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Atheism On Television

April 3, 2009

Image via WikipediaThis last Sunday (03/29/2009) Brian Griffin, the dog from the cartoon Family Guy, came out to his family that he was an atheist. (Episode Not All Dogs Go To Heaven available here on Hulu – That link no longer works, they were asked to remove that episode for some reason) The atheosphere has been chattering about this like crazy since then. Half of all the tweets I saw on Twitter that night were about it. The show did a good thing in showing how much discrimination a person can go through when they come out.

Brian is arguably the smartest and one of the most human characters on the show but he’s also a pretty poor role model. He is an alcoholic, a former drug addict, has a very oedipean relationship with Peter’s wife, Lois, and has done some rather amoral things throughout the life of the show. The reason I’m pointing this out is that we atheists are introduced to a portion of the common population through characters being portrayed on television and in movies. When I got to thinking about this I realized a lot of atheists on TV are either amoral or at the very least, assholes. Here are a few:

  • Dr. Gregory House from the show House, M.D.
    House is a drug addled, nihilistic, narcissistic genius who is well known for deriding anyone who displays an ounce of religious inclination. He is a tortured and bitter soul who feeds off of negativity. He does save lives, but only to solve the puzzle of what the illness is. (I love this show and House as a character, but he is still an ass.)
  • Dr. Perry Cox from the show Scrubs.
    Dr. Cox is, IMO,  a clown version of House with his own set of problems, but none-the-less a dick.
  • Dr. Gaius Baltar from the show Battlestar Galactica.
    Gaius was a self serving, promiscuous, and generally amoral atheist who used people and Cylon alike to ensure his own survival and get what he wanted. He only started displaying more altruistic qualities after he became a theist, believing he was serving the will of the ambiguous Cylon god.
  • Brother John Cavil from the  show Battlestar Galactica.
    Brother Cavil starts out as a Cylon pretending to be a human priest. Besides trying to commit xenocide of the human race he also tortures and manipulates many for his own gain. Also another atheist with an Oedipus complex.
  • I’m sure there are others that I can’t remember at the moment and if I’ve left any out you think should be in here just leave it in the comments.

All of these guys are horrible spokesmen for the severely hated godless minority. These characters reinforce the stereotype that atheists are elitist, amoral, and self serving. There are a few atheistic characters that are not portrayed as monsters,  Captain Jean-Luc Picard comes to mind, but with so few atheists showing up on TV it is a possibility that these prominent non-believers are damaging to our image. Overall though, I feel that the general public being exposed to atheism at all is a good thing and will help us out in the long run by familiarizing people with alternative viewpoints and reduce the dehumanization of us.

So readers, what are you thoughts on the matter? Are you of the opinion that any publicity is good publicity or should we be outraged?

[As an aside, Hugh Laurie(House) and Seth Macfarlane(Brian) are both atheists in real life.]

  1. Mel permalink
    April 3, 2009 5:27 am

    The fact that there are atheist characters at all is a first step. Though they aren’t necessarily presented in a particularly good light yet, I don’t think most of those are terrible representations. (Except maybe Cavil.) Flawed human beings, yes, but aren’t we all? I would point to the time it took to get positive portrayals of gay characters on TV as a sort of mirror. The earliest portrayals were mostly of the campy variety (or of the not-really-out-but-everyone-knows variety) and were not representative of the gay population as a whole, and not really positive views.

    It will be a long time before we’ll see many positive portrayals of atheists – there still aren’t many positive gay characters on TV (especially network/mainstream TV) and it’s much more acceptable to be gay these days. It takes a long time, and there has to be an audience for it before we’ll start seeing more. Remember that TV is a mass medium – there is no denying that atheists are still a minority, even if our numbers are rising.

    The problem as I see it is the inclusion of religion – in a positive light only of course – in just about every damned show. I get frustrated every time a show I’m enjoying has the religion show, starts adding little bits of god into the show, or, worst of all, attributes some “miracle” to god. And it seems like every show gets there eventually. I will give credit to Family Guy if only for the fact that in the end the religious folks are the ones that look like nutcases, and Brian sticks to it, even if he isn’t the most moral of characters. (Though is there *any* character on FG that could be considered moral?)

    Battlestar Galactica is a great example — except for all the religion goop, excellent show. Admittedly it was there from the beginning, but there was some good debate about it early on with the criticism of following the “prophecies” and Baltar’s arguments against religion (before Baltar was revealed to be as scummy as he truly was, this was a good thing). The differences and similiarities of religions – polytheism vs. monotheism – was interesting to see portrayed as well, but the writers floundered on that topic. I think Starbuck and Admiral Adama were presented as non-believers early on if I’m recalling correctly, though they certainly had a few flaws and so fit your pattern. But in the end the religion pretty much took over, what with the angels and all, which left me with a sour taste for the entire series. There was so much more that could have been done with the story.

  2. madmonq permalink
    April 3, 2009 9:05 am

    I’ve heard the same complaint from Christians. That they are always portrayed poorly on national television. Though I think the major networks feature Christians slightly more often out of fear of some kind of backlash. Adama did start as an atheist, though it seems by the end of the show that had changed too.

    I had thought BSG generally was sympathtic toward atheism. But considering the show pretty much concluded by answering all remaining questision with ‘it was god all along” (the conclusion was terrible). Maybe you have a point.

  3. Grey permalink
    April 3, 2009 11:12 am

    The first gay characters on TV and in movies were gross exagerated stereotypes, but they made they viewing public more comfortable with seeing and hearing from gay characters at all.
    Its a slow evolution, but exposure is a start.
    Nice to see a show actually acknowledge descrimination against athiests.
    The south park athiest episodes just played up the stereotype and argued that athiests are just as stupid as thiests (which doesn’t help in humanizing athiests, it just attacks their foundation of rationality)

  4. April 3, 2009 6:07 pm

    Fox Mulder on XFiles? I felt that he challenged Scully’s belief in religion/god. But I could be misremembering.

    But yeah, mostly atheists have to be shown as evil OR they have to convert/believe by the end of the show/movie/book.

  5. chris permalink
    April 3, 2009 8:20 pm

    You have drawn our attention to characters that have this aspect of them highlighted as a story telling device, “they were no believer, but they may have been a saint” is a popular theme right now (see greg house, hehe I bet he’d hate being called that), there have probably been just as many if not more crazy christians on tv as there are badguy athiests (for instance the preacher & his daughter in Zulu but most of them are real people in church made shows), it would seem that story tellers are done with making demonic preachers for the moment (maybe there are too many real ones now) & are instead making athiest anti hero’s.

    So just how many viewers are believers? is atheism really a minority, look around you now, how many are believers? & is where you are a really a true representation of the world? Do we project our values onto characters & people that are ambiguous? to me the bulk of the people i see on TV, film & in my life are athiests, because nothing tells me that they believe, I assume that believers think all these people are just like them because nothing tells them that they do not believe. But do you really believe that any of the charcters in star trek were believers, what about “the wire”?

    The trouble with being an athiest is that is little in the way of organised representation & there are no congergations or gatherings as such, and yet athiests are everywhere, this makes a vapid foe for the church as they have little to attack. And yet, they do, so did Hulu do the right thing by pulling the family guy episode from its content list? Just how much influence does the church have on what we see & does it have the right to have any at all? Should we find out how they were influenced into doing this and attack the process so it cant happen again?

    In essence I think your right, it would be nice to see some more positive representation of athiesm on TV, but to me, its already there & has been all along, right infornt of our eyes silently getting on with things without the need to make any fuss, yet ready for the moments where the representatives of god step out of line.

  6. April 3, 2009 11:13 pm

    Put me in the mixed feelings category. The fact that they are there at all, and as something other than simplistic bogeymen, is a big advance. Think of some of those characters from Battlestar — one thing to remember is that they are mostly like House. You’re supposed to relate to these guys. Baltar is, oddly, a sympathetic character. We’re supposed to feel with this guy on some level, even if he makes us want to scream. Cavil is the only out and out evil one.

    House, of course, is the focus of his show. He’s supposed to have the audience’s attention and focus, and be sympathetic on some level. Sure, with him it’s partly that he gets to be nasty in ways that we don’t :), but it’s something, and of course there’s also the nice depth to the character. He’s real, he’s got layers, he’s human.

    So it’s a start, just as the jive-talking blacks of 1970s TV were a start. Hopefully it will continue, slowly but surely. But I long for a really sweet, beautiful soul kind of atheist character. It would be a nice change. But given how long, say, Asians have had to wait for a wide range of roles on TV, I’m not going to hold my breath.

  7. April 4, 2009 10:29 am

    Good point. I love characters like House and Baltar but I never really considered that they were reinforcing the stereotype.

  8. April 4, 2009 10:31 am

    PS. Adama was also an Atheist and he was the hero of the show. He was moral, strong, brave, kind, and everything a leader should be. Although he respected Laura’s beliefs he never truly crossed over. That’s something to consider.

    • April 5, 2009 2:48 pm

      I would argue that in BSG it would be hard for any of the main characters to remain atheist after everything they’ve seen. And in that hypothetical universe, it might even be incorrect to have non-belief, it very well could have had a god.

      • madmonq permalink
        April 5, 2009 4:44 pm

        Oo what you just said. That’s like saying the Jews / Christians are 100% right because they still choose to believe the story of Moses. I couldn’t possibly disagree more with your assessment of Battlestar.

      • April 5, 2009 5:02 pm

        I disagree, it’s like saying Moses is 100% right after he himself parted the Red Sea. They very well could have been used by some very powerful alien but whose to say?

      • July 9, 2009 5:15 pm

        That’s kinda what I thought about Stargate SG-1. You have some folks pretending to be gods thanks to their advanced tech, then everyone figures out they’re not really gods… how could you not feel the same about all the other gods?

  9. April 4, 2009 7:12 pm

    Agreed, House is a good one.

    That’s pretty weird that it’s not on Hulu. I was hoping to see it when I heard about it.

  10. April 4, 2009 7:50 pm

    AH! I just watched it here:

    It is pretty obvious that Seth MacFarlane was trying to hit his viewers over the head with his atheism.. It could have been done more suttle, and sprinkled around a few episodes rather than one big one. There was one part where Meg took part in burning books, including Hawking’s Brief History of Time, and “Logic for 1st graders”. I could see that being a bit much for most viewers.

  11. April 5, 2009 6:42 am

    I think strong characters like House actually benefit the movement. He constantly challenges religion and I don’t think they correlate his flaws with his atheism like on the Office, Angela is portrayed as a total bitch because she is a Christian. In any case, I think the exposure is not incredibly negative and actually helps.

  12. madmonq permalink
    April 5, 2009 10:49 pm

    Sorry Sisyphus Fragment. I do see your point. As an aside I think the Battlestar ending was so badly done it was a little like tacking a double wide trailer onto the Taj Mahal then calling it a masterpiece.

    • April 5, 2009 11:00 pm

      I agree, it’s a shame they couldn’t have done another season and finished it right.

  13. desi permalink
    April 14, 2009 10:39 pm

    what about the mom from malcolm in the middle? she was an atheist. she was abrasive, but a good mom with a strong moral code.

    • April 15, 2009 12:28 am

      I agree that there are a few atheists on TV that aren’t prostitute-buying-cocaine-whores but from what I can tell they are really in the minority.

  14. July 9, 2009 5:17 pm

    Also, there was Captain Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds from Firefly. Although not exactly a squeaky-clean, law-abiding citizen, he was actually a good (and moral) guy.

  15. Phlox permalink
    July 10, 2009 12:59 am

    I really don’t like the episode when Lisa Simpson became a Buddhist. Atheism wasn’t even an option. Instead, she seems lost and confused after her rejection of Christian belief and before she meets Richard Gere. Ts! Like, you can be a Scientist, but you can’t possibly have peace of mind if you don’t have any religion.

  16. Jill Tallmer permalink
    December 2, 2009 3:01 am

    what about All in the Family’s Mike Stivic? He’s definitely an atheist.


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