug off the trouble ever proving it? Or would you resist accepting the terrific theoretical argument because of some insistence that it just has to be testable to be “meaningful” etc?

    I don’t understand. And I think you don’t understand that science cannot prove anything anyway — it can only disprove.

    The knowledge of God

    Why do you say “knowledge” when you mean “belief”?

    atheism openly defies it.

    For the 120th time: atheists don’t defy, they deny. They really believe that God does not exist. Is that so hard to understand?

    I believe that would make him an anti-theist as opposed to an atheist.