Atheists are popping up more and more in the television and movies. And like any minority group engaging in a civil rights movement - which, admit it or not, is what we're doing - portrayals of atheists are becoming less and less stereotypical. We're no longer nothing more than communist villains.
There are certainly stereotypical tropes about us being overly rational, cynical, heartless, selfish hedonists. Dexter, anyone? As much as I love House, he's not exactly the poster child of atheism. But even within that show, you see another atheist (Cameron) who is un-House-like in every way. And the number of human-like atheist characters is rising - Ellie in Contact, Kurt in Glee, Malcolm in Firefly, Bones.
But I've been noticing something recently. I hesitate to call it a trend, since I only have two data points so far. But this came up during a panel discussion I was on at the Midwest Humanist and Freethought Conference after we had watched The Ledge. The Ledge is a thriller revolving around the romance between an atheist, Gavin, and a woman, Shana, who is married to an emotional abusive religious zealot, Joe.
I really enjoyed the movie and highly recommend it. So if you haven't seen it, read forward at your own risk - because I'm about to give away the ending.
Joe eventually discovers the affair and puts Gavin in a situation were either he can die, or Shana dies. And surprisingly, the film doesn't have a predictable happy ending. The police don't find Shana at just the right time. Gavin doesn't have some quirky trick that makes it looks like he jumped from a 30 story building. Nope, he sacrifices himself for this woman.
And during this Sunday's season finale of True Blood, we see the same sacrificial atheist. Tara, who apparently everyone hates except me, is asked by her best friend Sookie if she thinks Gran is in heaven. Tara replies that she's always considered herself an atheist, but if there is a heaven, Gran would be president of it. Sookie then says that she wants to grow old together with her best friend, which let me know that Tara was almost certainly dying by the end of the episode.
And would you know it, in the last minute of the show, Tara jumps in front of Sookie to save her from a point blank range shotgun blast from a crazed werewolf lady. (You know, I never realized how dumb this show sounds until I have to type out what happened). People are discussing how she's probably going to be saved in the first 30 seconds of the new season, or turned into a vampire, or be a ghost for Lafayette to channel, or whatever...but you can't deny she sacrificed herself for her friend when half of her head was blown clean off.
When we were discussing the Ledge, we couldn't agree if portrayals like this were heroic or tragic. Is this showing atheists in a good light - that even though we don't believe in heavenly rewards or the afterlife, we're willing to give up the thing most dear to us for people we love? Or is it showing atheists as these tragic individuals who never have a happy ending?
I lean toward the former. As much as I don't want all of my atheist characters meeting untimely fates, I think it means something to give up your life when you're certain no afterlife is soon to follow. It shows that we do care about other people and have greater value and purpose in our lives, even if it's not handed down from a supernatural being. And I think it's the first step to portraying atheists as real people - and soon enough we won't have to keep dying to prove that point.
But again, not everyone agreed. What do you think? Do you know of any other atheist characters that fit or fight this trend?