By Erin Williamson
Storytelling, since the dawn of civilization, has followed distinct patterns that anthropologists today can identify. Like any dutiful liberal arts major in college, I learned about “the hero,” “the wise man,” “the journey,” “the villain,” and other characteristics that structure stories, myths, legends, and literature. In today’s world, plot lines, stock characters, the battle of good vs. evil, and personal growth are all thematic mainstays in the realm of what we call pop culture. While we still relate to heroes, villains, fools, and sidekicks, the 21st century stock characters often include “the dumb blonde,” “the sexy doctor,” “the mysterious Russian spy,” and “the underappreciated guy who is secretly very good looking and gets the girl at the end,” to name a few. However, with the religious climate in the country today, one of the more interesting stock characters in pop culture is “the angry atheist.”
Who are these “angry atheists?” Generally, they are cantankerous, middle aged men or women of science, who have a few bones to pick with religious people. They are often aggressive in mocking religion, beliefs, and faith. Two examples I can think of from my own television watching are Dr. Gregory House (House) and Dr. Perry Cox (Scrubs). Both are sardonic, condescending addicts (alcohol for Cox, painkillers for House) that belittle their employees and ridicule God-fearing patients, relatives, and coworkers. But both are brilliant leaders, problem solvers, and are uniquely talented in medicine.
On the one hand, it’s encouraging that there are “out” atheists in pop culture, especially those that hold prominence, garner respect, and are intelligent. Both Cox and House display an array of human characteristics beyond their “angry atheist” label. Each has been in love, shown weakness, mourned the loss of a patient, and even to limited degrees, been compassionate.
Perhaps the mere existence of atheists as television characters signals an increasing acceptance for nontheism. A few decades ago, atheism would never have been an acceptable characteristic for a protagonist. Or, perhaps as more Americans become comfortable with the idea that people can be atheists and still have a moral compass, it is only natural that atheism would be more representative in pop culture.
It makes sense that TV atheists would feature professionals in science fields. The basis of science is critical thinking, rationality, fact-based evidence, and skepticism. Atheism often sprouts from these same tenets in questioning the existence of God. Chances are that as more of the mainstream viewership of popular shows like House and Scrubsbecomes more accepting of atheism, that more characters will be atheists. Scientists and doctors are only the starting point. Perhaps on TV, there will soon be fictitious teachers, managers, baristas, accountants, and athletes that better represent the broad range of nontheists in America.
Why are these pioneering atheists of pop culture so crotchety, then? Why can’t their personalities be a little more representative of the diversity of Americans who are atheists? My guess is that these characters reflect the common (and arguably false) perception of atheist leaders such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Some argue that these leaders can be aggressive and condescending to those who hold religious beliefs, and certainly there’s a place in our society for such strong criticism of religion. However, although these may be the most publicly recognized atheist figures, the spectrum of nontheists ranges from the apathetic to the militant. As activists from all ranges of that spectrum begin to speak out for equal treatment, secularism, and tolerance, I believe that the variance of attitudes of nontheist characters will greatly increase.
It is no secret that pop culture often attempts to reflect common perceptions about society. When more nontheists of all stripes emerge in local neighborhoods, national media, and families without fear of personal or professional repercussions, you can bet that pop culture will reflect that. Just look at how many gay characters appear in television shows and movies. As homosexuality became more accepted through the 1990s and 2000s, characters progressed from the stock flamboyant, shoe-shopping, designer-wearing gay theater-lovers (a la The Birdcage) to being just characters- even leading characters- who were not fully defined by being gay. Now we see characters like Mitchell from Modern Family, who is a successful lawyer, father, partner, and is completely neurotic, sometimes insensitive, and has trouble connecting with his father. His character would be equally entertaining and multi-dimensional, gay or straight.
Soon enough television will reflect the same of atheists, agnostics, and humanists. It is our responsibility to ourselves and each other to be examples of a diverse yet united nontheist community, being “good without God.” Once the common perception of the average atheist is no longer the “angry atheist,” surely the dominance of that stereotype will fade from pop culture.
Erin Williamson is the development and communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.