A Connection Between Shawshank Redemption and Atheism

Shawshank Redemption is my favorite movie ever. I’ve seen it several times and could quote entire scenes to you. And yet, I never noticed the connection between Brooks (the elderly inmate) and atheism until I read it at Talking Liberty:

Forget Brooks’ age. Forget his gender. Forget the literal setting. Brooks is a metaphor of a person imprisoned by his circumstance. He lives in “prison,” as all wondering theists do, and fears leaving its familiar setting. He has friends there. He knows the rules there. They tell him when he can and can’t do everything. In this structure, social network and “protection from the outside,” he is trapped — even as he loves and feeds the little bird of freedom that visits him from time to time.

This is story of every secret atheist and doubting theist in the world. They are trapped in a prison of their own custom, both internally and externally. To leave this prison is to leave everyone (and everything) they’ve ever known, abusive as it may be, behind them. And when the gates slam behind the new atheist, they know there’s no going back; not to their beliefs, and often, not to their family and friends.

Well, now I just have to watch the movie again…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Drew M.

    So how does his suicide come into play?

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    Amanda wrote a great post within this same topic.

  • Revyloution

    That’s a great interpretation, but as Drew pointed out, it doesn’t end well.

    If we’re to take a lesson from the entire arc of Brook’s story,  it should be that we need to provide that same kind of friendship, stability and rules for those who’ve recently been set free (or escaped)

  • Freebird285

    The same could be said about the Matrix, “most people are just not ready to be unplugged yet” I admit to feeling a little like Neo when I first “unplugged”.

  • twotif

    A bit of a stretch. But ok, fine.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

       Not only that, but look what happens to Brooks after that. I think Happy Feet is more of tribute to free thinking and atheism then this.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

       Not only that, but look what happens to Brooks after that. I think Happy Feet is more of tribute to free thinking and atheism then this.

  • asky

    Also of note is that Brooks runs the library. However, as much as I like this analysis, the fact is, good/popular movies have themes that apply to everyone. In this instance the analogy could be relevant to anyone who must leave a well-developed life behind for a necessary new one. Some people handle it well, some people do not. Just as some people get home sick and some do not. Ultimately, I think reading into things too much in favor of the way you want to see them is what we atheists accuse theists of– especially when there is no solid evidence to prove a point one way or the other. Let’s not be hypocritical.

    • Ndonnan

      Now heres a “free thinker”

  • B_traimer

    Shawshank is your favorite movie?  Have you seen Evil Dead 2?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=750428174 Paddy Reddin

    Saw it once, didn’t like it, won’t be watching it again.

    • mike kozlowskyj

      you didn’t like Shawshank R. ?!  Are you an alien?  Seriously, wtf

  • Anonymous

    I thought of Shawshank as a critique of the culture of corporate America during the days of the Organization Man by showing its resemblance to life in prison. Andy Dufresne comes across as a Dilbert-like character who finds a way to get even with his abusive boss, the prison warden. 

    • Rieux

      Or, y’know, he could just be a pure innocent who was convicted by evil humanity; descended into a hellish prison sentence; was feared dead, only to have his tomb—sorry, cell—found empty in the morning; and through his example and the “hope” he inspired convinced the title character (Red) to honestly confess his sins and be freed from the prison, so that he can accept the innocent’s gift and abide with him in a glowing paradise?

      Where have we ever heard a story like that before?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

    Don’t read your own personal values into movies, putting words into its mouth that it isn’t saying. The character exists to demonstrate the institutionalization that occurs in people who become used to living in jail for long periods of time.

  • Anonymous

    Morgan Freeman was in The Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman played God in Bruce Almighty. Therefore, God exists.

  • David McNerney

    I can’t remember where I read it but: “there is nothing new under the sun.”

    Is it not the case that because we are human we are bound by a certain limited reaction to many similar scenarios?

    That said, the Dude, in the Big Lebowski (my favourite movie) clearly represents the atheist character.  He is pushed around by a bunch of losers who just happen to be in positions of power, claiming moral superiority when they have none – and even though there always some right-wing gun toting lunatic fucking everything up – the Dude just abides.

    Or maybe it’s just a film about bowling.

    • http://garicgymro.wordpress.com garic gymro

      You can’t remember where you read “there is nothing new under the sun”? I’ll help you out: It’s in the Bible! 

      Christian infiltrator, everyone! Kill the unheretic! Death to believers!

      Or maybe you read it somewhere else. It’s a common expression nowadays…

  • kingasaurus

    Movies are loaded with symbolism, and as always there’s more than one way to look at it.

    Though I don’t buy into Christian claims, Shawshank can be easily seen as a Christian allegory – obviously so, in my view:

    Andy is the innocent Christ figure, the prison is the fallen world populated by the guilty and ruled by Pharisees and hypocrites (the Warden and Hadley). When Andy’s friends expect the worst, the opposite happens – the empty cell and the empty tomb are analogous. Red reuniting with Andy at the end, in a paradise with no memory of their earlier lives. Etcetera, etcetera.

    The theme of being institutionalized and afraid of a new paradigm is certainly there with Brooks, though.

    Great movie.

    • Rieux

      Uh, yes. Shawshank is a blatant Christian allegory.

      Sean Trapani’s Brooks thing is a real stretch; it reminds me of Christian attempts to take obvious humanist parables (such as The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and pretty much every Toy Story) and twist them into Christian fables.Writer/director Frank Darabont appears to have been unhappy that not enough people recognized the Christ allegory in Shawshank. His next film was even more bash-you-over-the-head-with-it: The Green Mile, in which the innocent prisoner has magic healing powers and the initials “J.C.”

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    It’s a valid analogy that can be applied to a few situations, the perpetual student who never leaves college, the company worker who cannot adjust to retirement, the military officer who can’t adapt to civilian life. I think as a species we tend to find comfort in things that are familiar, and that probably keeps a lot of people attached to religion and religious institutions.

  • chicago dyke, venomous lesbian

    i hope you’ve also read the actual story, Hemant. it’s even better than the movie. there are several parts of it that don’t make the film that are moving. the other stories in the volume in which it was first published are equally interesting. 

  • http://garicgymro.wordpress.com garic gymro

    One thing I never liked about the Shawshank Redemption is the tagline: “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.” #Yawn# It’s not that it’s not true; it’s just boringly true. I want to see a film about how hope can imprison you and fear can set you free.

  • Rieux

    Uh, Hemant, Shawshank is a blatant Christian allegory. Andy Dufresne is about as obvious a Christ figure as there has been in American film—at least until Shawshank writer/director Frank Darabont’s follow-up, The Green Mile.

    Doesn’t mean Shawshank isn’t a good movie, but please: take a look at the mythic pedigree of that story. What do you think it’s supposed to mean that the title character, Red, is redeemed by his hope of meeting Dufresne? Darabont is arguing that the world, absent “hope” for what lies beyond, is a prison. He made a well-crafted and appealing film, but it’s a terrible argument.


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