The theme of last week’s episode of Glee was religion and atheism. To their credit, they approached it playfully and even a bit irreverently, with Billy Joel’s Only The Good Die Young and one character making wishes on a Grilled Cheesus like it’s a djinni bottle. They even revealed that two of the characters on the show were atheists, which is an unusual and maybe even brave move, even if only as a plot device.
So, kudos to Glee for even raising the topic of atheism. It’s a topic that most shows, especially ones that take themselves more seriously, avoid like the plague. They even raised the problem of theodicy: if there really is a loving, merciful, all-powerful God, why is there such profound misery and suffering in this vale of tears? Maybe the lightness of the show in general let them risk pushing some buttons in this apparently very religious country. The episode was timely, too, on the heels of Pew Research Center’s recent U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, where atheists came out on top in knowledge of religion, and the atheist characters in the show certainly had the most eloquent refutations of religious faith.
So… that’s what I liked about it.
(Warning, spoiler alert!)
Here’s what I didn’t like about it.
They punted on the character choices for the atheists, making the two most conflicted, unsympathetic characters the non-believers. One was the openly gay character, Kurt, who is narcissistic, selfish in the extreme, and supercilious. The other was, of course, the malicious and conniving cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester, the show’s over-the-top villain everyone loves to hate. I will concede that these are two of the most entertaining characters, but nevertheless, they paint atheism in a poor light. It perpetuates the myth that atheists are selfish, rude, and immoral… we give to charity, we work hard, we help people in need, we befriend strangers, we believe in the inherent goodness of people (at least many of us do), and we don’t mind that other people have different beliefs than we do.
Oh, wait… I’m talking about Glee. Maybe I should at least try to be entertaining, so I’ll do it Glee-style, with pop-song interludes:
There's nothing so pure as the kindness of an atheist... A simple act of unselfishness that never has to be repaid.
Freakwater, Gone to Stay
(As an aside, I didn’t think the music was very strong in this episode, aside from a clever and touching repurposing of the Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand reflecting Kurt missing his dad. One thing religion usually has going for it is the music, so I would have expected a more engaging set list… they have a few thousand years of material to draw from.)
Another weak point is that both the atheists tell how they lost their faith: they saw bad things in the world that a merciful God wouldn’t allow, personal tragedy, theodicy in miniature:
I won't believe in heaven and hell, no saints, no sinners, no Devil as well. No pearly gates, no thorny crown. You're always letting us humans down: The wars you bring; the babes you drown; Those lost at sea and never found. And it's the same the whole world 'round. The hurt I see helps to compound that Father, Son and Holy Ghost is just somebody's unholy hoax, And if you're up there you'd perceive that my heart's here upon my sleeve. If there's one thing I don't believe in, it's you... dear God.
XTC, Dear God
But frankly, theodicy is a bit trite. Theodicy is just about the least risky argument against belief in a god, since it’s so easy to fall back on the safe, standard religious refutation: “God works in mysterious ways” (as if that really addressed it). But even if it were a stronger argument, it’s not relevant. I’ve only rarely heard any atheist actually cite that as the reason they stopped believing in God… it’s just a chestnut that gets rolled out in debates, only a conflict to someone who believes in God; to me, atheism is a positive world-view that matches what we know of the world, not a negation of a paradox. Finally… theodicy is just not very interesting or original as a plot device; it doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t say much about the characters, and doesn’t open any new doors, though they use it as a weak humanization of the coach.
I don’t know why the show’s producers made the choices they did. Maybe it truly reflects the views of the writers; fair enough, that’s what morality plays do. Maybe they were pandering to what they perceived as their demographic. Maybe it was a cynical and simple calculation on the trouble they’d encounter if they took a bolder stand… boycotting, condemnation, and so forth. But for a show whose cast and audience is made up of iconoclasts, misfits, and outcasts, it struck a wrong note with me. About 9% of Americans don’t believe in God… and that’s just those willing to stand up and be counted; I suspect the real numbers are probably closer to Canada’s 19–30% non-believers, but it’s not easy for everyone to go against the grain. I don’t know how many of them watch Glee, but maybe the producers should take that into consideration.
Finally, at the end of the show, while neither of the atheists completely recants, they reverse their previous positions and “open their minds”, while all the other characters continue on as they have been with faith intact. If this show had been about homosexuality or ethnicity, or even another religion (with the possible exception of Islam), there’s no way they would have ended the show they way they did, with the two dissenting characters disabused of their wrong-headed notions, and made to see the moral value of go-along-to-get-along. Can you even imagine a modern TV show where two black characters come around to believe they really are inferior to whites—and it’s portrayed as a virtue? Or where two Mormons or Catholic or Jews are convinced they are wrong and turn Baptist? But to be fair, the big difference is that, unlike atheism, neither homosexuality nor ethnicity is a choice. And most people probably don’t consider religion—or lack of religion—to be a choice. Maybe that’s the problem.
Or maybe I should just keep quiet, and let religious extremists (be they Christian, Jewish, or Muslim) dictate terms about the entire national dialog, where any mention of atheism has to be cast as a point of controversy, while those same extremist groups get special rights, like not paying taxes, stopping science and history from being taught in schools, and justifying violence and war. I don’t think religion has any monopoly on morality.
I’m not ready to make nice, I’m not ready to back down. I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time to go round and round and round. It’s too late to make it right — I probably wouldn’t if I could, ‘cause I’m mad as hell, and can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should.
Dixie Chicks, Not Ready To Make Nice
And here I am, falling myself for the classic “angry atheist” stereotype. But really, I’m not angry… I just enjoy a good argument. I’m actually a fairly happy guy, with a great job where I help folks through improving the Web and get to travel a lot, good friends, good health, and a wonderful fiance. I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid major tragedy in my life, and I’m not an atheist because something bad has happened to me, but because I think the world is beautiful and fascinating and intricate and too complicated to dismiss with a creation myth that was dreamed up millennia ago, and if people are flawed, it’s because we are the children of this world, not because of some original sin we can’t rise above.
Alice, the world is full of ugly things that you can't change; pretend it's not that way... that's my idea of faith. You can blow it off, and say there's good in nearly everyone; just give them all a chance.
Ben Folds Five, Alice Childress
I don’t think this episode of Glee is part of a big conspiracy against atheism, and I recognize that the producers or writers of Glee at least tried. I’m not going to call for some boycott or jihad… I’ll keep watching and enjoying the show, and hope that they are a little braver or more original if the topic arises again. I just wish they’d made different choices for this episode. We atheists value patience, and rationality, and forgiveness, and we are in it for the long haul.
But I'm not sad, I'm just disappointed And I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed And you're not lost, you're just misdirected. And we're not going, oh, nowhere...
The Frames, Disappointed