Thursday, September 15, 2011

The sacrificial atheist?

Spoiler warning: This post contains discussion about the season finale of True Blood and the movie The Ledge.

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?


  1. Actually, that's also one of the things that starts to bug me - but from the opposite direction to Anon.

    Oh look. Another ruggedly handsome, strong, magical male character with a dangerous, mysterious and interesting past that has, after a ten-second conversation, instantly fallen head over heels for Sookie and is prepared to lay down his life to save her from whatever trouble she gets herself into regardless of how much it puts him at risk and regardless of the fact that she'll probably just give him the flick at the end of the episode anyway.

    How entirely unexpected.


  2. Apparently Matthew Chapman, the director of The Ledge, is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.

  3. Dying atheists? Maybe being punished for being godless?

  4. Crap! Typoed my own name. Yes, that is my name.

  5. No I didn't typo my name. There's a bug!

  6. One positive thing that can be said of it, it may help to debunk the whole "there are no atheists in foxholes" idea in many people's eyes. 

  7. If they were horrible peole being killed by The Good Theist, then yes.  But in these examples, it s a selfless act.  It flies directly in the face of the "atheists are selfish" trope theists love to perpetuate. 

    I'm not terribly confidient that this message will translate to theists watching the show, but I like it.  Now, if we could just get a happy, well adjusted atheist character on t.v. who didn't have this fate or seriousl character flaws.

    I mean, I love me some House, but seriously I agree that he is not a posterboy

  8. I literally stopped reading your post when you mentioned spoilers of the Ledge, and went and watched it before continuing reading your post! lol  Maybe it's my extreme abhorrence of spoilers, whatever.  But I really enjoyed the movie too! And although I love me a happy ending, I liked how it ended.  It made you focus on the fundamentalist (and I emphasize mental) zeal that broke up the love between Shanna and Gavin.  My first thought was that Gavin died for love, which I think is something much more noble and tangible and true than religious faith.  And it definitely shook Hollis, the cop, to his core. Really made him think, along with the audience.  So I definitely agree with your assessment of the sacrificial atheist characters.  It helps people see them in (as one commenter said) a less selfish light, and that they value their relationships with real people here on earth so greatly that they would be willing to do what needs to be done in extreme situations.

    p.s.- I totally love Tara too!! Can't believe why anyone wouldn't....and I actually forgot about how she was shot at the end of the season finale, I probably blocked it out because I love her character so much and didn't want to see her go!!

  9. As much as I like the more human (and less characterized) portrayals of atheists in recent films and TV shows, I actually disliked The Ledge.  The film itself was pretty bad, the acting was pretty bad, and most importantly the whole thing felt like a really lame excuse to make a hero out of an atheist and to demonize a fundamentalist.  

    I don't think that will change hearts or minds.  It'll just make people think that atheists are coming out with their own form of Hollywood propaganda.  

    What's much more effective is when there are well-intentioned characters who just happen to be atheists.  The plot shouldn't revolve around their atheism.  

    It just struck me as tacky, unsubtle, and propagandist.  

  10. I know you don't post on this site anymore, but...

    This is very similar to how homosexuals are portrayed too.  If they aren't caricatured and stereotyped, they are tragic figures.  Presumably because it is tragic to be gay, or atheist.  Why couldn't Brokeback Mountain have a happy ending?  Why did we know it had to end with one of them dying?  Well, because they are gay.  

    However, it is a step forward.  First scapegoats, then more complex, ultimately likeable tokens, and maybe one day normal?

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