Freethought And Prime Time Television by Dan Barker (August 1995)

Is religion getting a fair shake on television? That question was addressed at a June UCLA conference in Santa Monica, California: “Religion And Prime Time Television.”

Participants included executives, producers, directors, writers, publicists, critics, and journalists from ABC, MTM, Warner Brothers, Disney, Fox, Columbia Tri-Star, Hanna-Barbera, Newsweek, and many others. Representatives from all major religious groups were present as well as academics from Harvard, UCLA, and other universities. I was invited to represent the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the views of freethinkers.

Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association chastised television for censoring and mocking religious views. Bob Gale, a writer-director-producer (Back To The Future, Tales From The Crypt) told Wildmon, “You are the problem,” observing that right-wing religious boycott groups are putting a chill on the industry, scaring producers away from any intelligent treatment of controversial topics, pro or con.

I sat on a morning panel of “religious leaders” opposite TV leaders. On my right was Archbishop Foley (Vatican), Dr. Joan Campbell (National Council of Churches), and Rabbi James Rudin (American Jewish Committee). On my left was Rev. Wildmon. I agreed that there is often too much violence on TV, but religion is not the solution. Why not have a “compassionate atheist” as the lead in a show about values? “Family” values are simply human values: honesty, responsibility, fairness, reason, compassion. If we want faith on TV, then don’t ignore the negatives and divisiveness of religion. Why did none of the major U.S. networks broadcast the critically acclaimed “Boys Of Saint Vincent” movie about orphans who were molested by Catholic priests?

At one point, Rev. Wildmon, responding to criticism, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I think I have more in common with my atheist buddy here than I do with you Hollywood types.” I was horrified!

John Dart, Religion Writer for the Los Angeles Times, called that the most shocking revelation of the conference–that Rev. Wildmon would call atheist Dan Barker his “buddy.”

Unbelievers are a huge chunk of the population: 7%-9% of Americans do not believe in a god. It was appropriate (and refreshing) that freethinkers were consulted for this important forum.

The UCLA organizers have asked the Foundation to contribute a chapter to a book about the issue. (See Unbelievers and Prime Time Television)

Dan Barker is a former minister and a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Special thanks are due to Foundation member Tom Melchiorre for research assistance.

Freedom From Religion Foundation