“I Am Legend” and Those Awful, Incredulous Atheists

Credulity, it seems, is the quintessential American virtue. Value is found not in closely examining claims to discover their relationship to truth but, instead, by expressing a willingness to abandon inquiry in favor of hope. Would claim X, if true, make the world a better place? If so, we should act as if it is true, regardless of evidence or consequences. We can solve the energy crisis, for instance, if we believe strongly enough in green technologies and never mind the cost. We can banish homelessness by giving those without shelter the hope of a better tomorrow, regardless of the underlying causes of their plight. We can put an end to hate and bigotry by admonishing those who do not respect all beliefs. We can justify a lifetime of suffering if only we hold fast to the idea of posthumous paradise.

Religion, of course, is the exemplar of this culture of credulity. Faith is, at its core, wish fullfilment. I want there to be an omnibenevolent God who loves me so, therefore, there is an omnibenevolent God who loves me. I desire good to be rewarded and evil punished so, therefore, an afterlive exists designed to do just that. The rejection of religious faith, thus, is popularly condemned as the broader rejection of hope. The atheist must be bitter and suffering as a result of his choice — or perhaps his choice came about because of his bitterness and suffering. Regardless, the atheist is the subject of pitty, if not outright scorn, because he has opted to turn away from a set of beliefs that are so nice. Why, society asks, would any person want to undermine such an optimistic world view?

This condemnation of atheism is socially acceptable in a way that would seem immediately suspect if directed at a given religious sect. A movie or television show that portrayed a Jewish character as brought low by his religion, only to find happiness by embracing Christ, would find itself labeled religious bigotry, not a messenger of embraceable platitudes. A clear example of the banality of anti-atheist sentiment can be seen in the recent blockbuster film, “I Am Legend.”

Staring Will Smith, the movie tells the story of a scientist, Robert Neville, left alone by, and immune to, a global plague that turns many of its victims into zombie-like vampires. By day, he explores an abandoned New York City, hunting the vampires and bringing them back to his lab to experiment for a cure. By night, he hides in his home, which he has retrofitted into an armored bunker, hoping to live to see the next day. Whether Neville was an atheist before the infection is never explicitly told, though there is a scene at the beginning where he prays with his family. We can assume, therefore, that he was, at one time, a man of faith, but lost his belief as a result of the evils he saw around him. This is typical of Hollywood’s view of atheists: they only ever arrive at their atheism through a traumatic severing of faith. Religion is the default human condition and to reject it must be the result of anger against the heavenly father. Instead of atheism being a rational choice, one arrived at by weighing argument and evidence, it is instead analogous to the teenager screaming “You’re not my dad!” at her offending parent and slamming her bedroom door. Atheism comes about through emotional rebellion, not intellectual application. As such, it is less a philosophy than a symptom of a curable disease. Why is the atheist so angry? If we can alleviate that anger, he will gladly return to the fold.

Near the end of the film, Neville meets a woman and a young boy. They are traveling to a safe zone somewhere in New England. Neville, who has information that these protected areas, while planned, never materialized, questions the woman on how she knows of its existence. “God told me,” she said. Neville rejects this. Returning to the theme of atheism as anger, he tells the woman that there is no God. Would God have allowed this plague? No, Neville says. There must not be a God, because the disease is wholly the work of man. The woman isn’t put off by any of this. She knows God is out there and that he’s the one who told her about the safe zone. When we first see her, she’s driving a car with a cross hanging from the rearview mirror.

The climax comes when the three are cornered by the vampires in Neville’s lab. Neville discovers that his latest attempt at a cure, tested on a vampire he has imprisoned in the spot they’re now hiding, has worked. He can fix the world’s greatest ill. For reasons that make little practical sense, however, he decides that he must hand the cure off to the woman and sacrifice himself to protect her and the boy. He comes to this odd conclusion through a clumsy recovery of faith. His daughter, it seems, was fond of clasping her tiny hands into the shape of a butterfly, a fact he remembers as he notices first a butterfly tattoo on the neck of the vampire he’s captured and, second, the cracks in the glass separating him from the horde of undead, cracks which form, yes, a butterfly. These coincidences convince him that there really is a god and that the woman’s claim to divine knowledge is true. Neville hands her the cure, locks her safely away, and blows himself up. He’s recovered from his unfortunate atheism but must still pay the price for rejecting God. The film concludes with the woman and boy finding the promised safe zone and handing Neville’s cure to the proper authorities.

What are we to make of this heavy handed moralizing? The message in “I Am Legend” is clear: belief in God makes even the extraordinary possible. To reject belief in God, then, is to reject the possibility of the extraordinary. What a sad and hopeless belief atheism must, therefore, be. Of course, had Neville been Jewish and the woman more overtly Christian, anti-defamation leagues everywhere would have called for the film’s boycott. That isn’t the case when the target of righteous condemnation is atheism. All good, caring, and loving people necessarily have faith in a good, caring, and loving creator. It is only the cynics and the miserable who would reject such a beautiful dream.