Unbelievers and Prime Time Television by Dan Barker (June 1995)

By Dan Barker

From Religion and Prime Time Television, edited by Michael Suman [Center for Communication Policy, UCLA], Praeger Publishers, Westport, Connecticut (an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.), 1997. Reprinted here with permission.

The book is an outgrowth of the Religion and Prime Time Television Conference that the UCLA Center for Communication Policy, along with the American Cinema Foundation and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, hosted on June 1, 1995. I was invited to represent nonbelieving American TV viewers.

“If it’s religious, it must be good.” This pervasive idea in society is a mistake that we unbelievers feel is far too often mimicked on television.

Millions of good Americans do not believe in a god or the supernatural. According to the polls, between 5% and 9% of the people of the United States say they are atheists. Christianity Today reported one survey showing that 7.5% of Americans declare themselves to be godless. By comparison, Jews are a respected minority at 2% to 3%, or about one-third the size of atheists.

The National Survey of Religion and Politics (1992, University of Akron), showcased in the January 30, 1995, issue of Time Magazine, puts the “non-religious” at 18.5% of Americans, outnumbering Mainline Protestants (18%) and surpassed only by Roman Catholics (23.4%) and Evangelicals (25.9%). The 1995 Information Please Almanac reports that the nonreligious and atheists are more than a billion (about 22%) worldwide.

Not only are we unbelievers a significant segment of the population, but those Americans who are religious are not as devout as they pretend. A study published in the December 1993 issue of American Sociological Review found that although roughly 40% of Americans regularly say they attend a place of worship on a weekly basis, only about half (19%) actually show up in the pews. (Church attendance is one of those factors of “social desirability” that are over-reported to pollsters.) This means that during any given non-holiday week, four out of five Americans do not attend church!

Freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) are a part of that “broad center” of American citizens who work hard, pay their taxes, do volunteer work, serve in the military, sit on juries, vote in elections, contribute to charity, work for political and social causes, and contribute to science, education, art, music, and literature. Some of them work in the entertainment industry.

Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in “Gone With the Wind,” was a lifelong atheist. She was a caring, generous individual who fought against racism and oppression. During a speech before the Freedom From Religion Foundation (of which she was a Life Member), she commented, “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.” Butterfly invested time and energy into cleaning up slums. “They say the streets are going to be beautiful in heaven,” she observed. “I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here.”

Freethinkers care about this world. We teach our children the basic human values of honesty, responsibility, fairness, kindness, intelligence, reason, and respect. We do not threaten eternal punishment or promise other-worldly rewards in order to manipulate people to live a life of values: natural consequences are all the motivation we need. To the unbeliever, good is good for good’s sake alone.

On television we often observe many religious roles, reflecting the rich diversity of our nation. But characters who are openly atheistic, though common in society, are scarce on the screen. Identifiable atheists and agnostics are as underrepresented on TV as we are in the prison system. It is as if the television industry reflects not only religious diversity but the general religious assumption that it’s not nice to be critical of religion.

No one should try to dictate what kinds of programs the television industry should produce; but if anyone asks for our opinion, we freethinkers think it would be nice to see some shows that are critical of religion, directly skeptical alternatives to the ubiquitous shows about angels, prayer, Noah’s Ark, biblical archaeology, faith, and so on. We have noticed that the few times atheists or agnostics are given a chance to present their views, the producers bend over backwards to provide balance, putting ministers or religious experts on the same show. Rarely does it work the other way around.

For example, I was once a guest on Seattle’s “Town Meeting” TV talkshow to discuss atheism. For “balance” the producers included a local Baptist minister, a Catholic priest, and a rabbi, who gobbled up most of the time proselytizing, saying nothing that we haven’t already heard for centuries.

Fine. But on programs that deal with religion, freethinkers or skeptics are rarely invited to give the “other side.”

It would also be illuminating to see some news programs spotlighting public officials who abuse their constitutional oath by using their office or tax money to promote religion. Alabama Judge Moore, a darling of the Christian Coalition, is fighting a lawsuit over the fact that he has a Christian prayer uttered before court sessions, and displays the Ten Commandments on his wall. Governor Thompson of Wisconsin, a Catholic, autocratically removed our legally placed “State/Church: Keep Them Separate” banner from the capitol rotunda, claiming that it doesn’t reflect the “values” of Wisconsin citizens. Such anecdotes are ubiquitous.

On the positive side, there are many wonderful, entertaining stories that can be told involving people who are openly free from religion. How about a made-for-TV movie about Vashti McCollum, the woman who won a landmark Supreme Court victory removing religious instruction from the public schools in 1948? This is a warm, human interest story about a brave unbelieving family defending “family values.” Vashti’s children were harassed and her family was shunned by the community when she stood up for the American principle of state/church separation. (Vashti’s story can be read in her book One Woman’s Fight.)

How about a show depicting the story of seven-year-old Mark Welch, who brought home a flier from public school inviting “any boy” to join the Boy Scouts? His father Elliott took him to the evening meeting at the school gymnasium and when the boys broke into groups, Elliott went to the table to sign Mark up. Noticing the Declaration of Religious Principle, he told the woman that his family was not religious and could not sign such a thing. “Then you’ll have to leave,” she told him coldly. Elliott had to go pull his son away from his friends, taking him out into the night, trying to explain why their family was not good enough for the Boy Scouts. (The Boy Scouts of America have defended this action in court, as well as many other cases of prejudice against unbelievers.)

Numerous brave and colorful freethinking champions have put their lives and reputations on the line in order to keep state and church separate. The struggle of the Unitarian family of Ed Schempp, whose famous 1963 Supreme Court Schempp decision removed prayer and bible reading from the public schools, is entertaining, poignant, and informative-and would make for a great television movie.

Or how about the fascinating life of the “great agnostic” Robert Green Ingersoll, the most famous orator of the nineteenth century, a warm family man and friend to presidents who has been virtually erased from history because of the manner in which he was vilified by the clergy for his iconoclastic views on religion? Or Thomas Paine, the deistic founding father, confidant of Washington and Jefferson, who wrote Common Sense, inspiring our country to a Revolutionary War, and who was later ostracized after writing The Age of Reason, the first American book critical of the Bible? Their stories would also make for great television fare.

Freethinking TV viewers would love to see a movie about Luther Burbank, the gentle “infidel” scientist who singlehandedly added billions in horticultural wealth to the world, and who was literally hounded to death by angry believers around the continent after his unbelief was revealed nationally. Or a documentary about the freethinking views of many of the early feminist pioneers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was shunned even by feminists after she wrote The Woman’s Bible, critical of patriarchal religion. Or a show depicting how the irreverent humorist Mark Twain decided not to have his sacrilegious book Letters from the Earth published until long after his death because of the fear of religious reprisal.

Freethinkers have never bullied the entertainment industry with consumer boycotts or demands to present our point of view. The entertainment industry’s only responsibility is to entertain.

I do suggest that the entertainment industry ought not to feel pressured by minority religious groups that complain that their particular views are being ignored or trivialized. Television has no obligation to preach the philosophy of any group of people, religious or not. If fundamentalist Christians want to hear about a “loving Jesus,” they can turn on a religious channel, or turn off the TV and go to church. If they think their image needs improving, then they should start acting in ways to improve their image.

Let’s face it: to most Americans, religion is boring. It makes many feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. It is insulting to others. You can show people sitting in a place of worship, praying to Jesus, Mary, Yahweh, or Allah, putting money in the collection plate, singing hymns. Then what? Writers can’t carry it as far as the zealots would insist without turning television into tedium. Or worse, into sacrilege. Many believers don’t want the “secular media” speaking on their behalf anyway.

Of course, sometimes religious expressions make sense in a show, in the context of plot and a character’s motivation; but we freethinkers notice that gratuitous references to “God” or “heaven” are far too often sprinkled unnecessarily into the dialogue. Such casual comments may seem quite natural to Christians, but they are jarring intrusions to unbelievers. The assumption that all viewers understand the human race to be subservient to a Master and Lord is quite unsettling to millions of us who are free to think for ourselves.

We live in a country that is proudly rebellious. We fought a Revolutionary War in order to expel the King, Master, and Lord from our shores. We are not slaves to a dictator nor sinners deserving of eternal punishment. We are a country of “We, the people,” the first nation with a godless constitution that is not based on the authority of a Sovereign. We freethinkers would never try to dictate the content of television programs, but we think producers and writers ought to know how unbelievers feel when we repeatedly see and hear references to the supernatural taken for granted, out of context, and not germane to the story.

If you can use religious comments for “color,” then you could do the same with comments critical of religion. This will offend some viewers, but then we could all be offended equally.

Many television shows are purposely light in style and content, and it is understandable that certain religious or non- religious individuals will be caricatured in such programs. No discerning viewer should take offense. TV is not real life, after all.

But serious television programs should try to be accurate. Of course, not all fundamentalist Christians are hateful and intolerant and they should not always be portrayed that way. Neither are all unbelievers “angry atheists.” Most freethinkers in America are happy, moral, productive, and tolerant.

Writers who create characters exemplifying goodness and charity should not jump automatically to ministers, priests, rabbis, Sunday School teachers, or missionaries. How about a “compassionate atheist” as a main character in a show promoting family values? Much good has been done in this world by people free from religion. And much harm has been committed by the clergy.

Millions of Americans are chagrined by the pretense that “family values” are an exclusive province of Christians or Jews, suggesting that the rest of us lack a compass for ethical behavior. Morality existed on this planet long before the Ten Commandments. Reason and kindness are all we need. We don’t need a Bible or Lord to know how to live.

Jesus never used the word “family.” He said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” He never married or fathered children, and actually discouraged parenthood (Matthew 19:12). To his own mother, Jesus said, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” When a disciple requested time off for his father’s funeral, Jesus rebuked him: “Let the dead bury their dead.” These are hardly “family values.”

Nowhere in the Bible do you find the warm-fuzzy nuclear family that modern American Christians champion.

Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword.” The shameful litany of Christian oppression and warfare has fulfilled this prophecy. History and current headlines show that much evil has been committed in the name of religion. Are we all supposed to pretend otherwise?

If the television industry wants to be fair, then it should not always portray religion in a favorable light. For example, why did none of the broadcast media in the United States choose to air the critically acclaimed movie “The Boys of St. Vincent,” spotlighting the serious epidemic of pedophilia among members of the Catholic priesthood? Does the Church still control the media as it did in the 1950s?

There will always be an unresolvable tension between religion and entertainment. Religion, by nature, is exclusionary and divisive; the entertainment industry, by necessity, must be inclusive and pluralistic. Most religions proselytize; good entertainment avoids preaching. Most religions teach that everyone in the world should be made to accept their values; good entertainment recognizes that the viewer has a choice.

Whether we believe in a supernatural world or not, those of us who care about this world agree that our society needs more understanding, more beauty, and less violence. Religion is not the answer. The answer lies in the responsible promotion of human values. Although we understand that the entertainment industry proclaims no mission to improve the world, there is no reason why it should feel pressured to perpetuate erroneous ideas that have made things worse.

Freedom From Religion Foundation