Why “The Shawshank Redemption” has something to teach atheists

What do I do now?

If you’ve read the book and/or watched the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, you no doubt recall the tragic character named Brooks. [spoiler alert] Wonderfully portrayed by actor James Whitmore, the character is, in my opinion, the most endearing of the story. In the darkest of places, he finds joy in life. In the cruelest of prisons, he finds comfort in routine. And in his eventual freedom, he meets his tragic, unexpected end.

I never really understood why this film, and this character in particular, moved me so much. Certainly it was affecting me in both a literal and figurative/archetypal level. But I never recognized the powerful metaphor of Brooks, until now. While reading one of the many stories online about a young man in the American Bible Belt “coming out” as an atheist, I made the connection.

Forget Brooks’ age. Forget his gender. Forget the literal setting. Brooks is a metaphor of a person imprisoned by his circumstance. He lives in “prison,” as all wondering theists do, and fears leaving its familiar setting. He has friends there. He knows the rules there. They tell him when he can and can’t do everything. In this structure, social network and “protection from the outside,” he is trapped – even as he loves and feeds the little bird of freedom that visits him from time to time.

This is story of every secret atheist and doubting theist in the world. They are trapped in a prison of their own custom, both internally and externally. To leave this prison is to leave everyone (and everything) they’ve ever known, abusive as it may be, behind them. And when the gates slam behind the new atheist, they know there’s no going back; not to their beliefs, and often, not to their family and friends.

This realization has made me think of theists in an entirely new way. Hate the game, but not the player.

Should we belittle the very people we hope to help?

I admit it. It’s tempting to make fun of theism. Some people, like Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher do it so well. But it’s a very thin line that separates the critical assesment of ideas versus the mockery of individuals and their struggles with shaking off those ideas.  Taunting them, while they stand inside their prisons, looking out at the world though bars of fear, is a mean, petty, insensitive thing to do.

Much of what people have done in the name of religion will forever stain our history books. I am certainly not apologizing for any of it. But if I am to help theists embrace the rational foundation of their humanity, to step into the sometimes harsh light of day, I need to remember to be more considerate of those who may be struggling to escape from a very dark place.