Our Humanity, Naturally

A club for humanists

An atheist out on a ledge: Will he jump?

Secularity finally comes to a major motion picture

Moral dilemma. Suspense. Passion.

Infidelity. Jealousy. Retribution.

What more could you want from a summer film?

How about an atheist out on a ledge?

The Ledge, one of the most talked-about films of the summer, an intense story from writer-director Matthew Chapman (screenplay credits include Consenting Adults, The Color of Night, and Runaway Jury), opens July 8. With an all-star cast that includes Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson and Charlie Hunnam, the film is generating an extraordinary level of interest, partly because it breaks new demographic ground.

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"The Ledge is the first Hollywood drama to target the broader movie-going public with an openly atheist hero in a production big enough to attract A-list stars," says Chapman, who happens to be the great-grandson of an A-list scientist, Charles Darwin.

See a trailer here. The compelling plot has Tyler married to a devout Christian (Wilson), but embarking on a passionate, illicit affair with Hunnam. Discovering the infidelity, Wilson eventually reverts to an unusual remedy that finds Hunnam standing out on a ledge high above a city street.

This would be a rivoting storyline even without the religion factor, but the philosophical issues surrounding an atheist contemplating suicide, cutting life short due to complexities and moral shortcomings by all of the main characters, brings Hollywood filmmaking to unchartered territory. What is he dying for? Is there no alternative? Is this justice?

Secularity is nothing new to show business, of course, but talking about it and making it a serious part of a mainstream film is. Woody Allen's offbeat comic approach to raising issues of atheism aside, Chapman may in fact be correct in claiming that the subject has never been addressed seriously, with an A-list cast, in mainstream film. Certainly many actors, writers, and filmmakeres identify as personally secular, whether atheist, agnostic, humanist, or otherwise, but the genre of secular movies, particularly mainstream films directly addressing issues of meaning and depth from an atheistic standpoint, is for the most part waiting to be created.

Chapman is showing that talented filmmakers are indeed exploring the possibilities. And this is long overdue, since secularity is nothing new to the American public either. At least 15 to 20 percent of the moviegoing audience, probably more, can accurately be described as nonreligious or nontheistic, but rarely, if ever, has a writer-filmmaker had the boldness to construct a plot with an atheist protagonist at the center dealing with complicated philosophical and real-life issues.

The Ledge has already been a hit at Sundance and several other venues. If the early buzz is any indication, audiences of all faiths - and no faith at all - will be talking about the atheist on the ledge this summer.

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An Addendum: Speaking of secularity in film, the latest issue of The Humanist magazine has an article on the top 10 humanist movies. See how your own list compares. The article is here.

Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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