Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I Am A Happy Atheist

Whoa, Caterpillar.


The title of this post makes no sense! An atheist is, by definition, a person who is miserable and downtrodden and suffocating in a cloud of pain. How can an atheist find joy? Isn't an atheist a person whose hard life has led them down the path of cynicism and hate?

That's how I imagine you would have read the above title if you are a TV writer. You see, TV writers hate atheists. Or, more accurately, they hate their atheist characters. It doesn't matter if they themselves are atheists, since I'm sure atheist TV writers exist. But they must be really self-loathing! Because I have yet to come across a positive portrayal of atheism on television.

The sixth season of Dexter is in full swing, and this season is focussing heavily on spirituality. (If you even so much as think about accusing me of a spoiler with that, then you clearly do not understand what a spoiler is. Relax.) Dexter doesn't use the word, but when he describes his spiritual mindset in the season premiere, he's essentially describing a cold, shallow take on the atheist belief structure; he is citing "Harry's code" as a religious (or rather, irreligious) identity.

I'm not at all surprised, or offended, that the show decided to paint him as an atheist. It is entirely in line with his character and if Dexter was developped as a spiritual person that would probably be the stupidest turn of events ever. No, what's bothering me about this plot thread is twofold:

1. The depiction of atheism as a cold philosophy. Yes, I know, it's Dexter. I would expect no less than moral apathy from everyone's favourite serial killer. And time will tell whether any other characters express atheist or agnostic leanings. But I would wager that they won't. 

Religion is personal, and there's nothing wrong with choosing to live your life in a spiritual way if that's what is best for you. So it's sensible that, for instance, Angel Batista identifies as a faithful Catholic. That fits his character: his personality, cultural identity, backstory, and everything else. I'm not at all bothered that the show has religious characters - so does the world, after all. No, what bothers me is that the only character on the show who identifies as an atheist, or at least represents the atheist ideology, describes his ethical mindset as a "set of rules to keep me out of trouble," and that's hardly a positive depiction of atheism. Many atheists do, indeed, live a moral life, and not just because we don't want to go to jail. Newsflash, TV writers: atheists do truly believe in right and wrong! I am an atheist, but I don't hit people. I don't cheat on my boyfriend. I'm kind to animals and small children. I am respectful of strangers and I try to tip well. I have strong opinions on things like gay marriage (PRO!) and the death penalty (ANTI!). This is all a part of my own moral code. I, like many atheists before me, didn't need religion to build an ethical identity.

Again, I get that the serial-killing sociopathic Dexter Morgan doesn't have the same concept of right and wrong as the rest of us; but perhaps other more morally sound atheist characters could exist in the world of Miami Metro alongside him?

2. Dexter's sense of alienation from religion. Dexter seems to be looking at faith from the perspective of an outsider who can't relate, the same way he observes all kinds of human relationships and emotions, like friendship and romance and empathy; he's the only one who doesn't get it. But that is completely and utterly unfair, because religious worship is not a default experience within human socialization. Many people who do not share Dexter's sociopathic alienation from most of humanity are also weirded out and confused by religious worship.

I don't understand it, and I'm not a sociopath. (At least I don't think I am.) I really don't get it. I would feel exactly as Dexter does at a prayer meeting. Whenever I'm at events like weddings or funerals and everyone is asked to bow their head and pray, I stand there with my head straight up, eyes staring forward. I used to feel baffled as to what to do in these situations, but these days I'm mostly just quietly waiting out my boredom. What are these people around me sharing in that I am missing? I don't judge those who do it, and I certainly don't mean to be disrespectful; this is just something that I am completely incapable of participating in. Like Dexter, I find this world alienating and confusing. This is one instance where he's not "missing" something human deep inside him, and his traumatic past is not to blame for this weirdness he feels about religion; rather, in this case, he's just a regular dude who happens to be an atheist/agnostic. And there is nothing wrong with that.

And this can be evidenced by the fact that when I'm at a public event involving prayer, and I'm looking around the room with my chin up, I can see many other people doing the same exact thing. Sometimes I have to pointedly avoid making eye contact with certain people for fear that I might start giggling.

Many of us well-adjusted and non-serial-killing individuals are also freethinkers that do not have faith in any divine power, so this is one area where Dexter's developmental woes are not to blame for his sense of alienation; and I'm growing frustrated that that's where the show's writers seem to be going with their depiction of his atheism/agnosticism/whatever it is. There should be all kinds of people around him who agree with him! And maybe I'm writing as a liberally minded Ontario-based Canadian, and Dexter takes place in one of the Bible Belt states. So, okay, there's that. Maybe his social circle is a little more religious than mine. But I'm really only using Dexter as a timely example, because it's currently airing; the truth is that it's the same exact thing when any TV show decides to explore a character's spiritual journey. It generally goes like this:

First, Atheist is having a conversation with Other Characters about religion. Other Characters talk about their take on religion/spirituality. Atheist says that he doesn't believe in God (note: Atheist is almost always a "he"). Other Characters all suddenly become terrible friends. They are incredulous that Atheist is so cynical and reach out to him. They do not accept it when Atheist insists that he really doesn't feel anything is missing from his life, and they all condescend to inform Atheist why he is miserable.

Other Characters begin to try and force religion down Atheist's throat. Atheist will be taken on a series of adventures, from sitting in on a church session, to meditating in a Buddhist temple, to participating in a séance with a bunch of wacky and inaccurately depicted Wiccans. At one of these sessions, it will be revealed that Atheist can't take any more of this religious bullshit because his brother is dead. Bombshell! Now we know the root psychological cause for Atheist's atheism.

Other Characters will inform Atheist that God works in mysterious ways and that pain is all a part of life. If that doesn't work, then Atheist will demand further explanation because that is a cop-out. Other Characters will either say the same exact thing again in different words, or will admit that religion is really more about community than it is about spirituality. Atheist will see the light. Atheist is now Believer!


There was an episode of Glee last season (please don't leave my blog because I'm citing Glee in a philosophical context) that explored Kurt's spiritual, or rather non-spiritual, journey. It unravelled almost exactly as I just described, with one notable exception: Kurt was not converted in the end. Kurt learned that his friends were just trying to help him through a difficult time (his father's heart attack and resulting coma) and appreciated their moral support, but he was still not convinced that any God, or gods, could help him. This was probably the most sensitive depiction of atheism I have ever seen on television, ever, and I'm talking about a TV show so politically clueless that it censored the morally neutral word "transsexual" in one episode only to freely use an offensive slur in its place.

But this episode still fell into a fallacy about atheism, and the one that bothers me the absolute most: that all atheists are former believers or ex-optimists who "turned their backs on God" because of some tragedy or hardship. Kurt found that God wasn't helping him in his struggle for acceptance as an openly gay youth, so he didn't think God could help his father pull through his medical problem. Even more telling of this trope was Sue Sylvester, who has only ever shown a sensitive side in caring for her sister. Her sister, who we learned earlier has Down Syndrome, was picked on mercilessly as a child, and Sue's repeated prayers to ask God to help her were never answered. So Sue is jaded, you see, just like Kurt. God couldn't help them. So God must not exist.

Look, I will admit that I have not always been an atheist. I went to bible camp for five years as a preteen/teenager, which, considering my highly secular upbringing, probably merits a blog post all to its own. Before I went to bible camp, I had barely ever considered whether I believed in God. The camp sort of encouraged me to consider the possibility, but I never really committed to the idea, and usually after a week or so of a frustratingly "holier than thou" attitude when I arrived home from camp every year, as my mom likes to call it, I would forget all about Jesus until the next summer rolled around. The only exception was a brief half-assed "spiritual" phase that lasted approximately six months when I was sixteen, and probably had more to do with rebellion than anything else.

It was towards the end of high school that I adopted a definitively atheist identity. I don't remember when or how or why; I was probably 17 or 18, I know that much. All I know is that by the time I had graduated, I had made up my mind that there is no god, no afterlife, no divinity of any kind. But despite what TV writers want you to believe, it's not because my prayers went unanswered or because there's so much pain and suffering in the world. There was no great trauma or sadness that made me make up my mind once and for all. It's just because I don't buy it, it's as simple as that. Believing in a god is, to me, just as silly as believing in ghosts or vampires or Sasquatch. I think that when we die, we're dead; I don't think there is any supernatural force connecting everything; and I think that we are in control of our own destinies. And believe it or not, that does not depress or frighten me. On the contrary: I consider it liberating.

The thought of a God who would allow war and poverty and the AIDS epidemic in Africa to continue is actually a fuck of a lot more depressing to me than the thought of a world without a divine power. And while that might sound like I'm adopting the stereotypical cynical atheist attitude, I actually don't really think that I am. Because I see that there is so much beauty and love and joy in the world, too. And I like to think that humankind is solely responsible for all of the wonders we have. We built the pyramids. We painted the Mona Lisa. We wrote Hamlet and composed Let it Be. We discovered electricity, we invented polio vaccines, we crossed the Pacific Ocean, we flew to the motherfucking moon. And alongside that, we've evolved to develop an appreciation for the things we aren't responsible for: we can recognize the beauty in an awe-inspiring view from a mountaintop or the serenity of a golden sunset across a still lake. Those things weren't created by any divine power, but by nature itself, and that is not any less impressive. The fact that we can study them and, even better, find joy in them is utterly fantastic. Humans are fucking amazing, guys!  

My atheism is one that truly respects life, rather than mourns the tragedy of it. Atheism lets me try to live in the now to the best of my ability. I figure, this is the only life I've got; I want to live it. I want to see as much of the world as I can, and experience new tastes and sounds and cultures, and feel love and pain and joy and heartbreak. Humans can feel. We can connect with one another and build our lives around each other and try to contribute something helpful or exciting or entertaining to society. We are truly unique. And knowing that we aren't here because someone placed us here - knowing that there is no meaning of life to search for, knowing that life is its own reward - is freeing. We got the luck of the draw. Evolution chose us to experience life with total awareness, so let's experience it! 

And as for all the pain and sadness and so-called "evil"? Humans make their own choices. Sometimes, we make bad ones. Sometimes, we hurt each other and kill each other and oppress each other. But ultimately, humans are doing it, not some all-powerful evil force that is controlling us. Let us take responsibility for all the terrible shit we cause when it's our own fault, and when it's not, let's punish those who cause it the best way we can. And in those cases where it's out of human control entirely, when disease and natural disasters overcome us, then it's up to us to help one another out and pull through; we need to live life together, as a community. Isn't this better than blaming Satan or believing that some divine power is testing us? Isn't it better to know that individually, all we can do is be the best people we can be, and that we can strive for improvement every day?

When an earthquake strikes, it's not helpful to believe that someone is punishing us or testing us or working in some bullshit "mysterious way." It's not helpful to ask "why," because that implies some sort of intent. I can't imagine anything more demoralizing than thinking there was actual reasoning behind an earthquake. That some power, somewhere, thought thousands of deaths and years of grueling, resource-sucking rebuilding efforts would be productive. While the randomness of it all seems unfair, and well, it is unfair, isn't believing in a targeted hit so much crueler? Instead of asking "why," it's much more helpful to simply ask "how," to try and plan for it or prevent it from happening again - and most importantly, to ask what you can do to make things better. Because that has an answer - a real one.

So, TV writers, consider this. Consider that atheism can actually be a positive force. Consider that maybe Kurt and Sue are atheists because they simply are, and consider that maybe the fiercely moralistic Debra Morgan could be a non-believer alongside her morally challenged brother. We're here, TV writers: joyful, optimistic, life-loving atheists. Give us some time to shine.

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