True Detective. True Atheist?

The level of suspense in HBO’s new series True Detective starts high in the pilot episode and continues throughout. It’s a great crime drama that takes place in the Deep South where Christianity masks a more sinister reality, showing viewers the raw cruelty of humankind.

Based loosely on the book The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers, Detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart solve the brutal murder case of a young woman—or so they think. While investigating several missing persons reports around the area, Detective Cohle realizes an all-too familiar trend similar to the murder case they assumed closed. As time goes by it is apparent this “evil” person they call “The Yellow King” is on the loose and continuing to commit heinous acts.

As someone who loves a good crime mystery, I was naturally hooked. The series is harsh, direct, and not for viewers weak to uncomfortable and ruthless situations. The show displays strong female characters while some scenes demonstrate the victimization of women. And one of the main characters, Detective Rustin “Rust” Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey), is an atheist—and loud about it. Who wouldn’t love that?

With the over-saturation of religion in everyday life, it’s refreshing to see a main character in a hit series identify as a nonbeliever. But my compliments of Cohle end there. Although a visionary detective who successfully cracks cases and saves victimized children, Cohle is a decidedly negative character. He’s a man who has lost a great deal in his life, including his family. His opinions are not appreciated in his community, and he has no intention of following the belief systems of high religion and propriety that surround him.

We commonly see significant character flaws when it comes to atheist characters portrayed in movies and on television. In shows like House, Family Guy, Dexter, the Big Bang Theory, or The Good Wife characters who eschew God or religion are confrontational or mentally unsound. They’re often pretentious and at the very least annoying.

Sure, Rust Cohle has lost all confidence in the human race and believes we’re doomed to nonexistence. He’s introverted, slightly narcissistic, secretive, overly critical, and unnecessarily honest, especially in response to religious practices and human morality. But when I think about the show and each character, they all seem to have a deep, depressing, selfish side, and no one has proven to be innocent by any standard.

And so, as True Detective progresses Cohle turns out to be no better or worse than the believers. Take his partner, Detective Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrelson)—a Christian churchgoer who’s incapable of fidelity or selflessness. He’s said he was “working late” when in reality he engaged in an affair with a younger woman or getting caught up in an affair with yet another women he bumps into while running an errand for his wife and two daughters. We can appreciate the message that bad people will be bad people regardless of their belief or lack of belief.

As a nonbeliever, I’m glad for the presence of such a glaring atheist from such a grand media outlet such as HBO. But, it would be preferable to see a main character as a kind and positive nonbeliever. The media and the arts are platforms for introducing alternative ideas of social standards that are in need of a change. The commonly held vision of atheism is due for a makeover.