In the last edition of Humanist Network News, editor Maggie Ardiente – fresh off binge-watching Netflix’s House of Cards – asked what television shows readers would recommend to humanists ( “Bonus points if they include an atheist character!”).
In the dozens of responses we received, the number one TV show recommended –by far was House, the now concluded Fox show that starred Hugh Laurie as the sardonic, skeptical title doctor.
Reader Elizabeth Rose compared Dr. House to Sherlock Holmes, whom Rose said she “always thought … must be a nonbeliever” because he “bases everything on reason and evidence.” This segues nicely into our next two recommended shows, both modern day takes on the famed detective, CBS’s Elementary and the BBC’s Sherlock. (Does Jonny Lee Miller make a better Holmes than Benedict Cumberbatch? You decide.)
Many readers also suggested Bones, the Fox show focused on (bonus!) atheist forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel). Reader Andrea Stanislaw explained, “Dr. Brennan is very outspoken about her atheistic, reality-based, scientific views.”
“Her significant other is a strong Catholic, and the discussions they have are interesting,” she added.
Newly elected AHA President Rebecca Hale was one of many to suggest CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, a show that nearly earns bonus points thanks to the character Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). “Although Sheldon never explicitly refers to himself as a nonbeliever, his low regard for religion comes out in his interactions with his [devout] evangelical Christian mother,” reader Ryan Somma told us. “When she mentions a church cruise she’s looking forward to, he snidely expresses his surprise at how far they have come in being ‘willing to sail out into the ocean without fear of falling off the edge.'”
The Good Wife is a recommended show that very recently earned bonus points. On a February episode, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and another prominent female character, running for political office, said they were atheists at a press conference without apologizing or being ashamed.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom was also suggested by readers, including Elizabeth Rose, who pointed to an episode in which lead anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) calls the Religious Right the “American Taliban.” (This writer will not delve into the HBO show’s problematic treatment of female characters, but she may for a future article of HNN!)
It’s great to see how many characters who are atheists or have atheistic leanings are on TV today. But before you start feeling too good, let’s talk about a show promoting an anti-atheist point of view.
On a recent episode of TV One’s Belle’s, main character Jil brings her boyfriend Jack to a family dinner only to find out that he is —dun dun dun! — an atheist. After speculating that Jack was dropped on his head as a baby, Jil dumps the gentleman, an AP war correspondent who was polite and handsome to boot, because of his nonbelief.
The comments section of a blog post about the episode, understandably, filled up with upset nonbelievers. The network followed up the episode with a blog post addressing some of the commenters concerns but not apologizing for the show’s treatment of atheists.
So it seems there’s still a long way to go before seeing an atheist character on TV is as commonplace as seeing a religious one. But in the meantime, we’ll enjoy some binge-watching of our own, thanks to your many great recommendations. Thanks to everyone who wrote in!
Sarah Anne Hughes is the communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.