Atheist’s Paradise: New Play Explores Atheism, Philosophy and Higher Education

A new theatre company, The Edge of the Universe Players 2, debuted a new play, Atheist’s Paradise, on November 3, 2012 at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, DC. With performances running through November 25 Atheist’s Paradise follows the story of “Doc” Johnson, a philosophy professor and football coach who devotes most of his time to teaching critical thought and questioning students’ religious beliefs. Conflict ensures when a new college president pressures Doc to create a winning football team and scale back his controversial teachings.

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said, “Atheist’s Paradise was entertaining and thought provoking. I’ve seen a number of plays that touch on the topics of atheism and critical thinking, and this was by far the best because of the good acting, fair treatment of diverse perspectives, and insightful glimpse into what it means to be an inspiring, motivational person that changes lives for the better.”

Fred Edwords, director of the United Coalition of Reason, will participate in a post-play discussion of Atheist’s Paradise on Friday, November 23.

Bill Goodman is the writer behind Atheist’s Paradise and the playwright for The Edge of the Universe Players 2. His play RE-SUR-REK received a Washington Post “Critic’s Pick” in 1998 and was produced again by Bare Bones Productions in New York City in 1990. Bill is a Washington DC native and escaped from the U.S. civil service to resume a career in creative writing and theatre. Bill responded to questions from Humanist Network News about his new play:

HNN: How long have you been a playwright, and what got you involved or inspired you to work in theater?

Goodman: I attempted to write a play at age 10, again at 14, and yet again in my freshman year in college.  But I really started writing seriously in approximately 1980, when I was 27. Starting in 1986, I contributed well-received one-acts to the Washington Theatre Festival produced by the original Source Theatre Company.

I got seriously interested in theatre in seventh grade, under the influence of an unusual English teacher, Mr. Barber. He had a biting wit in class and also ran the school drama club, which produced some of his own works. He was encouraging toward me, partly because I was good at writing. At that age, I had some inferiority feelings and could use all the support I could get.

Then, as a young adult, I saw some great plays—with both profound intellectual content and strong emotion—and wanted to get involved. Some I saw on Broadway, others in tiny, poverty-stricken theatres—in either setting, brilliance can exist.

HNN: What are your thoughts about the Washington DC theater scene? Is there a particular reason you choose to write plays in DC compared to any other city?

Goodman: To be honest, it’s primarily a matter of convenience, as I live in the D.C. area. Fortunately, there’s a large theatre audience here with a variety of tastes, so almost any type of show has a chance to succeed.

Now as for what’s being produced here, there’s plenty of well-done comedy and plays about specific political and social issues. But I’d like to see more pondering about the human condition in broad terms—about what we can do with this life on earth, or perhaps even hereafter—that type of play unfortunately isn’t as popular as I think it deserves to be. Some examples of what I mean include The Great God Brown by Eugene O’Neill and The Hairy Ape, also by O’Neill. Both are about an individual’s struggle to find satisfactory life-meanings after—or during–a personal crisis. Such meanings—or the terrible absence of them–can apply to us all.

HNN: What was the inspiration behind writing Atheist’s Paradise?

Goodman: I did know an eccentric—and compassionate—professor of philosophy, who was somewhat like “Doc” in the play. He helped me greatly during my troubled undergraduate days, and taught me to think much more rigorously. Unlike Doc, however, he wasn’t also a football coach. The actual professor also flaunted his rejection of religion, and so does Doc. Both believe in rigorous logic, and both are good at it.

HNN: Why is it important to you personally to, as your company describes, “ponder the best use we can make of this life, the origin of the universe, morals, God, the afterlife”?

Goodman: For one thing, I have felt lost—disconnected—futile—many times, and feel a need for solid foundations—but for me, they can’t be fake. Some people seem to think that they can decide if God exists, and decide God’s nature, just by means of subjective decision-making. You can’t make up objective reality in your head. Now if there is an afterlife, with punishments and rewards, it would be wise to safeguard one’s soul—eternity is a very long time—but if there isn’t an afterlife, a person’s choices should be made on a different basis, namely to make the best use of our limited time. And so I consider this area of inquiry mighty important.

There’s also the matter of getting along with each other as long as we’re here on Earth—tolerance and even love are better, in my opinion, than hostility, indifference, or personal competition as a way of life. This idea is also an important foundation of the play.

HNN: The play touches on the role of critical thinking dating back to the pre-Socratic philosophers. How do you feel about the role of critical thinking in the United States today?

Goodman: The state of critical thinking in our country today varies greatly—some people are excellent thinkers, others, even some in positions of power, aren’t—and can make terrible mistakes. I might give some examples, but they would be politically controversial. I think that the teaching of solid rationality is important—granted that education has abundant other problems that must be solved, I do believe that the teaching of logic is vital.

HNN: The character of “Doc” is an atheist working as a professor at a Christian college. Do you think it’s controversial for anyone to be an atheist today? Did you think Doc is a controversial character to audiences?

Goodman: Our audiences seem to accept him. Yet I’m sure that some groups would not, even today. I hear that in certain academic circles, there’s also discrimination against the religious—I’m for tolerance  in both directions.

HNN: If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be, and why?

Goodman: Good question. I’m tempted to choose from the philosophers—the scientists may be most intelligent, but the philosophers tackle the questions that seem to me the most important. I choose three ancient philosophers: Parmenides, Zeno, and Socrates, not because they were necessarily the most brilliant minds in the history of the world, but because relatively little is known about what they meant to say—and because their areas of inquiry are so important. Parmenides and Zeno were interested in the nature of time, space, and matter. Socrates was interested in morals and politics. All three show evidence of genius.

Atheist’s Paradise runs at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington DC through November 25. Tickets can be purchased at Groups of 5 or more will receive a discount of $2 off per ticket (use code GRPDISC at checkout). You can also follow The Edge of the Universe Players 2 on Twitter at @UniversePlayers and on Facebook.