Why Do We Portray Atheists as Broken Believers?

Mickey Desruisseaux, Columnist

September means the return of school, football and twangy Green Day singles. It’s also the month when television networks dish out new shows hoping to make a connection with audiences for the long run. One of the fall’s newcomers is CBS’s dramedy “God Friended Me,” the premise of which is exactly what the title suggests. An aggressively atheistic podcaster named Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall) accepts a friend request on Facebook from the big guy upstairs.

‘God’ starts suggesting more friends for doubtful Miles to add, whom he starts running into almost immediately afterward in real life. Each of them has problems that Miles seems uniquely attuned to solving, and each, in turn, seems to possess a quality that can teach Miles something about the world around him. But while the schmaltzy premise is surprisingly well-executed, the pilot episode ends up reinforcing a paradigm in which belief is viewed as the norm, disbelief as an aberration and atheists as errant members of the flock waiting for a shepherd to guide them home.

It turns out that, as the son of a pastor, Miles was a devout child until his mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. He prayed endlessly for God to cure her, only for her to die in a car accident after making a miraculous full recovery. The tragedy shattered Miles’ faith and his relationship with his father, pushing him into becoming the oh-so-sour atheist he is today. I nearly chucked my laptop across the room, before remembering that in the real world, exaggerated displays of exasperation are pretty expensive.

In a vacuum, this wouldn’t be a bad storytelling decision; I’ve known a few people in my life who’ve lost their faith for similar reasons. But when you consume enough media, you start to pick up on some of the tropes that keep rearing their heads regarding vocal atheists. Atheists are usually smugly lording their supposed intellectual superiority over people of faith, or faux-Nietzschean nihilists hell-bent on world destruction. And while Miles’ depiction as an ex-believer nursing his faith within a cocoon of cynicism is not quite as bad as that, it can be just as harmful, because these dynamics begin to bleed back into the real world and negatively affect people’s perceptions of the nonreligious.

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Only 10 to 25 percent of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or otherwise nonreligious. But studies show that the general populace distrusts nonbelievers’ morality. Of the 535 current members of Congress, exactly one identifies as religiously “unaffiliated.” No professed atheist has ever been appointed to the Supreme Court, nor has one ever been elected president. Don’t count on it happening anytime soon, either; Gallup polls have suggested an atheist candidate would enjoy less support than a candidate from any other religious group in the country, even in an age of resurgent neo-Nazis and judicially upheld travel bans that are Definitely Not Targeted Toward Muslims. Americans may not trust believers equally, but we distrust nonbelievers most of all.

But there’s no reason to. No one’s born with an innate knowledge of the catechisms and doctrines underpinning the world’s major religions; it’s something we’re either taught as children or discover and embrace later on. Some people never experience either, and still, others decide later in life that the framework they’re used to no longer suits them for reasons entirely unrelated to a personal tragedy. Either is perfectly fine, and neither is the equivalent of rejecting morality outright. Atheists are no more prone to good or evil behavior than anyone else of any other faith, and evidence suggests that America’s pervasive anti-atheist attitudes make people less likely to express their doubt in the divine.

The marketing forGod Friended Me” claims that it wants to spur conversations about faith without prescribing a concrete answer, and it’s a very worthy goal. It would’ve been better served with a prickly, but still a fundamentally good main character whose atheism was a result of a self-directed reflection on the big questions, and whose possible turn to faith was another step in that journey.

Choosing to root his disbelief in childhood trauma instead feels like a wasted opportunity to showcase that a life without belief in God can be every bit as moral and meaningful as a life with one. It’s very possible that some twists lie ahead for Miles, including whether or not he’s actually been friended by God. But after its first episode, it feels very much like the show is already steering him, and the conversations it wants to foster, in a particular direction.

I’m pulling for “God Friended Me,” in no small part because it stars one of my favorite actors, Joe “Monologue” Morton, as Miles’ estranged father. In an age of hyperpolarized animosity driven in no small part by social media, there’s something comforting about a show that wants to represent it as a force for good and speaks to our better angels. I’ll be back when it premieres in two weeks to see how Miles’s journey towards Personal Growth™ and quite possibly True Love™ plays out.

Here’s hoping that viewers of all stripes understand that you can find both of those things without being a believer.

 

(P)optics is an irreverent take on the political and pop culture news of the day from a nerdy, left-of-center, black-ish perspective. A play on words, the title hinges on the word “optics” to communicate insight on both pop culture and politics.

Mickey Desruisseaux is a 1L at the School of Law. A Political Science major and Creative Writing minor, most of his work in and out of school has been at the crossroads of the two disciplines. Email Mickey at [email protected]

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. 

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I identify as Christian. That being said, I see nothing Christian in any “Christian” right wing politics, or evangelicals for that matter.
    Being a decent person is not contingent upon a religious espousal.
    I’ll take a decent, kind, loving ‘atheist’ over a hateful, bigoted, hypocritical ‘Christian’ any day!

  2. What do you mean “we”? That’s how -they- portray us. You can be confident that anybody who thinks atheists are just believers who are angry at god is a religious person who can’t comprehend that anybody could reject their myth entirely. No atheist could ever have conceived this bad joke, let alone pitched it for broadcast.

    The premise of this show is cut from the same cloth of contempt that drives prostelyzation. The only conversations it will provoke will be in a deist echo chamber, where they’ll get together to confirm to each other that what atheists tell them are lies, but that they know the truth about us.

    Not only do I not plan to watch this show, I hope it dies faster than Doubt. This is not a “wasted opportunity”. It’s a contemptuous deliberate insult.

  3. I think a letter writing campaign to this network is in order. This isn’t meant to be a funny show. It is supposed to convince people that there is a god. Someone in the network executives has an ulterior motive.

  4. It’s a lot easier to avoid analyzing the logic of there being no god(s) if one believes atheism is an emotional response to spiritual trauma or daddy issues. It’s easier to think we’re wounded would-be believers than people who looked at the evidence and came to a different conclusion. Often atheists *begin* questioning for emotional reasons, but rarely does that end up being what nails the coffin shut.

  5. Any type of Christian show is certain to have issues though it’s TV. I am a long time atheist but I got hooked on “Touched by an Angel” and would watch every show with tears in my eyes as the “hero” ended up seeing the “angels” for what they actually were. It’s TV. It didn’t bring me around to think there were real angels or that any deity actually exists. It was just entertainment. And Roma Downey had such a great accent. There are so many shows that have some aspect of religion as part of them that I have enjoyed, “Brimstone”, “Millennium”, “Ghost Whisperer” and I’m sure someday they’ll be others. It’s fantasy and entertainment.

  6. Absolutely, when ¨religious¨ people find out that I am an atheist and they friend me, the start sending me, their religious message, assuming that I need their deity to fix me, in the other hand this show may be sponsor by religious people, that are seeing the current rise of atheism, and when customers go out of your business, you need to create new ways to attract them..

  7. A better, and more realistic, storyline would be one where Miles studies the Bible and realizes it isn’t inherent, infallible, and wasn’t inspired by an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god.

  8. This show sounds like a boring, predictable, cliche-riddled sequel to Touched by an Angel, super-charging the imaginary friend from an angel to God. You are spot-on about how more interesting the show could have been by making the main character’s atheism the result of something more challenging for the audience than a personal tragedy. Clearly, Hollywood (or whatever community produces reverent tripe like this) is simply and shamelessly pandering to the vibrant piety sweeping the country these days. There can be no doubt about where this plot-conceit is going, can there? Well, let me know if I’m wrong.

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