The Virtuous Atheist or Atheist Maligned: Atheism Comforted and Confronted in my Religious Plays, Part One

ASU's Binary Theatre Company's production of A Roof Overhead, October 2012
ASU’s Binary Theatre Company’s production of A Roof Overhead, October 2012

WARNING: Spoilers ahoy! If you want the context of the play referenced, A Roof Overhead, the majority of the production by ASU’s Binary Theatre Company was recorded and is up on You Tube. It’s not the highest quality recording, and it was a matinee (thus, historically, less audience engagement and laughing), but you get a good sense of that particular production. The Utah production, unfortunately, was not recorded due to technical difficulties (so not even I got to see it!).  Of course, I think the issues the essay raises go beyond the actual play, so feel free to read it if you haven’t the time to watch an entire play at the moment.

James Goldberg’s award winning one act play “Prodigal Son” is a stirring play that flips Jesus’ proverb of the same name, showing the relationship between a former Mormon turned atheist and his son Daniel, who joins the faith his father had long since rejected. The tension and conflict caused by the reversal of the parental disapproval is both ironic and effective. Set in this gem of a play is a haunting monologue addressed to the audience by Daniel’s father:

We’re far too casual, I think, in the way we talk about losing. “I’ve lost my keys,” for example, really means you’ve mislaid them. We say we’re “lost” when we’re just disoriented. And we lose our tempers all the time, only to find them again a few minutes later—

I wish we wouldn’t dilute the best word we have for when things are truly and permanently gone. “Lost cause” is a good phrase. It’s a cold, hard dose of reality. No one goes out to find a lost cause. It’s just lost. That phrase understands the power of the word’s finality…

So when I tell you that a long time ago I lost my faith, I don’t want you imagine that I’ve misplaced or that I could be capable of finding it again. Lost faith is like a lost limb…if it’s broken and bleeding, if you try to patch it up and ends up being inflamed and infected…at some point you have to cut it off. And after you’ve lost it the only thing left is the occasional flash of phantom pain.

I lost my faith. Twenty years later I lost my wife. And now maybe I’m losing my son.

Don’t take away from me the only word I have to cope with that.[1]

Coming from a practicing Mormon like Goldberg, the monologue is unusually and beautifully sensitive towards this fictional father’s disbelief in God and religion. It shows a well of compassion and charity on Goldberg’s part towards what really amounts to a religious minority (at least in the United States and other predominately religious countries, although that trend is fast reversing in many places in the world). It’s an unexpectedly poignant moment in a beautiful play.

In this way, Goldberg has shown that he is particularly ready to clarify the way of the atheist to believers, and pleas for understanding on the his atheist friends behalf—perhaps even to the point of being a warm ambassador or a defensive patron when discussing atheism among believers. Thus it makes sense that, in his review of my play A Roof Overhead, he was quick to come to the defense of the doubter, even though such a vigorous and heated defense was hardly needed considering the context of the play’s intended message of tolerance and pleas for mutual understanding.

As Goldberg is not the only critic to misrepresent my representation of atheism, including a handful of antagonistic reviews written against my plays Swallow the Sun and Prometheus Unbound, I feel compelled to address the issue directly. I normally like my plays to stand on their own artistically, so that people may interact with them based on their own experiences and what they personally bring to the play, without constant and intrusive commentary from me.

However, some have tried to tie me to a pattern of intolerance towards atheists, even resorting to rather personal slights and warnings to others against my work. Thus, in the name of my reputation, I feel it best to clear up what my intent is, and what my intent decidedly isn’t, towards atheism and atheists. After all, if I’m to be lambasted on the matter, I would prefer to be lambasted for something I actually believe.

In doing this, I certainly intend no ill will towards the critics who have drawn these conclusions about my plays. They are entitled to their opinions, of course. I’m sure much of their criticism of my work has many valid points, some of which I have taken into consideration in subsequent drafts (especially in the case of A Roof Overhead, as I will mention later). I will separately address each of my plays that deal with atheism in a significant way, and comment about my personal approach in writing each, and then will make some general conclusions at the end of the essay.

A ROOF OVERHEAD: All Are Alike Unto God

Talking about A Roof Overhead, Goldberg told his readers that “on behalf of maligned atheists, we have a moral obligation to call out work like this.”[2]   And, if the majority of what he said about it was actually true to my intent, then I may not blame some for heeding his call. As it is, his rather scathing analysis of the play needs some context. Goldberg states:

I mentioned feeling discomfort with the extreme defensiveness of the Mormon characters. The real problem with the play, though, is not that it depicts Mormon defensiveness (a real enough problem), but that it treats an extreme degree of defensiveness as inherently justified in ways that severely strain realism…

A Roof Overhead offers us little justification for the underlying emotional investment needed to turn potential disengagement into active conflict. Yes, the Fieldings and Sam disagree—but why can’t they have a truce of selective silence and criticize in private, like most neighbors do?

We are left without narrative justification as to why it’s OK for the Fieldings to demand explanations from their tenant for her perceptions of their faith—and then correct, castigate, and even threaten her when they find her views offensive. Maybe the Fieldings are the socially inept, domineering sort of people who think it’s acceptable to tell a paying tenant to get out of the house for having said something dismissive. But instead of giving us indications that the Fieldings are atypically manipulative, the play seems to set itself in a world where their actions are implicitly justified.[3]

One of the things that has mystified me about how people reacted to A Roof Overhead, is the polar opposite conclusions they came to. I thought I was being overly blatant in the show’s message about tolerance of various belief systems, yet despite that assumption on my part, people seemed intent on taking a side. And which side they took emphatically colored their perception of the play.

There were some, like Goldberg and Utah theatre critic Russell Warne (who dismissed the Fielding’s arguments in defense of their faith as mere “Mormon apologetics”[4]) that were very suspect of the Fieldings and were defensive of the portrayal of Sam. On the other side of the spectrum, one Mormon cast member’s mother asked why I hated Mormons so much, deeply disturbed by how I portrayed the LDS characters, while seeming to justify the atheist. I even came across a few Evangelical audience members in the Arizona performance who seemed pretty equally disgusted with Sam Forrest’s atheism and defense of homosexuality, as well as very reluctant to identify with the Mormon characters whose religion they found so reprehensible. It was a dizzying revelation of loyalties that highlighted the very divisiveness I was trying to comment on.

From reports I received, even the cast members for the Utah production broke out into factions, causing arguments about what the “right” way to portray these characters was. Actors were very defensive for their characters, and/or the characters played by others, which caused some dissension among the cast. I also noticed that the director of the Utah production took the opportunity in his program note to trumpet Mormon conservatism, definitely planting his own flag in the soil of the microcosmic culture wars that occur in the play. For a play that was meant to be a call for love and unity, despite our differences, it became particularly divisive in the circumstances surrounding its Utah production.

Such a strong division, however, was not noticeable with the cast and crew of the Arizona production. That particular group of actors and designers was uniquely supportive and unified, despite there being a wide diversity of belief systems and worldviews. We all got along swimmingly, despite those differences, they all became dear friends of mine, when originally most of them were strangers at the audition.

But back to Goldberg’s points. I never meant to color any side of the conflict as particularly “justified” over the other. That is a layer that Goldberg is adding to it from his own perception, as cognizant and sensitive as he was about Mormon “defensiveness.” And, in the context of the play, he’s right that the Fieldings are very intentionally defensive (which can be said of all the characters in the play). The flaws he saw in the father Maxwell were certainly intentional, and in no way was I ever excusing the behavior, except that he did it in sincerity, to protect his family.  Like everyone else in the play, Maxwell was working from a framework of self justification, but that is a far cry from the author justifying that behavior. I believe that Goldberg’s reaction told me a lot more about his perception of his own Mormon culture than what I actually believe about it.

The lack of justification I give to the characters’ combative nature is seen most clearly, not in Maxwell (who eventually comes around) but rather in the other members of his family. The daughters in the family, Abish and Naomi, but especially Naomi, often call on the male members of their family to show more understanding towards Sam. The son, Joel Fielding, is also used as negative example of a person using vitriol against atheism. After the death of Abish (who had been accidentally killed by her classmates, when they were spurred to a bullying fit of road rage in the Utah version, and a based-on-true-life incident of being poisoned by laced hash cookies, which her peers had given to her as a joke), Joel holds onto his unforgiving hatred, blaming Sam for her inadvertent complicity in the event. She had written an anti-Mormon article about the Fielding family, which got spread around on Facebook among Abish’s school peers. When reconciliation is offered, long after the tragedy occurs, it is the Mormon Joel who refuses to bestow forgiveness:

JOEL. No, no! You don’t get to dictate when I feel what. You don’t get to manipulate me like that.

SAM. I’m not trying to manipulate. But I’m not the monster you make me out to be either. You don’t get to use words without consequence either. 

JOEL. Every movement has its leaders, and the fierce anti-Mormonism that exists today is led by the banners of ardent atheists and impassioned evangelicals alike, from the right and the left, from every side. You all may not see the big picture, but I do, and I see the side that Sam chose and what that movement is trying to do to us.  

SAM. Maybe you’re right. Or maybe I was. Maybe we’re as divided as we both thought, with no way of reconciliation, no common ground. But I hope we were both wrong. That’s why I’m here. Despite all that has happened, I hope that– that there can still be a kinship between us.

JOEL. Kinship? No, in this life and in the next, our kingdoms are going to be divided, Sam. God may be able to forgive you, I hope he does, but unless you change in more major ways than you’ve shown, we’ll need to be put in different rooms, because I’m not going to accept what you did to our family in the name of your cause.

NAOMI. Joel, how can you say that? God’s grace, Christ’s atonement—isn’t that what the Gospel is all about?

JOEL. If a person repents. If a person accepts Grace and chooses to change. Sam hasn’t really changed, she just feels bad and she just wants us to tell her it’s okay to feel better. 

SAM. I have changed, Joel. I have changed so much. The world will never be the same for me, it can’t be. But what I’m telling you is that even before all of this, I was still a good person even then. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. [5]

Although, Joel clearly believes he’s justified in holding his animosity towards Sam, even positioning his stance theologically, the ending of the play clearly shows that he has chosen the lesser of the two roads. Meanwhile the rest of his family opts for reconciliation and understanding with Sam, who shows that she is a good person, despite their differing belief systems. Led by the empathetic matriarch Daisy Fielding, who along with their daughter Naomi (despite what Goldberg said) show an effort to reach out to Sam rather than take the aggressive approach like Maxwell and Joel, the remaining family kneels in prayer with Abish, asking it of her “as a sign of love, not belief.”

After the prayer, Sam rises unconvinced, morally clinging to her own conscience and irreligious worldview. Despite that remaining chasm between their belief systems, and the hurt that has occurred on both sides, both sides are still able to engage in the Fielding family tradition of banana shakes, as a sign of kinship and reconciliation.

It is not a subtle ending, but it is a heartfelt one, far from the hyperbolic “blood libel against atheists”[6] that Goldberg wants to interpret it as. Fortunately, the majority of others who saw the play plainly interpreted its intent, without looking for further fuel to add to the culture wars the play was trying to dampen. Margaret Blair Young wrote of the play, “Stewart’s characters are all strong, all opinionated, and all delightfully quirky in ways that help the audience suspend disbelief.  An audience member could come to the play over several performances and glean new insights to his various themes of diversity, family bonds, and the dimensions of maternal influence.”[7]

Also I couldn’t help feel particularly vindicated (as surprised as I was to win the award after all the play’s controversy) by the citation given by the Association for Mormon Letters when A Roof Overhead won their award for Best Drama in 2012:

Most, but not all, of the interaction between family members and friends is pleasant and happy, but even when the characters steer us into uncomfortable areas that still challenge many members of the Church today (like, for instance, Blacks and the Priesthood), we are presented with multiple sides of those issues  in a fair and balanced manner. No one seeing this play would consider it unbalanced.  The father Maxwell Fielding is fond of saying throughout the play, “It’s about being fair.” A Roof Overheard is nothing if not fair.

Stewart’s skill at dialogue and characterization, mingled with just the right amount of humor, drama, and pathos, anchors us to the play–we become more than mere observers. We become members of the diverse set of characters and we, characters and audience alike, share this roof overheard.

What this play says to Mormons is, “We are not alone in the world. We need to learn to get along with others of different, or sometimes, no faith.”[8]

Despite my sensitivity about Goldberg’s comments, I still derived some good out of his hostile review. Goldberg mentioned that the circumstances around Abish’s accidental death were suspect, strained realism, and I agreed. I had been struggling with that section of the play, trying to find a way of conveying my purpose (that our words, when spoken out of prejudice and fear, can have far larger, devastating impact than we realize), while restraining from making it over the top. So I took out the original circumstances around Abish’s death, which had some of her high school peers (who had a history of intellectually bullying her) read an online article written by Sam for a prominent atheist publication. The bullying escalated, had Abish escape to her car, only to be followed by her persecutors. Fueled by alcohol and road rage, things get out of hand, and they accidentally kill her.

Feeling that this section of the play still lacked the balance I wanted, for the Arizona production I substituted it with a more plausible event —plausible because it actually happened on my mission, where two missionaries are given hash cookies under false pretenses.

As a “joke” two young men in my mission in Melbourne Australia invited two of our missionaries in, but fed them dozens of hash cookies (the Elders, being typical of other poor, hungry missionaries just kept on eating). But these cookies were infused not only with marijuana, which is nearly impossible to die from an overdose from (fortunately, I’m not an expert here, but so I’ve read). However, the cookies were laced with much harder drugs, lethal ones when consumed in that quantity. Fortunately, when the missionaries got home, they started realizing that something was amiss and called 9-11 before they blacked out. The paramedics arrived and pumped their stomachs, which according to the reports, saved the elders’ lives. Thus I decided to base the incident on something more real, having her peers taunt Abish at a party about the article (which they had spread around on Facebook) and her religion. Things escalate on both sides, but “as a joke” one of these teenagers offer Abish the laced hash cookies they brought as a pseudo-peace offering.

Some call out Mormons for having a persecution complex. Although I do believe we have to cognizant of this criticism and not be overdramatic about our lot in life (after all, Mormons are in a MUCH better position than their pioneer ancestors), yet I do believe folks do us a disservice when they completely dismiss prejudice against Mormons out of hand. For example, in the above scenario, instead of being shocked at young missionaries receiving such treatment, the two perpetrators were released with just a slap on the wrist; the Australian media had a field day with the story, making all sorts of snarky jokes about the incident; and we were intimidated and subjected to drive by taunting of “hash cookies!” for months upon months, tying us back to this violent and dangerous scenario. A little recognition of the prejudice that motivated the situation would have been appreciated, yet instead the fallout only escalated the problem and put the problem in an even clearer, discouraging light.

I have had experiences, before and since, of people targeting me with intimidating words or personally dismissive insults about my religion. And a number of those were from secular, intellectual sources, as much as Goldberg found such a scenario near impossible. So, in this sense, yes, I was reminding those who resided in a more militant brand of atheism that the persecuted can indeed become the persecutor (and I definitely believe the same things about Mormons or any other group that tries to turn the tables). I certainly believe that alienating rhetoric and attitudes can escalate into much more tragic and devastating consequences, even if unintended, as happened to the two elders in my mission, and the rest of us who had to deal with the atrocious fallout.

But in no way did my narrative in A Roof Overhead stop there. Sam had her own wounds to nurse throughout the play, having had a gay friend commit suicide due to the intolerance of his family and religious culture; having been ostracized by her family, due to her atheism; and having had personal confrontations with the Fieldings, where unwise things were said by both sides. The sword of intolerance cuts both ways and injures all sides. The article Sam wrote, though aggressive and demeaning, was not entirely without basis, especially for those who have felt the impact of unyielding religious dogma in their own personal lives. Thus A Roof Overhead took its central concept from my favorite passage from the Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 26:33:

For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.

Obviously, as a believing Mormon, I do not subscribe to the creeds of atheism. My intimately personal experiences with God have excluded such a conclusion from my worldview. I am especially bothered by the rhetoric and tactics of the more militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. And I certainly believe in my own right to disagree or dispute another’s beliefs, and recognize they have the same right concerning my beliefs, as long as such things are conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and ultimate kindness.

However, I’ve known a host of atheists who are beautifully moral and ethical people, many of them dear, dear friends. So I don’t believe that any of the lingering stereotypes out there about them stand up anything but the most general of scrutinies. I believe we are much better off without culture wars and the aggressive rhetoric spouted off from either side. True, patient tolerance is something I deeply believe in, and we should strive to reach out those who do not believe as we do (no matter who that collective “we” ends up being), not in an self-centered effort to convince or manipulate, but rather as a sign of unconditional love.  We are all better off when we behave with an effort towards grace, kindness, and reconciliation.

Note: Part Two, going into the response of how atheism is dealt with in my plays Swallow the Sun and Prometheus Unbound, will be posted soon.

[1] Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project, edited by Davey Morrison, (Kansas City: Peculiar Pages, 2010), 162-163

[2] “In Defense of Grumpiness: A Review of ‘Brothers,’ ‘Quietly,’ and A Roof Overhead,”

[3] Ibid.

[4] “A Roof Overhead Needs Remodeling,” Utah Theatre Bloggers Association, April 23, 2012,

[5] Mahonri Stewart, A Roof Overhead, p. 110 of unpublished manuscript.

[6] Goldberg, “In Defense of Grumpiness.”

[7]“Mahonri Stewart’s A Roof Overhead(review), April 26, 2012,

[8] Margaret Blair Young, “Report on AML Conference 2013 and List of Awards” (March 31, 2013),

3 thoughts on “The Virtuous Atheist or Atheist Maligned: Atheism Comforted and Confronted in my Religious Plays, Part One”

  1. Just a thought: I find some of your wording a little confusing. When you discuss James’s review, you say that he “misrepresent[s] your representation of atheism.” I think it’s fair to say that he misunderstood your perspective and your portrayal, because he didn’t get the meaning you wanted him to get from the play. However, saying that he “misrepresents” your meaning makes it sound like he purposefully intended to slander you among atheists, which I don’t believe was either his—or your—intent.

    Aren’t semantics fun?

  2. I totally understand what you’re saying, Mel, but sometimes I felt that he WAS trying to slander me among atheists. To use such explosive terms as “blood libel against atheists” (coming from his background, he certainly knows the the extremely negative cultural meaning of “blood libel”) and that there was “moral obligation” to oppose my work, then, yes, he crossed from mere literary criticism to something more personal. I’m sure he felt justified, and that he’s probably re-thought that position, but it was inflammatory language at the time. Thus my “misrepresents” line was very carefully chosen. There is plenty in the play that very blatantly contradicted the picture he was coloring of me. It took a very narrow focus, verging on the willful, of the work to cut out those elements from his analysis. Again, A Roof Overhead is not a subtle play, and James had to twist and exclude a good deal of the story to color it the way he did.

    That said, however, like I stated in the essay, this is not meant to be a personal jab at anyone, and everyone is as welcome to their opinion as I am to mine. James is a very good man, a credible scholar, and a fantastic writer. I think he’s one of our great stars in Mormon Letters right now (as, by the way, Mel, are you). He’s got a great deal to contribute and I have nothing but the highest opinion of him personally and professionally, despite my concerns with how he represented my work.

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