Paul Giamatti: Actor and Atheist

By: Erin Williamson

Paul Giamatti looks like your neighbor’s dad, with an average build, an unassuming face, a familiar beard. But average he is not: the actor won an Emmy for portraying a American Founding Father in the miniseries John Adams and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Cinderella Man.

Although he got his start in Hollywood in films like Planet of the Apes, Big Fat Liar, Big Momma’s House, and other dollar-theater classics, he broke into the A-list after American Splendor and Sideways became sleeper hits. Now regarded as one of the best character actors in show business, his later appearances as Santa Claus in Fred Claus now seem more like a snarky break from his frequently serious roles than filler material.

He also recently publicly proclaimed his atheism in an article in the British newspaper Metro. Raised by an Ivy League school president, with a Yale degree and a penchant for taking challenging roles that require quite a bit of introspection, Giamatti discusses his atheism as if he were discussing the weather today. He is unconcerned by his son being raised in his wife’s religion, Judaism, and says he will introduce him to atheism “when the time is right.” His assertion of atheism is almost refreshingly blasé; he seems to have no animosity toward his wife’s and son’s Judaism, and doesn’t plan to wrest nonbelief onto his son. He does joke, though, in the interview, that “here’s a great tradition of Jewish atheism, thereare no better atheists in the world than the Jews.”

In another, similar recent interview in the Guardian, Giamatti elaborates more on his religious upbringing. His father, a president of Yale, professor of renaissance literature, and later the president of Major League Baseball’s National League, rejected his own father’s Catholicism, and according to Giamatti, was a “kind-of secular humanist.” Giamatti never knew if he was an atheist or agnostic,and regrets never pursuing the conversation more. He says his mother, a high school English teacher, though not traditionally religious, was superstitious, and “in a crunch she would pray. To cover her ass, she would believe.” His mother was also a reader, and the Giamatti home was an academic one, full of books, and likely of discussion of reason, facts, and analysis. It’s no surprise that Paul Giamatti has never bothered with religion.

Giamatti plays a high school wrestling coach and lawyer in Win Win, which is out now in theaters.  Giamatti’s character faces all the aspects of midlife crisis: financial struggle, identity crisis, and a new challenge—a teenager shows up at Giamatti’s house asking for refuge from a drug addicted mother. Heis instantly the best wrestler on the team, and it seems that, despite initial strife, the coach’s family andthe boy learn from each other. It has gotten glowing reviews so far, although it appears to be in limitedrelease.

Thanks to Paul Giamatti for putting another familiar face to atheism!

Erin Williamson is the development and communications assistant for the American HumanistAssociation. She is also the administrator for the Institute for Humanist Studies.