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 atheists should attend church

You don’t need religion to have a religious experience.

(Hold the phone, Captain Literal, there’s some truth to this potential paradox.)

For many, a “religious” experience simply means something, as my friend Paul notes, that “transcends” the moment. This transcendence can imply moving from the natural to the supernatural. Or, as I’m asserting here, the experience can merely be a gestalt — the sum of the sensory experiences of the moment, combined with the thoughts and memories of the person beholding them, that creates a new experience larger than the sum of its parts.

Whether this experience can be explained by the touch of a supernatural entity or the activation of a region of the brain is, while metaphysically fascinating, beside the point.

A moment that I recently experienced was unexpected and profound. At the end of a particularly intense work day, I went to the beach by my house. I played in the water for a few minutes, dried off and began my trek from the shore back to my car. Sunset was nearly upon us. As I walked back, I realized that 100 or so people had gathered on the beach. Some were sprawled on beach blankets, some were talking softly at picnic tables and others seemed to simply pause, as if they were waiting for something to happen.

I realized that the group was there for a shared purpose; and a shared belief. Each individual had come to this place to behold something beautiful, something special. It was the golden disc of the early evening sky sinking behind the expanse of ocean before us. In its last few moments of visibility, no one spoke. We all watched for that exact moment when the sun would disappear from our view. When it did, everyone clapped.

This event, I believe, was held in an impromptu church. Here we were, strangers, united only in our desire to experience someone bigger than ourselves, who experienced something that transcended the details of the event itself. Did we all experience the same thing? No. But by the sounds of the clapping — the physical “amens” if you will — a great many did.

It was a powerful moment. It made me think about my youth, attending Catholic masses. The mass didn’t speak to me much, to be frank. I suspect that I simply wasn’t the right audience. But I do remember that many seemed to be quite taken by the experience. So, too, are those I see on television who attend Baptist revivals or faith healings.

I wonder if all of theses people really believe the minutiae of their holy books or simply want to experience the transcendent? If the latter, it seems that gathering together, sharing an experience with others who value sharing an experience, was a helpful ingredient.

Last week’s Reason Rally, which ranged from the silly to the profound, may have hinted at the very premise of my proposition. Maybe everybody, in one form or anther, needs to attend “church” once and a while.