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

Yesterday I went to see The Atheist, a play by Ronan Noone. The only character is a morally bankrupt journalist, played by an excellent Campbell Scott, who cynically manipulates his mother, his colleagues, his girlfriend and the world at large in a single minded and ultimately devastating pursuit of fame. Though some of the details of the plot are scarcely believable, the character is absolutely fascinating, not in small part because of Scott’s spectacular performance at New York’s Barrow Street Theater. The real problem with the play is the title.

“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?


  1. Atheists or plays about Atheists, or con men playing Christians in prison - which one is more the authentic /inauthentic?

    possibly one of the worst moments in my life was when we received the news the my uncle an atheist or agnostic, was found floating face down in the lake in front of his house. It was sickening and upsetting to the point that it was as if I (or someone) had accidentally run over a child in a parking lot and it was just one of those awful things you could never go back and undo.

    THAT was real.

    But time sure marches by design on for some good reason, doesn't it. And some people will mourn your fate, Massimo, even if you don't feel any sorrow for it yourself.

    And that's just the way it is.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. What about Xians who are con men, or murderers, or rapists, and in prison, Cal? Why don't you mention that?

  4. "To My Universe,"

    who on earth said that *all* atheists are moral etc.? But if atheism is anything beyond a rejection of the supernatural -- and for the overwhelming majority of atheists it is -- then one has to tackle the moral question.

  5. K "What about Xians who are con men, or murderers, or rapists, and in prison, Cal? Why don't you mention that?"

    They can call themselves whatever they want, but if God is a just Judge (and I believe He is) they WILL NOT go to Heaven.

    The prevailing religion right now in prison(s)is Islam not Christianity. Are Islamists in prison living then "authentically" in regard to their professed faith?

    The pre-Islamist doctrine was, btw, built around worshiping the gods the death, destruction and deception. Baal worship.

    Check this out for yourself.

  6. The number of people in prison has a lot to do with the majority religion, which is why the majority of US prisoners are Christians.

    Some religions seem to have a greater proportion of affiliated inmates in relation to the general population (see http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/sapient/atheist_vs_theist/4149 for an interesting analysis), but the correlations are hardly large enough to rule out other variables or justify the implication that a certain religion begets violence.

    Authenticity seems less important in this discussion than irrational and inconsistent behavior. One can just as easily make up a moral code as follow one made up by someone else. Atheists and theists usually follow similar moral guidelines, but atheists must have the strength of mind to be consistent without the promise of eternal reward or the threat of eternal torture.

  7. I prefer to call myself a non-theist or, better yet, nothing at all. I was raised in a household where religion was not discussed at all. I've always seen religion as a way of making big-brained primates (us) feel self important and different from all other animals. Yet when I read stories of feral children I can't help but be reminded that, although we're pretty intelligent, we're still animals - and that's pretty cool.

  8. "They can call themselves whatever they want, but if God is a just Judge (and I believe He is) they WILL NOT go to Heaven."

    Cal, you ought to get to know your own Christian theology better!

    The doctrine is, if people accept Christ as their saviour, then their sins are forgiven and they go to heaven.

    People are not saved by good deeds, but by this acceptance of Christ as saviour. This conversly implies that people are not primarily condemned to hell for bad deeds.

    So yes, a person can commit murder or rape, then repent, and go to heaven according to Christian doctrine.

    Whereas on the other hand atheists like Massimo, myself, and many others who otherwise live decent lives allegedly will go to hell for our dis-belief.

    And that is why Christianity, with its belief in salvation, heaven, hell etc. is just simply stupid and absurd.

  9. Sheldon, I've encountered one who believes that Jeffrey Dahmer is in heaven if is conversion to Christianity was sincere before he was killed in prison. Jesus Christ, the ultimate get out of jail free card.

  10. What that person believes, Tommy, is neither here nor there. God is the Judge and final arbitrator, not that person.

    Layers of presumption aggravating more presumption is what you have here. You're launching off on one person's presumption over what God thinks about a serial killers fate - adding your own presumption to theirs, and we're supposed to consider that reliable and something worth getting angry with God for?

    Virtually preposterous to be angry with a God (that many here doubt exists) about a serial killer who may go to a heaven that many of you don't even think exists. ????

    NOW, OTOH, I think God DOES exist and that HE WILL judge ALL serial killers. Comforting?

  11. And that is why Christianity [...] is just simply stupid and absurd.

    You forgot "often immoral".

  12. Without the mirror of Gods Word, J, you would not even know what immoral means. You assume that you would, but in reality you don't even know if that assumption is "true".

  13. Virtually preposterous to be angry with a God (that many here doubt exists) about a serial killer who may go to a heaven that many of you don't even think exists. ????

    Wrong, Caliana! I'm not angry at all. I am just baffled that people can believe stuff like that. The Christian blogger who made that statement, by the way, goes by the name of Rhology. If you think he is wrong, just google the name and go argue with him about it on his blog. And believe me, he has put a lot of thought into it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.