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.

Why no charms mean no chains

family guy religion

Look! Look! I'm defining myself!

I have about 25 charms in a small keepsake box. Crosses, Celtic crosses, anks, oms, a Seminole arrow head, a Sicilian horn, sun symbols – all piled atop one another, each representing brief periods in my life that I’ve attempted to say, “This best represents my beliefs.”

I could never find the one, over-arching belief system that allowed for my view of the world.  I know…that sounds rather presumptuous. Who am I to determine what’s right and wrong? I should just pick a medalion and then shut up and do as I’m told.

But who really does this?

With the exception of the most fundamentally religious people, like say, the Amish or Kirk Cameron, how many of us actually believe everything that little charm around our neck implies?

A.J. Jacobs took a crack at it. In his book, Living Bibalically, he spent an entire year trying to do everything the little cross on his neck told him to do. I encourage you to check out his webpage. Let’s suffice to say that, at the end of the year, Jacobs walked away with a new insight on what parts of his faith made sense, and which did not.

The bigger point here is that 99% of us don’t really represent the icon that sits on our chest. We may have family and cultural affiliations. We may participate in rituals. But “something else” guides us when we act in a manner that goes against our religion’s teachings.

What is it?

Plato had a good way of explaining it. He asked, “Are things good because god does them, or does god do them because they are good?” If you believe in the first part of the question, then anything god does (or instructs) is right, and you’re all sinners when you stray from his word in any detail.

However, evidence would suggest that most people believe the second part, which begs the question, why do we need to listen to god at all (to know what is right for us)?

Today, I wear no charm – or chain – around my neck. I realized that no one else will ever develop an ethos that perfectly matches my beliefs because no one has ever lived my life. And since the relativism/libertarian paradox supports the idea of a free society, that works out fine for me.

Besides, I never really had the chest hair to pull off a gold chain, anyway.