Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hollywood Atheism

Happy New Year!  We've said goodbye to one of the worst decades in living memory and we look hopefully forward to what awaits us in the years to come.  But hey, the holiday celebrations are over and you're ready for some more deep insight from a small-town atheist, aren't you?  :oP  Well, I plan on getting out more, writing more, producing more videos, and engaging in more debates this year.  As always, your comments, emails, and criticisms and support are what drives these projects, so keep 'em coming.

Now, as I am the inquisitive type, I thought I'd start this year off with a question: why are atheists portrayed so badly in movies and television?  It's a subject that I've written on before, but I just want to revisit it because I think it's important.

Ain't No Such Thing, And That's Final!
The TVTropes.org wiki has several pages discussing the literary devices and deceptions used by writers to portray the skeptical and the nonreligious.  Most often, atheists are depicted as self-loathing, bitter, lawless radicals who stick to their materialistic ideals even though the Sci-Fi monster is eating them alive.  And this is what irks me.  Some of these writers (and viewers) seem to think that if a skeptical person is shown direct evidence, they will still remain skeptical.  As if that's the way questioning things really works!

I've stated numerous times in my articles and videos that if someone can provide the sufficient evidence to prove a god exists, I'd be an idiot not to believe.  And yet screenwriters continue to create fantasy worlds where vampires, aliens, demons, and psychic monsters abound and yet they portray the nonbeliever as a overzealous doubter who just won't accept the "reality" of what's going on.  For some it may be a way to take jabs at skeptics in the real world, but in doing so they're just missing the point of skepticism altogether.

God-Shaped Hole
Not only are they portrayed as being unwilling to believe in anything, even if it's biting them on the ass, atheists are also shown in movies and TV shows to be unkind, bigoted, immoral, lonely, and cranky.  Let's make one thing clear if it isn't already: being an atheist does not nor cannot "lead to" any of these.  Atheism isn't a positive thing in itself; it's simply a response to an assertion.  You can't get from "I don't believe in a god" to "I hate myself" or "I want to rape, kill, and steal from others".  That being said, you can find an atheist with just about any disposition there is.  It's akin to finding a bald person with just about any disposition there is.  But have you ever seen a happy atheist in a TV show or a movie?  While a lot of atheist characters offer incredibly deep and satisfying stories, I've yet to find a nonbeliever who isn't suicidal or a drug-user or or an overly-opinionated crone.  Maybe that's how the rest of the world sees us.  We complain too much.  We seek to hurt others' feelings.  We lead unfulfilled lives.  The funny thing is that for a lot of us, these accusations couldn't be further from the truth.  Being loosed from the shackles of superstition gives us freedom, and consequently, happiness previously unfathomed.

While this is a topic for another day, I should also clarify something else:  although atheism and skepticism complement each other, they are not synonymous.  I've used them nearly interchangeably above, but not all atheists are skeptical, and not all skeptics are atheists.  The distinction is important and we will discuss it in detail in the future.

Elementary, My Dear Theist
Over the holiday break, I was taken happily by surprise by the feature film Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr.  His character flaws make him both though-provoking and enjoyable to watch, and Holmes gives audiences a rational, evidence-seeking skeptic faced with seemingly overwhelming evidence of the supernatural and the existence of magic.  So as not to spoil it for you, I've hidden the next few sentences.  If you've already seen the movie, or don't care about spoilers (it's not a hugely significant one anyway), then highlight the next paragraph with your mouse.

In the movie, Holmes is faced with an opponent who appears to be a resurrected, black magic-practicing sorcerer.  Using deduction and physical evidence, Holmes eventually learns that all the supposed tricks are nothing more than just that; tricks.  Rational explanations win out over superstition and faith.  Holmes even leaves open the possibility of a supernatural explanation, examines first-hand the incantations used by the antagonist (though this is probably done more for getting into the head of the opposition rather than actually testing if the magic really works).  Watson admits that he's seen things in his lifetime that he cannot explain, and says to Holmes, "a supernatural explanation to this case is theoretically possible."  The lead character replies in my favorite piece of dialog from this film, "Agreed -- but, it's a huge mistake to theorize before one has data.  Inevitably one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts."  To date, this is the best representation of a skeptical mindset I've seen in a feature film.  I had a awful feeling that since the movie started out so well, it would devolve into "Haha skeptic, you were WRONG! You think you know everything, don't you?  Well, suffer my supernatural wrath!" as they inevitable seem to do.  But surprisingly it worked out in favor of the rational.

Why can't more writers figure this stuff out? Data, data, data!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the few exceptions, but in the movie Contact (adapted from a book written by Carl Sagan), the lead heroin is an atheist and scientist, while one of the bad guys is a religious nut.

- Fastthumbs