Character Study: How Atheism Has Become Less Important—and More Interesting—on Screen

In the recent indie movie and surprise hit Eighth Grade, shy Kayla (Elsie Fischer) plays a sweet but often awkward girl struggling through one of life’s most precarious social situations: middle school. Writer and director Bo Burnham’s debut film tackles such tough topics as peer pressure, crushes, and wearing a bathing suit in front of all your friends. But it also briefly touches on religion, another social pressure that can weigh heavily on adolescents.

“Do you believe in God?” a new friend asks Kayla near the end of the ninety-minute film.  The query could easily have been cut or replaced by any other social question, which is what makes it so graceful. In an attempt to simply learn more about each other, what’s traditionally seen as a private, even taboo question is casually dropped into a conversation between peers.

The similarly low budget and critically acclaimed 2017 release Lady Bird (directed by Greta Gerwig) addresses the same teen curiosity regarding faith. Again, near the end of the film, main character and rebellious teen Christine (Saoirse Ronan) questions a classmate at a party, “Do you believe in God?”  When he responds in the negative she questions him further, but the portrayal of the conversation is both positive and light—not weighed down by controversy or pressure from societal conventions of religion.

This approach to faith as merely a small part of character identity is not limited to the big screen.

In the British dark comedy series The End of the F***ing World on Netflix, religion pops up as the two main characters travel across England in a series of Bonnie and Clyde-type getaways. Main characters James (Alex Lawther) and Alyssa (Jessica Barden) are complex and multidimensional teens, shaped by parental dysfunction, abuse, and more, with religion playing only a small part of the cultural pressures surrounding them throughout the series. In the penultimate episode of its debut season, the show’s creators attempt to grapple with death as James and Alyssa decide to euthanize a dog that had been accidentally run over. Dismissing faith as a justification for their act, they instead frame it as an attempt to provide the least painful exit from life, an arguably humanistic endeavor. Throughout the series, conversations about religion and belief in God are brief and carry no social pressure or heavy air. Religion, lack of faith in God, and casual conversations around belief are only a piece of the complex teens at the center of the story.

This trend marks a departure from the one-note character development that religious identity has provided in the past.  Faith, or the lack thereof, has been used to explain every aspect of a character’s behavior and choices. In The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlett’s Catholicism is evident in many of his controversial policy decisions. Aaron Sorkin’s genial Commander in Chief is deeply proud of having read the Bible cover to cover, and attributes his perceived role as a moral leader to the deepness of his faith in the Catholic Church. Likewise, atheism is often employed as the sole defining feature of resonating characters. In Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy, Brian Griffin is a brash, angry atheist. His lack of faith in a higher power is indicative of every other negative component of his personality: cynical, aggressive, and self-aggrandizing.

This evolution of media to incorporate religion as a piece of a character, and not the sole identifier, is reflective of current American trends. Religion and religious teachings are decreasing in importance to a growing share of Americans, especially among younger age groups. A majority of Americans now say that it’s not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. With trends like these shaping the young and middle-age adults who are the most rabid consumers of popular media, it makes sense that a character’s belief system is no longer the sole explanation for their decision making and moral structure. As the religiously unaffiliated population continues to grow, it only makes sense that media continues to reflect Americans’ shifting away from religion as “all that.”