Atheists in Popular Media

by | April 9, 2014

joecarrollMonday, I was watching one of my favourite shows, The Following, about an FBI agent trying to catch a sociopathic serial killer (Joe Carroll) and his devoted, murderous followers. This is the second season of The Following which has Joe Carroll infiltrate a cult, kill its leader & take over their camp. After a TV evangelical, Pastor Tanner, calls Carroll out for his bad ways on television, Carroll goes into a rant about religion and its hypocrisy and when asked if he believes in god, asks “which one” then states, “No, I don’t believe in any god. I made that mistake once before, and I won’t do it again. Religion is only good for one thing: power.”  We learn later in the episode, from Joe’s ex-wife that Joe came from a religious family and as a consequence has become an angry atheist but she (the good guy) believes in God because God is hope.

This has all sorts of “yuck” written all over it. First of all, while I liked what Joe said, he is the bad guy since he is a sociopathic killer and it is disappointing that the sociopath turns out to be an “angry atheist”. It reminds me a little of this badly composed meme I wrote about a while back. Worst of all though, this episode shows that the good person (the long suffering ex-wife) believes in God with the implication that if you don’t believe in God you are hopeless (ie: a nihilist). It sets up the formula: atheist = bad & nihilist, believer = good & hopeful.

I’m glad atheists are at least acknowledged in popular media, but I wondered if there were atheists who weren’t flawed, angry or sociopathic in TV and film. It isn’t all bad, but it isn’t all that good either.

There’s Dexter Morgan the anti-hero from the TV Series Dexter, who like Joe Carroll, is aRustin Cohle sociopath, but unlike Joe Carroll, kills only the “bad guys”, so kind of a mixed bag there.

There’s the atheist Rustin Cohle from HBO’s True Detectives, another anti-hero. He says cool things like:

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?


Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain. Dulls critical thinking.

But he also says nihilistic (though interesting) things like:

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

Further, Rustin is terribly damaged, having lost his toddler daughter in an accident which led to his divorce. This implies Rustin could be atheist because of his raw deal in life and his nihilistic tendencies are closely associated with his atheism, which again implies atheism and nihilism are synonyms.

Then there are the atheists on House: Gregory House himself and Allison Cameron. But House is flawed too as an eternal curmudgeon who doesn’t function well in society and has but one true friend. Cameron is also flawed but at least not like House. She functions in society even though she has her baggage.

reynoldsWhat about some science fiction heroes? Science fiction often addresses issues others don’t dare touch. There is Malcolm “You’re welcome on my boat; God ain’t” Reynolds from Firefly however it appears Malcolm is an atheist because of the big battle that The Brown Coats lost. In flashbacks, we see him kiss a cross and speak of God but his present day rejection of God suggests that the war destroyed religion for Mal; now perhaps that’s not too bad as maybe Mal just questioned the idea of evil, but again we have an atheist that is “angry”.

riversongHow about the characters in Doctor Who? Now here we have some good atheists. The good guys are atheists and matter of fact about it. I’ve chosen to quote from this site because they lay things out well:

The First Doctor told Galileo Galilei that he was an agnostic and fully expected to be an atheist by the end of his travels. (PROSE: The Empire of Glass) The Seventh Doctor later said that he had “abjured religion”. (PROSE: All-Consuming Fire) The Ninth Doctor spoke disparagingly of humanity’s willingness to “believe in something invisible”. (TV: Aliens of London) Regardless, the Tenth Doctor’s perceptions about religion were altered upon meeting the Beast, an entity that claimed itself to be Satan. (TV: The Satan Pit)

….Lady President of Gallifrey, Romana II commented, “There are no gods”. River Song commented to a Roman commander, “You’ve been a soldier too long to believe there are gods watching over us.” (TV: The Pandorica Opens) When he was five years old, Skagra decided that God did not exist. (PROSE: Shada)

Outside science fiction we have some positives in Michael Stivic from All in the Family and Britta Perry from Community. Others like Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory) and Temperance Brennan (Bones) are still socially awkward but not too bad as atheists go: they are well educated, well spoken, smart and despite their social awkwardness, have good relationships.

So, I guess atheists in the media are a bit of a mixed bag. Maybe this isn’t too bad a thing but it would be nice to have a few more regular atheists out there. Who are the fictional atheists you’ve noticed and are they angry, unstable or are they regular people?

7 thoughts on “Atheists in Popular Media

  1. Alex T

    Brian from Family Guy and Haley from American Dad are atheist. Both are somewhat sympathetic and neither are “broken”, at least not more than any other character.

  2. billybob

    What is with the nihilaphobia? Denigrating nihilism is not nice. Do I have to start a support group like the gays have, as gay is taken maybe I can call us the SADS?

    Unite nihilists! Well if you feel like it and this really matters to you.

  3. Indi

    Other than anime, science fiction is all i really pay attention to – be it television, film, or books (mostly books). Generally, atheists come off pretty well in science fiction, but that should hardly be surprising given that most of the great science fiction writers were not only scientists, they were outspoken secular humanists and rationalists.

    For example, look at the “ABCs of science fiction”: Asimov, Bester, Clarke. (Meh, I’m familiar with Bradbury’s work.) Isaac Asimov was a major science populist and outspoken opponent of religion – he was right up there with Sagan. Arthur C. Clarke was not quite as outspoken on the topic as Asimov – he actually cared so little about religion that he only found out months after he married that his wife was devoutly Christian – but he was a shameless atheist, and often publicly bemoaned the stupidity of religion. Bester, like Clarke, also had little or no interest in religion – his parents had different religions so he was raised with none, and stayed that way – but he had no time for it either; he actually quit writing science fiction after his early successes because his editor, legendary SF editor John W. Campbell, got caught up in Scientology (Asimov did, too, by the way), but luckily another editor lured him back, which set off his greatest period of creativity.

    I would hardly say there’s any shortage of positive atheist characters even in TV and film science fiction. Even Malcolm Reynolds – i had no idea until just now that he had *ever* been religious, but even knowing that i would hardly call him an “angry atheist”. He doesn’t seem to have any real antipathy *or* sympathy for religion – i mean, the man’s flying a ship that has a priest in one room and a travelling prostitute in the next, and he cares deeply about both (Inara is is love interest, and Book’s death is what really sets off his heroic turn in the film). And let’s not forget that generally speaking when religion comes up in that show, it’s not given a nice showing (“She’s a witch!” “Yeah, but she’s *our* witch.”). Remember River “fixing” Book’s Bible? “We’ll integrate non-progressional evolutionary theory with God’s creation of Eden. … Noah’s ark is a problem. We’ll have to call it ‘early quantum state phenomenon’. Only way to fit five thousand species of mammals on the same boat.”

    I will admit that TV and film science fiction often panders to religion in that they will often include a religious character as one of the minor characters and portray them as “not bad even though they’re religious” (often pointedly ignoring any kind of deep look at their religious beliefs), but that’s hardly a roaring endorsement.

  4. Diana MacPherson

    Perhaps Mal is a grumpy atheist. He is also flawed: he can’t admit his love for Inara because he is such a closed off person. I loved when River fixed the bible. It is notable that Josh Whedon is himself an atheist so I’m glad he got in these little quips. Hey, maybe this is why FOX canceled The show!!

  5. Corwin

    “Regular” people don’t necessarily make compelling characters in fiction. I’d rather read about, or watch, godless anti-hero(in)es whose worldviews include at least a tinge of cynical disdain for the human condition.

    1. Bubba Kincaid

      The article was about making atheism more palatable and unremarkable on the TV.

      Not about what kind of comics you enjoy.

      1. Corwin

        My point was that for some of us, at least, atheist characters made of sugar and spice and everything nice are cloying rather than “palatable”.

        And what made you think I was talking about comics?


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