This is not a review of director Matthew Chapman’s new film The Ledge, the details of which have been heatedly discussed elsewhere. Totally independent of the film’s merits and weaknesses, it’s another welcome addition to the list of “atheist” movies and it will, one hopes, spark discussion around issues of belief and nonbelief, as was the intention.
In a recent post-screening conversation, someone commented that the worst aspect of the film lies in its very premise. Chapman has stated that he wanted to explore the question of whether “an atheist with no belief in an afterlife…[would] have the courage to sacrifice himself for another.” The film’s hook is whether the main character (played by Charlie Hunnam) will end his life to save the woman he loves (played by Liv Tyler), despite his lack of faith that something better awaits him after death. The commenter initially couched his criticism in somewhat misogynistic terms (“No point in dying for a woman, another one will always come along”), but finally contended that the concept of self-sacrifice was a harmful religious idea (“crap,” actually) and that no self-respecting rational thinker would (or should) ever place his own existence and well-being in a secondary position to someone else’s.
I’ll refrain from parsing the logical fallacies that dotted the ensuing semi-objectivist exchange, and simply opine that self-sacrifice is one of those basic human virtues that have been hijacked by religion. The reason that, say, the sacrifice of Christ (or of Prometheus, for that matter) has any emotional resonance at all is our primal (and pre-existing) recognition of the moral depth of self-sacrifice. (The actual depth involved in a deity requiring that it sacrifice itself to itself before being resurrected to eternal life and power is a problem that others have tackled with gusto.)
Humans sacrifice for others all the time: parents for their children, soldiers for causes and comrades, firefighters for those in need of rescue. Ordinary people for complete strangers. I hope I would have the courage to do the same.