Monday, August 05, 2013

Henry Poole Is Here—and he's reinforcing misconceptions

More often than not, I categorize indie films as future home rentals rather than worthwhile trips to the local movie multiplex. A side effect is that I may never remember to rent the film at all. This was why I didn't see the 2008 fantasy Henry Poole Is Here...until 2013, when I abruptly rediscovered it.

The twist is that in 2008 I was still actively religious, although my doubts were germinating steadily. If I had watched it then, I may have reacted differently to the character Henry Poole. Of course, seeing it now, I find myself wishing to counteract misconceptions about atheists, which are reinforced by characters such as Poole. I'm not Henry Poole. The film itself might not intend to present a slanted portrayal of atheists, but I worry that an uninformed audience might interpret it that way.
  • To start with the obvious, Poole is mostly depressed and aimless. It should be equally obvious that atheism isn't a cause of these serious emotional issues. In truth, that automatic assumption is a little insulting to everyone regardless of religiosity. It presumes that they cannot achieve emotional stability nor purposeful lives without a religion handing a set of prefabricated answers to them. One other point should be obvious: the majority of atheists don't live in a reclusive pit of monotonous existential despair like Poole does. Instead they tend to mostly act like, well, everyone else in their culture (and/or subcultures).
  • Poole's childhood was rough. I don't recall whether anyone in the film suggests that past trauma contributed to Poole's atheism, but some viewers may leap to that conclusion. Religious psychoanalysis tends to claim that concepts of gods are founded on concepts of parents. Supposedly, absent or chaotic parents interfere with the "normal" development of concepts of trustworthy gods. This claim is one reason why parents may feel personally responsible when their offspring eventually reject their religion. But like most simple reductionist explanations, it fails frequently in cases of realistic complexity. My relatives were conscientious and loving, but I nevertheless dropped their teachings about the supernatural. And for far too many adult atheists, unlike mine their childhoods were traumatic precisely because their earnest relatives consistently enforced a horrifying flavor of supernatural belief.
  • Similarly, I don't recall whether the film suggests that Poole's more recent difficulties resulted in a sudden passionate mood swing toward atheism, but once again some viewers may think so. It's true that atheists aren't unemotional logic processors. Their dismissal of religion can be quick and climactic. My complaint is the stereotype that all atheistic shifts solely consist of capricious raging impulses. It underlies the comforting false hypothesis that a former believer's current atheism is "really" shallow emotional turbulence, perhaps motivated by a perverse desire to break the religion's rules, and not the sober acceptance of an opposite perspective that has its own intellectual foundations.
  • Another way that the film could unintentionally support the misconception of "peevish" atheism are the scenes when Poole physically attacks religious symbols. Outside fictional stories and totalitarian political regimes, average peaceful atheists see little value or fun in employing violence against inanimate objects which represent nonexistent entities. The population of Great Britain isn't roving around in mobs illegally demolishing empty churches. Some new atheists describe a feeling of complete "freedom" from the mental influence of their former beliefs, so it seems to me that atheistic indifference toward religious symbols is much more likely. Ask a committed atheist "Why do you hate God all the time?" and they'll probably shrug and reply, "'God' who? I don't blame your god for anything. But your actions to please your god, on the other hand..."
  • Yet another unflattering aspect of Poole's manner is his unwillingness to tolerate the religious believers around him. Some of his retorts are needlessly hurtful. He's prickly and he explicitly attempts social isolation. Unfortunately, Poole could thereby reinforce the awful misconception that most atheists are uncaring individualists whose deepest desire is to poke holes in everyone else's opinions at the slightest opportunity. In this case, it's important to pay attention to the context of these conversations. Poole is provoked over and over by others who persistently preach their beliefs at him. He has the right to decide who may enter his property and what topics he is open to discussing (and how many times). He could be sweeter and more patient, but given the difficult situation I'm hesitant to be too hard on him. At some point, the freedom to express thoughts on the topic of religion should also include the freedom to contradict someone else's thoughts, preferably in a benevolent attitude.
  • My last warning about the accuracy of the character Henry Poole centers on his hasty responses to the miracles in this fictional story. If other characters in the story are instantly cured of significant maladies, and those maladies aren't simply psychosomatic, then it's extremely selfish and short-sighted of Poole to immediately pronounce, without intense secular observing and theorizing, that the miracles cannot be happening. What if the far-fetched religious explanations are irrelevant to the physical cause of the uncanny medical effects? What if Poole has exposed a microscopic substance as potent as penicillin? Imagine if the character of Poole were a scientist in that situation.

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