Entertaining Atheists

30 05 2011

There are no good atheists in entertainment media.  What do I mean by that?  All movie and television characters who are either implied to be atheists or are explicitly atheist are portrayed in an unfavourable light.  Whenever discussions of religion come up, the religious character asks “questions that have been refuted a thousand times” of the “atheist”.

The other day I was watching King Arthur (2004) and there were a few points on the religious question that irked me.  Now granted, I enjoyed the portrayal of the Catholic Church as a power-mongering institution, aiming to assert its authority over all things in the name of “God”.  In other words, exactly what the Catholic Church is.

King Arthur’s god, on the other hand, is a nice loving god who believes in your freedom and will help you kill a few Saxons along the way to that path.  This god may be more appealing than the Catholic god, but it doesn’t legitimize its existence and isn’t this something we hear all too often?  “Well those religious fundamentalists don’t represent my god, my god is a loving god.”  Your point?  Unless you actually show me evidence for this god, I still have no reason to believe.  It also comes off as an attempt to dodge the issue of whether or not your religion is actually open for abuse.

Another scene from the film brought up a question in which any atheist should respond with, “You did not just ask that?  Are you serious?  Leave now.”  In a conversation between Lancelot and Guinevere, Lancelot discusses his doubts over the existence of a god.  He also mentions having no family.  To which Guinevere asks, “You don’t believe in family or religion, do you believe in anything?”  Cue Lancelot’s “wtf face” followed by telling Guinevere she can leave the camp and go fight the Saxons by herself and meet a horrible end.  Wait.  That’s my wishful thinking, not the actual plot.  The, “do you believe in anything” question is one of the many annoying misconceptions about atheists and to see it be perpetuated in popular media is annoying and not helpful.  I’m not going to refute here as I hope that the readers of this blog already know what is wrong with it.

Finally, we get to our explicitly atheist character, House.  House, the lovable, asshole doctor who would’ve been fired from any credible hospital years ago.   The show doesn’t dance around his atheism but it’s always portrayed in that, “I’m going to tell you that praying on your deathbed is stupid” dick-kind of way.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a character that calls out the religious when their silly beliefs are on hand, but is it too much to ask for an atheist that is kind, loving, charitable?

The problem here is, demographics.  You have to make movies and tv shows for your audience and in a region of the world where the majority are religious, a show in which a lead character is both explicitly atheist and good won’t fly.  I can imagine a strong backlash against a hero character who succeeds without appeals to god.  It becomes a vicious circle.  People develop a stereotype about atheists.  They expect to see it reinforced in their entertainment.  The entertainment industry complies and thus the viewer’s stereotype grows.  Now I know, there are much more important issues for us to be dealing with, but this is just one of those little pet peeves I had to vent on.  Furthermore, it would be unwise of us to deny the impact that entertainment has on thinking and perceptions of groups in popular culture.  Aside from getting a wealthy, atheist director to make a good atheist character – to say nothing of the willingness to likely lose a lot of money and face a backlash from religious groups -, all we can do is get out there everyday and show why these stereotypes are nonsense.




6 responses

30 05 2011
Brad Rubinoff

I think what you’re complaining about is this:

(Warning, TVTropes link)

Apparently one (or more?) of the characters on Glee are open atheists, and the show actually treats it well.

Or, at least, so sayeth TVTropes – I’ve never seen it *shrug*

30 05 2011

Ya, I’ve never watched Glee and I guess I should add that I generally don’t watch TV any more but was just going off something I read a while back plus my recent movie experience.

And then there’s this: http://friendlyatheist.com/2010/10/06/glee-the-grilled-cheesus-episode/

” Glee‘s portrayal of Kurt as an atheist sets up two unfortunate and all-too-prevalent stereotypes: that of the angsty homosexual & that of the militant atheist.”

” In fact, the only character to defend Kurt’s atheism as a legitimate world view is Sue Sylvester, the show’s antagonist, who goes on to use his atheism as a tool of manipulation to help sink her arch nemesis, Mr. Shue, for permitting religious music in Glee Club.”

30 05 2011

You’re right that many atheists in TV and movies are portrayed negatively. They’re generally either villains, stupid, or cynical. But I think there are exceptions to that.


Here’s a list of a number of atheists/agnostics in TV and movies. Of the ones that I am familiar with, several are not portrayed negatively. Brian from Family Guy, Sheldon from Big Bang Theory (other than being neurotic), Oscar from The Office, and Elaine from Seinfeld (not on the list, but she should be). They are, at least, portrayed as relatively normal individuals. Various sci-fi shows also portray atheists as neutral or positive people.

So I disagree with your generalization that “All movie and television characters who are either implied to be atheists or are explicitly atheist are portrayed in an unfavourable light.” Most, yes. Not all.

31 05 2011
Jim Tigwell

I agree with Jeff. While there are a lot of negative portrayals of atheists, shows like Star Trek present them in a positive light, as explorers or seekers of knowledge, even in the face of creatures of seemingly godlike power. Not that they’re not dicks some of the time, but they’re not depicted as dicks because they’re atheists.

31 05 2011

Right. So my saying of them all being portrayed in such a way is an admitted, short-sighted hyperbole. Though I still think it’s fair of me to say that such positive characters are in the minority.

20 06 2011
Dangerous Talk » Atheists are Sci-fi/Fantasy Fans

[…] Entertaining Atheists (aafwaterloo.wordpress.com) […]

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