Top 10 Atheist Characters on Television

By Steve Major 

As with any minority group, atheists and humanists are eager to see ourselves portrayed positively on television. Similarly to other minority groups, our representation as a percentage of characters on television today is way below our percentage of the general population.

That is why I’ve taken the time to compile a list of the top ten atheist characters on television. Now, I cheated a little bit: some characters were similar and got lumped together under a single number, not all of these characters are in shows that are still on the air, and not all have said the words “I am an atheist.” However, I justified my choices as best I could, and placed them in a highly subjective order based on a variety of factors including how positively they portray atheism, how firmly they declared their atheism, and how much I like the show they’re in.

This list is hardly comprehensive, so I hope you will continue the conversation by sharing more fictional atheist television characters in the comments section!

10. Oscar Martinez played by Oscar Nunez in the TV series The Office: Oscar is one of the very few LGBT characters of color on television (Oscar the character is Mexican-American; Oscar the actor is Cuban-American). He is implied to be an atheist when he pointedly refused to say “God” while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. He is also a Republican (on economic issues, one presumes).

9. Kurt Hummel played by Chris Colfer in the TV series Glee:  A gay high school student, Kurt has become an inspiriting character to many LGBT young people in America. In the episode “Grilled Cheesus,” Kurt deals with losing his father without the comfort of religion. The other members of the Glee Club don’t react well to learning that he is an atheist, and the person who ends up backing him up on his nontheist beliefs ends up being the unsympathetic Sue Sylvester. Kurt tells his father, “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in you.”

8. Seth MacFarlane’s animated anthropomorphic atheist supporting characters:

  • Roger Smith, voiced by Seth MacFarlane in the TV series American Dad, is a sex obsessed, hard drinking, alien con-artist doesn’t buy into human belief systems. “I love your religion: Virgin Birth, Water into Wine, it’s like Harry Potter but it causes genocide and folk music.”
  • Brian Griffin, voiced by Seth MacFarlane in the TV series Family Guy, is a sex obsessed, hard drinking pretentious would-be author and the Griffin family dog. Brian is vocal about his disdain for religion and those who believe in it. The episode “Not All Dogs Go To Heaven” centers around Meg demonizing Brian in the community for being an atheist after he says, “You’re barking up the wrong tree Meg, I’m an atheist.”

 In MacFarlane’s third animated series, The Cleveland Show, he alters his formula by making the anthropomorphic character a fundamentalist Christian bear.

7. Sheldon Cooper played by Jim Parsons on the TV series The Big Bang Theory:  Sheldon is Vulcan-like in his disdain for the illogical and supernatural, putting all his faith into science and his own personal genius. When distraught, he once cried out, “Why hast thou forsaken me, o deity whose existence I doubt…” When scolding his friends for events leading to his moving back to Texas to live with his mother, he said, “Thanks to you I’ll spend the rest of my life here in Texas trying to teach evolution to creationists.”

6. Jean Luc Picard played by Patrick Stewart in the TV series  Star Trek: The Next Generation: Although not overtly stated (to my knowledge), it is strongly implied that most members of The Federation are atheists. Vulcans in particular view supernatural beliefs to be highly illogical. Picard, when told by an advisor that to save his crew member’s life he must pose as a god for a less advanced culture, he decried, “Your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement? To send them back into the dark ages of superstition, and ignorance and fear! No!”

5. The Misanthropic Doctors:

  • Dr. Gregory House played by Hugh Laurie in the TV series House: A champion of science and Sherlock Holmesian logic, House is an ardent and angry atheist with zero patience for believing in anything without proof. He said, “If religious people were reasonable, there wouldn’t be any religious people.”
  • Dr. Perry Cox played by John C. McGinley in the TV series Scrubs: Cox is an adamant atheist who doesn’t “technically believe in God.”  This was particularly on display when he debated religion with the devout nurse Laverne Roberts, arguing that the idea that “everything happens for a reason” is nonsense.   
  • Dr. Cristina Yang played by Sandra Oh in the TV series Grey’s Anatomy: A Korean American who was raised Jewish, Yang is a doctor, scientist and nontheist. She could perhaps best be described as a Jewish humanist.

4. Britta Perry, played by Gillian Jacobs in the TV series Community: Britta is a do-gooder hipster liberal who fancies herself a psychiatrist by virtue of being a psychiatry student. Everyone in the six-person Greendale study group represents a different approach to religion with Britta as the atheist. During a debate with devout Shirley, she tells her, “Your religion isn’t the same as morality, and calling me immoral because I’m atheistic is religious persecution.”

3. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, played by Emily Deschanel in the TV series Bones: A forensic anthropologist and kinesiologist, Bones is a self-proclaimed atheist and often points out what she believes to be the irrationality of religious and spiritual beliefs. This has led to more than one argument with Booth (Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s ex-boyfriend), who is a devout Roman Catholic. He especially dislikes it when Bones compares Christianity to less common religions, such as voodoo.

2. Daria Morgendorffer voiced by Tracy Grandstaff in the TV series Daria: Not one to follow the leader, Daria is skeptical of everything around her. When discussing angels with her sister, she told her, “I guess I believe in treating others the way you would want to be treated” and “Until I see some pretty convincing evidence, I think we are on our own.”

1. Patrick Jane played by Simon Baker in the TV series The Mentalist: Like the 2012 AHA Humanist Lifetime Achievement Award winner James Randi, Patrick Jane is an entertainer who uses his powers for good. After becoming a master at faking the supernatural, Jane understands that there’s no such thing as the supernatural and that those purporting supernatural powers are either fraudulent or crazy. This skepticism carries over into his views on religion as well: “Life is like a game of football, when that final whistle blows the game is over. Done. There is no more. There is no other side. This is it: lobster, and bread rolls and nautical kitsch; and then pssht, nothingness.” When told that he has an immortal soul, he replies, “I sure hope not.”

Steve Major is the development associate for the American Humanist Association.