Popular culture tends to stereotype and pigeon-hole unpopular or minority groups in society, and atheists are no exception. In film, TV and even news shows, Atheists are commonly portrayed as being pitifully confused or temporarily deluded. This is commonly established by presenting atheists as either previously faithful people who (temporarily) lost their faith after some personal tragedy, or as misguided non-believers who are simply in need of one God affirming moment to see the proverbial "light. .In film we usually have a protagonist who was formerly an ordained minister or priest but who lost his or her faith after some personal tragedy. In The Reaping Hillary Swank plays an atheistic researcher who goes around the world debunking miraculous religious events. We find out as the movie progresses, that our atheist researcher was formerly an ordained minister who turned her back on God after seeing her husband and child murdered during a missionary gig in the Sudan.
I have several issues with the “lapsed faith” portrayal of atheists, not the least of which, being so many Christians say they actually turn to their God during times of tragedy. Statistics indicating that churches fill up during times of national disaster would certainly seem to bear them out as well. My biggest objection, however, is the assumption that all atheists were once believers. While some came to atheism after a long torturous or short struggle from superstition to reason, many of us were never believers, and therefore have no faith to lose.
As our movie progresses our atheist hero or heroine encounters a series of strange events designed to test her or his faith in science. In the Reaping, our atheistic professor is faced with several events that locals attribute to biblical plagues. She discounts each one of these events through the scientific analysis we would expect from a thorough minded researcher, but then one inexplicable event occurs which defies all scientific reason, and our atheist suddenly sees the error of her thinking and re-embraces her God.
I think misguided non-believer portrayal hinges on the popular misconception that atheism is itself a belief system. (Albeit a deficient belief system) and that atheists are lacking or seeking some inherent spiritual or metaphysical guidance that science does not offer. In God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens (Hatchet Book Group; 2007) wrote "Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages."(p5). Most atheists I know are satisfied by reason, rather than superstition, and look to the awesome fearsome beautiful but scientifically defined forces of the natural universe for any inquiry we make to answers we seek.
Atheists are not safe in the news media either, often being treated with dismissive contempt. CNN “news” personality Paula Zahn decided to tackle the issue of atheism on her show because she wanted to find out why atheism makes people so angry. The video of the episode shows Ms Zahn questioning a panel of 3 people. Not only is there no atheist on the panel, but there the attitude of the two Christians and one Jewish woman are patronizing and contemptible. One panelist suggests that atheists are attacking Christianity, and another suggests atheists might be mollified if they just had their own holiday greeting cards.
I guess we could put out a line of greeting cards celebrating secular events in history, like the signing of the American Constitution. I wonder what Paula Zahn would have to say about that?