About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
The Atheist, the play
“Atheist” here is used as a straightforward and unquestioned synonym for amoral (not quite immoral, as the main character never really does anything illegal, always teetering on the fuzzy borderlands of morality, which greatly contributes to making the play interesting and the protagonist intriguing). Augustine Early, the Atheist, simply tells the audience how he arrived at the conclusion that he ought to pursue only his self-interest: “I didn't come into my own, understand my talent that is, until after I lost my faith in God, and once I let that go... fuckin' carte blanche!”
Now, imagine what would have happened if Noone had written a play about, say, sexual depravity, and entitled it “The Homosexual.” Or one about religious intolerance with the title “The Muslim.” Or one about corrupt financiers called “The Jew.” You get the drift. Augustine Early is not an atheist in any interesting sense of the word, and his behavior arises out of an ingrained lack of empathy for humanity, not a disbelief in god. Early doesn’t talk much about atheism during the play, with only a few sentences on the topic at the beginning of each act. Indeed, we glimpse the possibility that his cynical atheism was in fact a consequence of his rough upbringing with a single mother in a trailer park, certainly not of any deep philosophical reflection. It also becomes increasingly clear during the play that Early is naturally prone to the kind of behavior he engages in. Whether this behavior is due to his upbringing or because of some sort of brain dysfunction is left unexplored.
To be an atheist, contrary to what Noone seems to believe, has nothing to do with being nasty and exploitative toward fellow human beings. Sure, some atheists are not very pleasant human beings, just like plenty of religious folks of any sect are immoral despite their loud professions of faith (let’s remember that, statistically speaking, there are many more believers than atheists in American prisons, compared to the make up of the general population…).
To be an atheist means to take responsibility for one’s moral choices, a much more difficult task than the one faced by any religious person who simply has to follow a small number of dictated rules (and yet, as we see repeatedly, they can’t even manage that, particularly the one about not killing fellow humans). Atheism puts the human being in charge of charting her path through life, and charges that human being with full responsibility for her choices. Compared to the infantile worldview of a religionist, an atheist is fully aware that most moral questions are not black and white, that there are no easily identifiable heros and villains. Moreover, the atheist has a deep cultural and historical perspective, and is aware of the fact that while certain moral imperatives are truly universal for humans (again, chiefly “do not kill other human beings unless you have absolutely compelling reasons to do so”), most so-called morality is actually local and changes with the time and place. Accordingly, an atheist has to be able to articulate and deploy a complex view of morality that distinguishes what is really moral or immoral from what is only a matter of arbitrary custom, with a large and complex territory of gray in between. It is tough to be an atheist, much tougher than being a religionist, and certainly much more complicated than the cartoonish sketch that Noone presents in his play.
Noone’s casual equivalency between atheism and amoralism is insulting to atheists and downright dangerous in a society that still uncritically accepts such equivalence. Atheists truly are the last minority in the United States whom it is perfectly politically correct to bash in public, and plays like The Atheist contribute to reinforce and propagate the stereotype. Art is supposed to show us the way forward, to question societal stereotypes, to upset audiences and make them think. I couldn’t detect any thinking about atheism going on during Noone’s play, which unfortunately turned the work into a colossal wasted opportunity. I am seriously considering going back to the theater and greet patrons for the next performance while sporting a brightly colored “Your Friendly Atheist Neighbor” t-shirt. Care to join me?