Monday, September 21, 2009

Atheism in Media Rant (various)

As an atheist, I’d like to rant about how atheism or challenging belief in a deity is treated in the media. More often than not, the unbeliever is cold and unfeeling, like in Dexter, or in a state of depression and has yet to see the light, like in Signs, Eli Stone, and several others. In the case of a recent Psych episode, questioning the Bible is depicted as immature and silly. You rarely see a decent individual who has only come to disbelieve through their own reasoning, and then they’re probably on a show with supernatural elements that ultimately prove them wrong, such as Battlestar Galactica or The Polar Express. The Golden Compass, a cool fantasy movie with a premise that challenges Judeo-Christian ideology, was slammed by religious groups for being teh evol and now its two sequels won’t be made, ending the series on a cliffhanger. The message is clear: America, the country supposedly tolerant of people with all sorts of different religious beliefs, does not support a positive view of atheism.
First, Dexter. Our Dearly Disbelieving Dexter is an intelligent witty atheist. He’s also a sociopathic serial killer. While his reasons for not believing in God may be as rational as most of his life, organized and neat, he also has little capacity for human relationships. He repeatedly states that he has no emotions at all, and though this is often shown as inaccurate it is true that his emotions are heavily muted, and he has to fake most of his interactions. He suffered massive emotional trauma as a little boy when he watched his mother be murdered in front of him, and he developed an insatiable urge to kill. How is Dexter’s atheism supposed to be interpreted as anything except as one of the symptoms of his traumatized mind?
Signs: Graham Hess is an ex-priest who lost faith in God after his wife was killed in a freak accident. His trauma causes him to misremember her final moments, which seem a lot more random than it really was. It takes an alien invasion for him to come to terms with her death. By the end, he realizes that his whole life is part of some grand plan leading him to the moment where he would be able to rescue his kids from an alien monster, and he remembers his wife’s death as it really happened. Everything turns out okay, and he has his faith once more. It’s a well-done movie, but its message isn’t one I particularly like.
Eli Stone: The titular character is a cold lawyer who gets a brain aneurysm that gives him hallucinations that leads him to take unpopular cases where he can do good acts for people who need help. He doesn’t believe in God until his acupuncturist tells him that God is the desire to help people as well as that beautiful sunset over there. I think you can believe that your hallucinations are visions that lead you to help people without automatically believing in a higher power, as the former is not necessarily evidence of the latter. In the series finale, he helps an atheist get the organ she needs to live from the parents of an organ donor who don’t want part of their daughter to go to hell with an atheist. Eli presents evidence that the organ donor was in fact an atheist, and the patient gets the organ… only to die in surgery. Eli’s dead father then appears to him in a vision and tells him that God works in mysterious ways. So, I think the message is that people should be tolerant of atheists, but that God will ultimately punish them. Great. Real friendly.
Psych: I have trouble with this show anyway. It started out good, but has been getting worse and worse after the first season. It has the good premise of a highly observant if immature guy named Shawn who is able to tell the culprit of several different cases just by watching interviews on TV, but is arrested for knowing too much to be innocent after calling in a bunch of tips. The police refuse to believe that he’s just that good, so he pretends to be psychic by delivering a few convincing cold readings. As a psychic, the police can’t hold him unless he does something to show that he’s faking. With the help of his straight man friend Gus, they open a psychic detective agency and help the police solve crimes, having to seek out evidence and then “divine” its existence. The premise is good as it encourages skepticism in claims of psychic powers.
The issue is in the recent episode “The Devil is in the Details… and in the Upstairs Bedroom”, which is largely just an excuse to parody The Exorcist. The prologue for the episode is a flashback to Shawn and Gus’s days in Catholic school. Shawn is in trouble with his teacher for questioning the story of Noah’s Ark. He thinks it doesn’t make any sense.
“We’ll have to call it ‘early quantum state phenomenon’. It’s the only way to get five thousand species of mammal on the same boat…”
–River, Firefly episode “Jaynestown”
Shawn’s father challenges him to give an example of Noah’s Ark not making sense. He produces multiple examples. Gus gives the answer that God made it happen, God made it possible. The teacher indicates that Gus has the right approach. Shawn continues to argue the point, and then his dad starts to agree with him. The teacher suggests a church down the street might be better for them.
What I don’t like is that this scene suggests that Shawn’s skepticism of the Bible is just him being his usual immature self, and that straight man Gus’s blind faith is the rational approach. The way the scene is framed seems to show Shawn’s skepticism as comedic, it getting funnier when even his dad starts pointing out flaws in the Bible account. The episode moves on to present day Shawn and Gus having the same sort of conflict, where Gus believes in demons and Shawn is skeptical. That case of supposed demonic possession is ultimately a hoax, but Gus then forces Shawn into the confession booth. The episode ends pretty much where it began, with Gus trying to get Shawn to be righteous as the Christian ideology would insist upon him. I don’t much like that.
Boy Meets World: Shawn Hunter, cool but not very bright high school boy, joins a cult in episode “Cult Fiction”, a Very Special Episode™. His best friend, average all-American boy, Cory Matthews tries to snap him out of it, leading to a confrontation in the Matthews’ backyard with pretty much the whole cast present. Shawn admits that he’s never really believed in anything before. “Even God?” asks Cory’s father, causing Cory to look very worried. Shawn sort of says yes without really committing to anything. Out of the blue, Shawn’s guardian Mr. Turner is put in a coma after a motorcycle accident. Shawn cries over his body and shouts to God that he doesn’t want to be abandoned, and then sees Mr. Turner move his hand. Shawn tells everyone that he knows Mr. Turner will be all right even though he hasn’t spoken to a doctor, and he doesn’t need the cult anymore. Not to say that cults are a good thing, but faith in God shouldn’t be the highest sign that someone is on the right track. He can realize cults are bad without needing a strident belief in a higher power.
Battlestar Galactica: Admiral Adama doesn’t believe in gods. He is often startled by the religious devotion shown by both the humans and the Cylons. He’s a relatively cold military individual, though he does soften a bit as the show goes on and he develops a romantic relationship with President Roslin. The series finale, however, shows that God exists, there are angels, and Starbuck’s a ghost. Adama finds his faith when he sees that humans evolved naturally on some other planet, which couldn’t have happened without some higher power. I can’t get no relief.
The Polar Express: A quaint little Christmas film about how everyone should believe in metaphysical entities without justification, that the mere act of skepticism sends you down the wrong path (sometimes literally). Those who “just believe” experience beauty, while people who don’t believe in Santa Claus for good reason (i.e. having photo evidence that the North Pole is a barren wasteland) are to be pitied because they’ve lost their faith. Santa Claus, I believe, is the kid-friendly version of Jesus. The movie’s got lots of cool animation and sometimes the character interaction is enjoyable, but the story itself just gives me the heebie-jeebies.
And The Golden Compass I could write several posts about. It’s a great fantasy adventure starring a heroic pre-teen girl who goes on a quest to rescue her friend, and ends up a pivotal figure in the struggle to free the multiverse. The antagonists are essentially the Christian church, which secretly mutilates kids in its efforts to keep them free from sin. The movie was heavily attacked by religious groups because it supposedly would teach atheism to kids. The film hardly made any money in America, and despite international success the two sequels were cancelled, leaving the story hanging.
Right, so, anyway, this is really just kind of a rant. I dislike that atheism has such a stigma across all movies and TV shows. Those produced by atheists are often too controversial to find mainstream acceptance. I think Firefly/Serenity is one of the few shows to have a well-thought-out atheist character (Mal and arguably River), but too few people have heard of either. The country on the whole has a negative view of atheism. Just 22 years ago, George H. W. Bush said he didn’t think atheists were real Americans. This year, Obama (or at least his speechwriter) actually included nonbelievers in his inaugural speech, which was on the other hand filled with religious references. I think the attitude in general is improving very slowly, but overall the environment is not friendly to atheists.
“I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.”
–Mal, Serenity


alice said...

The Golden Compass was a mediocre film that minimised most of the awesomeness that made up the book.

Read the books, all three, they are much better than anything that the main stream movie studios would have turned them into.

Alex said...

@Alice, I haven't seen the golden compass movie, and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if it was horrible. They did it to Eragon, they did it to Avatar the last airbender. The Golden Compass is just another book that's so awesome it would almost be a miracle for a producer to capture the essence of it on screen.
However, I believe the author's point was not in the execution of the movie itself, but in the public's reaction to it. Specifically, the fact that "The movie was heavily attacked by religious groups because it supposedly would teach atheism to kids." as though teaching atheism was such a bad thing that the movie series should be shut down, regardless of how well the movie was.

@ Dragonclaws, I have just seen the Polar Express movie (23rd December 2011) for the second time, the first one being more than 5 years ago, when I hadn't realized I was an atheist yet. I now saw things that back then didn't make much sense. The movie presents the belief in Santa in such a beautiful way (and with penty of distractions from the main theme, what with the abundance of roller coasters) that the subdued message is much easier to accept. I have mixed feelings about this, on the one side appreciating a simple childish belief in Santa, but on the other hand squeamish because it subtly juxtaposes christianity on top of the whole Santa affair.

I must say also that I hadn't realized that atheists were portrayed at all in american media, and I didn't know it was in such a light. Are there any movies/series whatever where atheists are shown in a positive way?

I don't understand the atheist conditions in the states because I live in Canada.Up here's one would no more make a movie demeaning atheists than one would make a movie to make fun of people whose favourite colour was maroon.

Dragonclaws said...

"Are there any movies/series whatever where atheists are shown in a positive way?"

Well, The Ledge and The Invention of Lying are two recent examples, both created by atheists. The Ledge is fairly obscure, though. TV writer Joss Whedon has some atheist characters and messages in his shows. His fantasy show Angel has a bit of dialogue a lot of atheists like: "If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do, now, today. I fought for so long. For redemption, for a reward, finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it . . . All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because I don't think people should suffer, as they do. Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world." Of course, that's a show in which the Crucifixion is referred to as a literal event some ancient vampires have been to and there are other indications that the Christian God exists. There are at least a few decent atheist-themed shows, though.