Posted by: searcygr | February 24, 2009

Atheism in Popular Culture

In studying the New Atheism this semester, I have taken a keen interest in researching where atheism has been mentioned in popular culture.  Although I will be the first to state that these cases in which atheism is brought into popular culture have no bearing on the actual material of the debate between the atheists and believers, I still find them interesting.  While some may say focusing my effort here is a waste of time that I should be advocating to delving into the philosophy or various arguments used by each side, I believe an examination of atheism in pop-culture is relevant for the following reasons.  First, in including references to atheism in pop-culture, our society is showing how common and acceptable atheism is becoming in our culture.  This shows how vital our discussion of atheism in this senior seminar will be to interacting with others after our graduations.  Second, while most people will not take part in a theological debate like those that we examine in class between the New Atheists and believers, most people will see atheism as it is presented in popular culture.  For this reason, I believe it is valid to see the portrait of atheism that is presented in current culture.

 

In researching atheists in popular culture, I was able to compile the following list of atheist television personalities.  William Adama (Battlestar Galactica), Dr. Cameron (House, M.D.), Dr. Cox (Scrubs), Brian Griffin (Family Guy), and Dr. House (House, M.D.) are known to be atheists.  Similarly, many claim that Lisa Simpson is a religious skeptic turned Buddhist.  Here, I would like to focus my attention on Brian Griffin and Lisa Simpson, about whom I know the most.  In contrast to the other members of the Griffin family, Brian has a superior intellect, sharp wit, and an appreciation for the finer things in life, such as: martinis, opera, jazz, and literature.  Furthermore, Brian is a graduate of Brown University, working on a novel, fluent in several languages, and drives a hybrid car.  At the same time, Lisa is gifted in her studies, has aspirations to be the first female president, and is a gifted saxophonist.  Lisa is a vegetarian, liberal activist, environmentalist, and MENSA member.  On a similar note, of the five atheists and one agnostic that I was able to find in recent television, three were physicians.  Clearly, physicians are accompanied by highly educated, intelligent, and science-minded stereotypes.  These representations of atheists in popular culture definitely serve to strengthen the stereotypes that our society holds in regard to atheists.  As my more scholarly research has shown and this brief overview of atheism in pop-culture has confirmed, atheists are likely to be younger, mostly male, highly educated, more liberal, and more unhappy in terms of their outlook on life.  Here and in my final paper, I seek to find out if these correlations and stereotypes have a place in the discussion of belief in our country.  Does anyone have any hypotheses concerning why atheists overwhelmingly fit these stereotypes or have any thoughts regarding the truth of these stereotypes? 

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Responses

  1. Garret, it seems to me that the atheist stereotype in popular culter is supported by the general trends in reality that most atheists are younger, mostly male, highly educated, more liberal, and more unhappy in terms of their outlook on life. Since you’ve done some research on statistics already, I wonder if you find that this stereotype is inaccurate or if there is any reason why popular culture wouldn’t just be reflecting the reality of the situation.

  2. I have always found Brian to be an interesting character. I love the way he represents the most intelligent character in the family (and maybe even the whole show), even though he is the family dog. What struck me in the episode which referenced Dawkin’s best-seller was the way the attitude toward religion within the media has altered. In a sense, the New Atheists have given television, or the media in general, new material. TV shows no longer need to rely on bashing the pro-life, the virgins, or the child-molesting priests. Producers now can directly attack God.

  3. What’s interesting concerning the truth of these stereotypes is that they say a lot to what, in comparison, theist are thought of. Theists in the simpsons are usually unscientific, irrational, in a fantasy world, etc. The stereotypes don’t do justice to the depth and complexity of the situation for both the atheists and theists. There are plenty of atheists who are irrational in their “faith” claims, and plenty of theists who are scientific, rational, etc.

  4. It is interesting that the stereotypes portrayed by the media seem to fit so well with the assertions of the New Atheists that religious people are less intelligent than those who denounce religion and turn instead to science and reason. The interesting thing to consider or ask then is: Is the media making a firm statement siding with the claims of the New Atheists, or are these projections coincidental? For those familiar with the arguments of the New Atheists, these projections are not inconsequential because they seem to make pointed attacks against religious people, specifically their intellectual abilities. Another interesting characterization that fits with the ones Garrett already made is another “House” character. In the show, Dr. Chase was in seminary before he became a doctor. Each time this has come up in the show it has been because Dr. Chase is struggling against ideas of God and turning from them. Again, almost idealizing science in place of religion and not alongside it.

  5. I don’t think that the stereotypes portrayed in popular culture would be so unsettling if people didn’t take them so seriously. Parody and satire have always been forms of entertainment, but they stop being entertaining when people stop seeing them for what they are and start believing them.

    Obviously, if you want to write a bit about religion, it’s not funny to present a sophisticated, accurate view of theologians. It is funny, however, to show the redneck edited version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

    What bothers me is not the stereotypes themselves, just that they are so persistent and so widely believed to be factual. I wonder why that is…

  6. One of the points that Haught made in his book is that the New Atheists don’t carry their claims all the way to their logical conclusion. They don’t really consider what it would entail to completely get rid of God and have a world based purely on science and reason.

    This made me think of the show ‘Bones,’ specifically the character of Temperance Brennan. She is an atheist, and is also logical and hyperrational, almost to a fault. She bases all of her decisions on reason, doesn’t like to consider things that are outside the realm of what can be empirically observed, and has very poor interpersonal skills. Sure, it’s funny to watch pop culture references go over her head, but it’s also really annoying to watch her refuse to speculate or consider her feelings and intuitions. Is that the kind of person that Dawkins and Harris think we all should be? I realize that she is a caricature, but it still leads me to wonder how we can account for and give value to things like emotion and intuition while basing it solely in science.

    Sidenote: Also, even though this show does not always conform to the same old “atheists are smart and theists are stupid” stereotypes (Bones is not always smart, and her partner Booth, who is a devout Catholic, is often very intelligent), there is still a reason vs. intuition dynamic. My point is, these stereotypes are deeper and more nuanced than we think.

  7. I wonder how fair a portrayal the issue of representation in popular culture is getting in this thread. It seems that a lot of you theists have complaints about being misrepresented in media; but I’m reminded of movies like Constantine and others which portray spiritual issues in an action-hero type story with the heroes being servants of God. I think there is a lot of theist-glorification in addition to the opposite.

  8. I have nothing really to say other than it strikes me that the atheist stereotype: white, male, young also seems to be the most privileged and powerful subgroup in society. Hence, why do these people need God, when they themselves are close enough?

    The one thing I’ve learned through my experiences traveling to other cultures is that the less we rely on ourselves (whether this is giving up American individualism, or admitting we have interpersonal needs) the more room we make for God in our lives.

    So maybe these stereotypes reflect a correlation rather than a causation-mainly that those who think they have no use for God because they are comfortable, successful, in a word-perfect, decide to deny a reality that they cannot understand or have no need for.

  9. Garrett, as a huge Scrubs fan, it caught my attention that you mentioned Dr. Cox in your post as well. I think one of the reasons why Dr. Cox believes the way he does on the show is because of his childhood. His father was an abusive alcoholic and I think his mother never really cared about him. I don’t know much about the other characters, but I wonder how often childhood and background like this play a part in a person’s beliefs in popular culture and real life. I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t affect it.


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