[WARNING: Contains plot details of Season 2, Episode 3]
For many American nontheists, the actual act of coming out as a humanist, atheist, agnostic, or some other form of nonbeliever can be painful, but isn’t necessarily devastating. Most of us aren’t subject to the physical violence and threats faced by nontheists living in other countries that have very restrictive religious freedom laws. Instead we may face the disappointment of our family and friends who occasionally distance themselves from us or may even fully disconnect from our lives, which could certainly be devastating.
Comedian Aziz Ansari’s semi-autobiographical Netflix series, Master of None explores the relatively privileged type of disaffiliation in a recent episode titled “Religion,” in which Dev, the main character, isn’t placed in life or death jeopardy but still suffers negative consequences for dropping his religious affiliation. Like many nontheists, Dev’s disaffiliation from his parent’s Muslim faith stems from an initial act of religious disobedience which then leads to a general questioning of the veracity and utility of greater religious law. Basically, the episode depicts Dev trying bacon for the first time as a child while at a friend’s house. When confronted by his mother’s reminder that Muslims do not eat pork, Dev disobeys, eats another piece, and discovers that he really does like bacon and doesn’t understand why a religious law would deprive him of something so harmless (to everyone but the pig) and delicious.
Before this pork-laden sin, the viewer is shown a montage of young children trying to avoid religious services on their respective holy days. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and even Scientologist children try to avoid yet another boring religious service, with the young Scientologist moaning “I don’t want to have to go to processing to get my thetans cleared!” This universal depiction of reluctant children being dragged along to religious services is not only a theme running through the episode, but is also an experience that most people, nontheist or not, can relate to.
It’s this feeling of being dragged along into religion that Dev once again faces as an adult, when his religious relatives visit his family and his parents pretend to be more religious than they are in order to keep up the impression that they are a God-fearing household (even claiming that Dev prays five times a day). This episode has some classic moments of religious bickering which I won’t spoil here, but everything comes to a head when, at dinner with his parents and relatives, Dev orders pork and is admonished by his mother. In response, Dev meekly declares “I’m not that religious, and I eat pork. But it’s OK, because I’m a good person, and… [stuttering]I-I-I want to eat the crispy pork with the broccoli.” This tepid war cry is slightly undermined by Dev screeching as he is pinched by his mother, who then leaves the restaurant and stops speaking to him for several weeks.
In order to reconcile with his mother, Dev eventually reads the Koran she’d given him as a young boy, and sends her a surah (a chapter) that states: “To you be your religion, and to me my religion.”
Accepting that she can’t, and shouldn’t, force her son to be religious, Dev’s mom reconciles with her son, and the episode ends on perhaps the most touching and insightful moment of the entire series: while Dev’s mom and dad head to a religious service, after which they gather with friends and family to talk and socialize, Dev also gathers with his friends and family at a local restaurant, where they talk and socialize.
While the locations may be different, the yearning by the characters is the same: to be with those we love and to share our lives with them. While older generations may find houses of worship the best place to share themselves and their love for one another, younger generations value more secular venues. Ultimately, both sides want a community in which to love and be loved.