The Glamour of Atheism

by Cameron McAllister

The title of this article risks overstatement. Consequently, I hope the reader will do me the courtesy of not regarding it as a cheap ploy for attention. My aim is simple: I wish to examine an aspect of atheism’s imaginative appeal. Christians are frequently accused of wishful thinking, of retreating to the church in the face of a vast and pitiless universe. Though this is clearly a double-edged sword (wishful thinking works both ways), my reason for focusing on the “glamour” of atheism is not so much to craft a rejoinder as to train a lens on a frequently overlooked issue.

Atheism, like any belief system, makes a loud appeal to the imagination, and if we overlook this striking fact we turn a blind eye to one of the key sources of its persuasive power. Specifically, I want to suggest that death is atheism’s ultimate appeal, and that death lends atheism its special glamour. It is in the arena of popular culture in particular that this glamour frequently announces itself most vocally. My hope is that this thesis will seem less controversial and even less outrageous as we progress.

A new type of character has emerged in popular television.[1] Not only is this character a hardened naturalist, this character is a principled cynic when it comes to human motive, an inveterate pessimist on all matters of progress, and an outright fatalist where man’s destiny is concerned. This

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character sees through everything and everyone, and is not afraid to issue shrill reports on his or her unseemly findings. It goes without saying that “said character” is usually some kind of investigator, preferably a medical doctor or a detective, and that said character usually dispenses with all social formalities in the name of blunt honesty that often borders on misanthropy. After all, said character cannot be bothered with the usual conventions that govern civil society. Said character’s only allegiance is to the truth, and truth rarely agrees with our sense of decorum.

Have you met this character? He goes by the name of Gregory House in the television series House, M.D. We see him in the current BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, and his latest incarnation is detective Rustin (aptly shortened to Rust) Cohle in HBO’s True Detective.

The following is a brief sampling of detective Rust’s worldview: The world is a “giant gutter in outer space.” Rust says that human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself; we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. Rather, we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self—this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programed with total assurance that we are each somebody when in fact everybody’s nobody…

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