Hey, how about us! Over here, yeah, here we are. And what do we want? What did Johnny Rocco want in Key Largo, baby? More. More. That’s right, more! We want more exposure, more access, more product! In the name of equal time, fairness, and that much-prized, Hollywood-embraced concept of diversity. Our time has come, and we will sit on the sidelines no longer!
Who are we? Well, you like numbers, babe? According to various polls we represent 7 to 14 percent of the U.S. population. That translates to one estimate of over 29 million American adults. Worldwide, according to The Top Ten of Everything 2002, we are currently in seventh place with an estimated 150 million people! Just boffo, Biff! Who are we? Your friendly neighborhood humanists. Yeah that’s right, secular humanists, freethinkers, atheists, take your pick. People who are religion-free. We are currently in seventh place worldwide. Christianity and Islam hold first and second place in polls of religious preference. Of course humanism/atheism isn’t really a religion, but that’s another story.
Some brief background. Hollywood, apparently seeing itself as a champion of minority rights, has picked up Russell Crowe’s mighty sword and battled against the raging lions of indifference and prejudice. To wit, it’s embraced the struggles of African Americans and gays, to name only two. Before 1970, African Americans were just about non-existent in movies and television. That has obviously changed. The same is true with homosexuals. At one time, they were rarely on television or in the movies. Now, you have entire movies involving gay themes (American Beauty, for one), and on the blessed tube we have gay main characters (ER, Will and Grace, and such).
But you’re bottom-line people out here in Hollywood. Your cigar-impaled hands implore me, like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, to “get to the numbers, boy.” Okay. According to my research, African Americans comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population. As to gays, the surveys I’ve seen say they range from anywhere to 2 to 5 percent. Here we have two minorities at 13 and 5 percent that are currently getting lots of exposure in movies and television. (Representatives of those groups might say that they’re still both woefully under-represented, but that is another story.)
Now to the crucial point: Those who make movies and television shows embraced African Americans and gays not solely because of their numbers, but also because they (the makers) apparently simply thought this was the right thing to do.
So let’s explore a few recent incidents that should convince you that religion’s influence on world events, shall we say, needs improvement. On the short list is the 9/11 tragedy, the war in Afghanistan, bombs again being hurled in Northern Ireland, and almost daily suicide bombings and a de facto war in the Middle East. In India, something like six hundred people have murdered each other in clashes between Hindus and Muslims. All of the above atrocities are, in my view, are directly linked to religious beliefs and/or religious conflict.
I do admit that there have been a number of good movies on humanist/ atheist subjects: Inherit the Wind (1960); Elmer Gantry (1960); Hannah and Her Sisters (1986); The Hand maid’s Tale (1990); Contact (1997); and maybe a couple dozen others. Great. The bigger problem in my estimation lies in TV-land. Humanist/atheist representation on the tube is nearly nonexistent. Before someone points out this or that television character, let me be clear that I’m talking about strong, significant portrayals of characters and the frequency of humanist/atheist issues in the plot.
My prescription? Hollywood insiders need to recognize that humanism is a growing concern. With every mind-less slaughter rooted in religion, our numbers inevitably increase. As science expands our knowledge in areas like the human genome, cloning, and stem cell research, our numbers continue to grow. We are a viable segment of the community. So why not get on board now and help in our battles of science vs. superstition and rationality over the paranormal? Why not make movies and shows that strengthen humans instead of telling them they are dirty, sinning, and weak—that encourage audiences to live fully in this life here and now, rather than to live in dreams of future states that will never come? By this course, Hollywood could serve to strengthen humanity—educating men and women away from tribalism, promoting diversity, helping them lead fuller richer lives . . . and, oh yes, I almost forgot to mention, pretty much eliminating people blowing themselves up in pizza parlors.
If one of Hollywood’s goals is to enlighten society and thus to help end violence toward Blacks and gays, why not more product aimed at ending the violence and murder taking place all across the world in the name of one or another god? You Tinseltowners have shown courage in other areas; how about continuing the courage here?
I would ask that people who are already part of the Hollywood community speak out, and speak out strongly . . . if, of course, they happen to share my views. In going through a list of “celebrity atheists,” I ran across the names of Marlon Brando, Jack Nichol son, Jodie Foster, and Katherine Hepburn. (By the way, I believe these four have something like eleven Oscars between them. Now is it even possible for a multiple Oscar winner to be wrong? Gee, sorry, guess I’ve been out here in L.A. too long.) Given the way celebrities are adored and worshiped, the words of you “chosen ones” can reach millions of people.
To these stars I would say, speak out. As you are already box office behemoths, the impact on your careers would be negligible. Come on, Jack, a few humanistic interviews or statements—or even, dare I say it, a little activism—could go a long way. Other stars just might say, “Hmm, well . . . if big Jack can do it. . . .”
So, Hollywood, I put it to you. I’ve made the case on the numbers. Our minority is as big as, or bigger than, most. I’ve made the case on the simple right-thing-to-do proposition: saving lives, increasing diversity, promoting unity. The ball is served into your mighty court of kings, kingfish, kingmakers, and king-size kingpins. We await your response. The future is science and reason and rationality. Will you come and play with us? Will you give us a bigger slice of the pie? Or to put in terms you may understand more fully, “O brother, where art thou?”
Chris Volkay is the author of Laughing Gas: How to Live Rationally in the Land of Illusion (cyberread.com).