An Atheist Hero is Something to Be

My Christian fundamentalist mother was furious when I wrote about an atheist convention, but she was practically sputtering to read that once there, I hugged Matthew Chapman, the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. Our paths had nearly crossed at Sundance in 2011 where we each premiered a film about faith and doubt.

When he later screened his film The Ledge at the national atheist convention held in my hometown, Des Moines, I queued up to meet him and tried not to feel sycophantic. Even though I had heard lots of atheist speakers by the time I spoke to Matthew Chapman, it was our brief conversation that stayed with me. If my mom takes the fun out of fundamentalism, Matthew Chapman puts the human into secular humanism. Later, we had a more extended conversation.


CB: We both made films dealing with faith and doubt that were released last year. You’re the outspoken atheist and I’m between faith and doubt. I’m just circling the drain.

MC: [laughs] No, you’re not. You’re out there having a good time and enjoying yourself.

Depends on the day, but what about you? What’s your raison d’etre?

To leave a good impression. I hope I do things that have some sort of positive effect on the world. I am far from a perfect human being, but in the way I think, write, and hopefully make more films like The Ledge, I am involved in what I hope is an important conversation.

I’m an atheist who believes deeply in compassion, love, charity, hope. I’m an atheist who has been through a lot of suffering on this earth. I have some understanding of some of the things that can push people into religion. In The Ledge, you even see a sympathetic portrayal of the fundamentalist. When you learn everything about his life and what he’s been through, [you understand] his slightly twisted adoration for his wife and you sympathize with him. But I can sympathize with anyone. I am so nonjudgmental that I can sympathize and like just about anyone [laughing]. If you can’t find excuses for others, how do you find excuses for yourself?

That sense of acceptance and tolerance really comes through in your memoirs. In fact, you called it a defect. You said once you get to know someone, you can’t hate him or her even if it’s justified.

I can hate at a distance. I really didn’t like Jerry Falwell—

Are you about to make a case for Jerry Falwell?

[laughing] I didn’t meet him, but if I would have met him before he died, I probably would have found him quite charming. I did meet Jim and Tammy Baker, years before they became infamous. She was absolutely charming. He was a little bit slippery, though.

But the beliefs themselves are hard to take. You mention a fundamentalist who told you that most people in the world will certainly end up in the fires of hell and then in the next breath, he offered you a cup of coffee. You couldn’t get your head around this “spectacular acceptance of spectacular violence.”

The concept of hell is incredibly violent. In the Bible, there are two sides to the coin. On one side, there is goodness and charity and the reward of heaven. Yet throughout the Bible is this idea that a lot of people, I mean really most people, the majority of people, 80% of people, are going to hell. And that makes God the worst butcher in history, the worst torturer who has ever existed.  A. C. Grayling says that the believers he admires the most are the fundamentalists who have the guts to stick to the original text. I don’t know how you keep reinterpreting the Bible and keep watering it down.

Your film The Ledge introduces us to a chill, good-looking, somewhat heroic atheist. When you screened it for some young atheists, they were very moved.

They cried. One young man told me afterward that it was an Atheist Manifesto. Atheists don’t see themselves as sympathetic or likeable in film; certainly there aren’t any action heroes shouting, “You gotta have reason!” Hollywood is ruled by a desire for profit and since most Americans believe in God, that’s going to be reflected [on the screen].

That’s interesting because I spent a lot of years watching films and television through the lens of a woman of faith. From my perspective, Hollywood seemed to consider God as irrelevant, toothless, meaningless. No one was reading the Bible or praying in mainstream entertainment. Characters pursued their passions and resolved their conflicts without God. Yet, your movie made the question of belief a relevant one. You brought God into the conversation.

I’m very glad. Now that you say that, you’re right. Given how central religion is in American life, it is true that it doesn’t get dealt with a lot [in mainstream film]—from either side of the aisle.

You were convinced that a movie would be more powerful in representing atheists than any number of books and speakers.

You were at the national convention in Iowa. Some of the atheist speakers were pretty good, but you can’t compare any of them to a good preacher. I think atheism leaves out a whole emotional component from the argument. That’s wrong because some of the injury that religion causes is deeply emotional—children who have been killed in religious wars, homophobia, denigration of women—none of these find their way into the logic of an atheist argument, and in a film you can do that.

What would you die for—wasn’t that the question your film asked? Are believers the only ones who can love sacrificially?

I didn’t want to make the character into an atheist saint; that would have been ridiculous. Part of atheism is about human imperfection. He was very flawed and angry. He leads a woman into adultery and breaks up her marriage; he’s not exactly Christ-like. But he does make a sacrifice. It’s not that uncommon. There were many military personnel at the atheist conference. Do you remember when they all stood up? There must have been over a hundred soldiers, atheists who have seen combat and made tremendous sacrifices for people they are not related to in any way. I cannot imagine that they threw themselves on a grenade and thought, I am now going to heaven. Pat Tillman, the footballer who died in Afghanistan, was both an atheist and very heroic. There are atheist heroes—people just aren’t exposed to them.

Someone once referred to you as Darwin’s most dangerous descendant. Are you dangerous to religionists in America?

Think back to the McCarthy witch hunt in the ’50s—this terror that America was going to turn communist. There was never any danger that America was going to turn communist. America is so inherently capitalist, that was a ridiculous paranoia to have, and I think it’s just as ridiculous to call me dangerous in the country where 90% of Americans believe in some kind of God.

You would have a challenge.

I’d have to be very dangerous to rock that boat until it tips over.

Here’s another quote from your memoir: “Faith is the diseased appendix of the mind.”

Faith is completely redundant. It may take a long time for people to figure out it’s redundant, but given what we know about psychology and the way the brain works and the way evolution has taught us not to just battle each other into submission, but to cooperate and help each other, there will come a time when people see it as unnecessary, a philosophical distortion of reality.

Does religion make people do bad things?

Frequently and far, far worse than we imagine. On the extreme end, you have the motivating forces of martyrdom in the Islamic faith, but on the other end of things, you have many, many prejudices that come directly from religion that have an incredibly bad influence on people’s lives: children, women, and homosexuals. Children are made terrified by the concept of hell. Homosexuals are persecuted by almost every religion in the world, and women are subjugated by just about every religion in the world. 

Did you ever read Jimmy Carter’s resignation from the Southern Baptists? Let me find it. Here it is.

So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. This was in conflict with my belief—confirmed in the holy scriptures—that we are all equal in the eyes of God.

You admire him for that taking that stand.

He’s seen the damage religion does to women in all parts of the world.

When you were seven years old, you wanted to become a missionary—there’s supposed to be something authentic in those early childhood aspirations. Do you see yourself as a grown-up evangelist of sorts, doing good throughout the world?

I’m a failure in that regard. I would love to be doing more work to help people in practical, physical ways—I want to be Jimmy Carter and do the hands-on work he does. Instead I live in an expensive city, and I can’t get far enough ahead so that I can do that. I have a friend who is a parole officer and he takes me all over the city to homeless shelters where a thousand men live in a dormitory, each with all of his possessions in a small metal box. They have nothing and you just can’t believe it; it’s Dickensian London. I will write about it, but I do feel guilty for not doing more.

I think the life of a writer is difficult, but living without faith is even more challenging. How do you do both of these things?

Part of it is not having a choice. I left school so young that I have no qualifications to do anything but make art. I have to do it. I love writing and it makes me happy.

I enjoy people. I love my family. I live in New York, but I was raised in a beautiful piece of country side in England. I really, really miss it. I own a cottage with my sister and brother. It’s a bleak part of the English coast with dunes and the sea goes out for two miles. It’s very windy, and I just love it. I go there and it fills my—whatever atheists have in the place of a spirit.

This whole interview and I haven’t even mentioned your great, great grandfather Charles Darwin. He said that human beings and their brains cannot throw off a belief in God just as a monkey cannot throw off his instinctive fear of a snake. You quoted that in your memoir and then you wrote about yourself, “For this monkey, at least, he’s right.” Really?

I’ll tell you where it is. For me, it was the death of my mother. I had a complicated relationship with her. She was an alcoholic and we drifted apart, millimeter by millimeter, since I was five years old. The more she drank, the more unpleasant everything became. I still adored her and when she died, it was a very sad death. It felt like the death of someone whose life had been wasted. After she died, I found myself imagining her in heaven and I would talk to her.

Part of me said, This is ridiculous, but I slipped into my childhood and the associations of my mother and church. I have a real affection for those teachings: “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others.” And there’s this: I love being inside a church. As long as no one’s speaking. There are churches in Tennessee everywhere you go. Some are full, but many are barrenly empty. There will come a time when more are empty.

You say that nonbelievers need a place to be meditative, to be still. Where do you find peace?

Nature. Wonder and mystery. And love. Being in love, the love of one’s children. You cannot ascribe the love of children to religion.

You and I are opposite in many ways. I became a Christian when I was eighteen years old by reading the Bible, and you said reading the Bible shocked the Christianity out of you. However, neither of us is indifferent to faith and that’s significant.

That is a central thing for me. I have a much easier time talking to someone who believes in God (and with whom I am in total disagreement) than someone who is indifferent. You can’t talk to someone who is indifferent. And someone who is morally indifferent is of no interest to me whatsoever. At least when you’re talking to someone who is religious, you’re both coming at the question from the position of wanting to be good and wanting to discuss life and morality.

I just read an article about atheist scientists who intentionally expose their children to religion. Was that something you did with your daughter?

My daughter was raised Catholic by her Catholic mother, and she was confirmed. Once in a while, I’d say something sly, but she came to her own decision at age 16 and declared herself an atheist. If I could take a year off, I’d take a Comparative Religion course. I’d love to know more about Hinduism, for instance.

You’re a curious guy.

I’m a very curious guy.

That’s where all the trouble started in the Garden, you know.

The Bible starts right off: Don’t think. Don’t be curious.