Television trivia websites provide a wealth of information about the industry’s envelope-pushing “firsts.” For example, television audiences witnessed the first lesbian kiss on L.A. Law in 1991, while the first interracial kiss appeared much earlier, on Star Trek in 1968. Trivia websites are less clear about which show first featured a couple sharing a bed: Most sites name the late-1940s sitcom Mary Kate and Johnny. Some sites also give an honorable mention to The Flintstones and The Munsters, while pointing out that because Fred and Wilma and Herman and Lily are, respectively, cartoon characters and nonhumans, they may be disqualified. Other prohibition-shattering “firsts” include a storyline about abortion, an audible fart, the use of the word condom, and a plot involving a senior citizen being tested for HIV.
A true secularist understands that television’s duty is to break taboos if only because art, in any form, is at its best when it rattles cages. But regardless of whether TV writers break rules out of a commitment to artistic integrity, a sense of social duty, or simply to boost ratings, in doing so, they advance many worthy causes with much greater success than even the most deliberate social campaigns. Of course, it is impossible to know just how far L.A. Law’s C.J. and Abby advanced gay rights or just how many closeted lesbians felt empowered to come out thanks to that on-screen lip-lock. Still, it is not an exaggeration to say that television is one of the most powerful media for social change. In fact, many theorists have postulated that Barack Obama’s nomination was facilitated by Dennis Haybert’s portrayal of African-American president David Palmer on the television series 24.
So could television do for atheism what it did for lesbianism, bed-sharing, and presidential pigmentation? Probably, but so far it has never really tried. To their credit, science-friendly shows such as House and Bones feature lead characters who are themselves open atheists. But Dr. House and Dr. Brennan simply do not qualify as breakthrough atheist normalizers for the simple reason that they are not normal. They are not, after all, Starbucks baristas or accountants. In fact, their only truly normal feature is the fact that they are flawed. And the nagging suggestion is that they are flawed, not because they are human, but because they are atheists. Dr. House’s pill addiction and general nastiness are presented as the necessary burdens that a freethinking untangler of medical mysteries must bear. Likewise, Dr. Brennan’s social awkwardness and humorlessness—however adorable—are portrayed as products of her über-rational, fact-driven mind. The message is that atheists are crazy smart but tragically screwed up.
What’s more, there is a big difference between how television portrays atheism and how it portrays other “controversial” states of being, such as homosexuality or African Americanness. That is, atheist characters never are allowed simply to be—without question or further comment. Every once in a while, a religious character is introduced to give “sciency” atheistic characters a lesson in “spirituality.” In the end, the atheist characters end up cocking their heads thoughtfully and saying something vaguely nice about faith or even musing about how their lives lack a certain je ne sais quoi that only faith could supply but that, alas, their scientific minds could never quite embrace. True, skeptical protagonists rarely are converted, but apparently television writers believe that supernaturalism must be given an occasional shout-out just to maintain cordial relations.
On the other hand, now that previous taboos have been broken, when do we ever really see their counterarguments given equal billing? For example, imagine a homosexual character being taught a similar lesson about the rewards of a heterosexual lifestyle. Imagine a dénouement where a gay man contemplates (as acoustic guitar music plays melodiously in the background) how his life might be richer and fuller if only he embraced the cosmic mystery and wonder of the vagina. Would such a “teach the controversy” episode ever pass muster with the American public?
That such a scene is never aired (nor would it be tolerated if it were) is good news in itself. It means that our official, television-appropriate position is one of tolerance with regard to homosexuality. True (and sadly), there are still religious groups who claim to be able to “cure” people of homosexuality. But the fact that homosexuality-as-a-choice is not afforded legitimate (and legitimizing) airtime in fictional television shows speaks volumes about which “side” enjoys more artistic clout. What’s more, television doesn’t just break taboos; it serves as a taboo thermometer that measures the temperature of a society’s acceptance. According to television, for many Americans, homosexuality is no longer a significant taboo. The same can be said of many other “controversial” issues about which television writers never consider presenting an opposing view.
But all is not lost for atheism as a truly TV-approved “lifestyle.” True, television may be afraid not to “balance” an atheist theme with a theist counterpart. Still, the bottom line is that television is managing to represent atheism favorably at a riskier and riskier pace. In late 2010, an episode called “Grilled Cheezus” on the musical sitcom Glee caused a flutter of online commentary among atheists. Many praised the often cringe-worthy show (whose plotlines make Hee Haw look like Masterpiece Theatre) for its bravery in presenting atheist characters who even go so far as to mock faith. In the episode, a teenage boy’s father is in the hospital in a coma. His glee-club friends offer him prayers and sing religious songs, to which the boy, an atheist, responds valiantly, “I appreciate your thoughts, but I don’t want your prayers.” In another scene, the boy thoughtfully explains Russell’s teapot analogy when his friends confront him about his nonbelief. When his classmates continue to use his grief as a ploy to convert him, an atheist teacher defends the boy’s worldview: “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, is an immoral thing to do. It’s cruel.”
What makes this instance of prime-time atheism most inspiring, however, is that (finally) the atheist hero is not a brilliant but jaded diagnostician nor an accomplished but social-skill-lacking forensic anthropologist but a mere teenage boy who, even without the superstition-dulling tools of science, finds himself on the side of reason. What is more, the boy is not only an atheist but a gay atheist who questions how any gay person could possibly believe in a god who would punish people for loving the wrong sex. Could it be that television is embarking on a new era of nonreligious, even antireligious, themes, where the atheist heroes are not cynical PhDs but regular folk? Now for that, we atheists-next-door would certainly owe television a debt of gratitude.