Atheism and Life of Pi

I finally watched¬†Life of Pi¬†last night. It was a very moving film–very hard to get out of my mind. And so I sit here at five a.m. blogging.

Photo by Peter Harrison via Flickr

Before watching it, I’d heard quite a bit about it, as regards belief and nonbelief. Some said it would reaffirm a person’s faith in God, and that made me hesitant to watch it. The last thing I want in entertainment is preaching. But many said it would also reaffirm a person’s nonbelief, so I gave it a chance. It certainly worked for me.

[This post contains a frank discussion of the complete film and so contains spoilers.]

The story is about an author who has lost his creative spark. He meets a man in a cafe in Canada who tells him he should meet his nephew, Pi. Pi has a story that he will want to write, but also a story that will make him believe in God. And so, he meets Pi and Pi tells him his story.

Pi was spiritual from a very early age. He is Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and has even dabbled in Judaism. His father owned a zoo in India. But unlike Pi, his father was a rationalist and atheist. When Pi is caught trying to hand feed the new tiger, his father shows him that the tiger is just an animal and would kill him if it got the chance.

“You think you see a soul in his eyes,” his father tells him [paraphrased]. “But it is just your own reflection looking back at you.”

The family must leave India and boards a ship, along with the zoo animals which they will sell in North America, to Canada. The ship sinks during a violent storm and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a hyena, an injured Zebra, and an orangutan that found its way to the boat after the storm ceased. We see the tiger get on the boat at first, during the storm, forcing Pi back into the water, but then it disappears. [The boats are covered with a tarp, this one having been pulled back only about halfway, leaving part of the boat hidden.]

The hyena kills the injured zebra, then attacks and kills the orangutan. It is at that point that the tiger rushes out of hiding and kills the hyena. The rest of the story is about Pi and the tiger learning to survive together on the boat (Pi spending most of his time in self-made rafts outside it). Eventually, he tames the tiger and they live together somewhat peacefully.

Pi tells us that it was the constant care and tending of the tiger that kept him alert. The tiger saved his life.

When the food and water run out, Pi cradles the dying tiger and accepts death. At that point, the boat abuts a strange island. By day, there is fresh water, seaweed for the [until forced to eat fish to survive] vegetarian Pi, and meerkats for the tiger. But by night, the floor of the island becomes acid. The meerkats and Pi retreat to the safety of the trees, while the tiger takes to the boat. Pi realizes that the island would consume him if he stayed. So, he gathers supplies and gets back into the boat with the tiger.

Finally, the boat washes ashore in Mexico. Pi crawls to the sand while the tiger heads off into the jungle, without turning back. Pi is heartbroken that the tiger left him without saying good-bye.

Investigators of the shipwreck don’t believe Pi’s story. They want a story that is fitting for their report. They want the truth. So, Pi tells us that he told them another story.

He is on a lifeboat with a wounded sailor, the ship’s cook, and his mother. The cook convinces them he can save the sailor’s life so has Pi and his mother hold him down. But instead, the cook murders the sailor, intending to use his body for bait. Pi’s mother lashes out at the cook, and the cook murders her. Pi then kills the cook.

“He unleashed the evil within me,” Pi tells the investigators. [paraphrased]

Unfortunately, at this point, either the author of the book, or the filmmakers, believe we need a jog to get us to understand. So, the author reasons that the wounded zebra was the sailor, the hyena the cook, and the orangutan was Pi’s mother. The tiger, was Pi. [duh]

When the author questions which story is true, Pi asks him which he prefers. The author prefers the first story. “It’s a better story,” he says. And Pi responds, “And so it is with God.”

So, we realize that the story of the tiger was a metaphor that Pi uses to deal with the stark reality of what happened to him. The tiger is his animal nature–evil. It got on the boat with him, but didn’t emerge until Pi killed the cook. The rest of the story is about Pi taming his animal nature while it is the very thing that keeps him alive. The island was his acceptance of death. His survival instinct stayed with the boat, and he eventually realized that he had to continue the fight; he couldn’t give in to death, he couldn’t accept it.

In the end, Pi credits his father for giving him the tools he needed to survive, namely: reason. Pi refuses to believe that it was only his reflection in the tiger’s eyes, because he knew that it was part of him. His animal nature–evil as he called it–was a part of him. It was just as human as he was.

And the tiger didn’t turn to say good-bye because [and Pi doesn’t seem to realize this himself] it never left him. It only returned to the jungle, as Pi came back to civilization.

There is probably quite a bit more to this story in the book, and so much more metaphor involved. But that’s what we got in the film.

God is metaphor–the beautiful story we tell ourselves because reality is not so pretty, and not nearly as interesting.

At first, I failed to see how this film could renew someone’s faith.

It is said that the purpose of the story is not to answer the question of “god” at all, but to let the reader decide: which story do you prefer? As if either story could be true. And so, perhaps the religious believe that the first story is actually true, but because it is unbelievable, it must be trusted by faith. The second story, then, becomes the lie, told for those who can not, or refuse to, believe.

And yet, just as with the stories of their respective faiths, we know, by evidence, that the first story is the metaphor for a savage journey of survival at sea. Well, those of us who, as Pi’s father did, value reason above all.

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