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ETpro's avatar

Atheists, are you annoyed by "theonormativity" in media and entertainment?

Asked by ETpro (34412points) February 18th, 2013

Here’s an article on TV Tropes often used to set up the “Straw Atheists” so the media moguls can then skewer them to the delight of the largely theist audience. Theonormativity demands that if a script has an atheist in it, that person came to their lack of faith through some personal tragedy in life (the loss of a dear loved one or perhaps some massively destructive natural event such as the earthquake and tsunami that recently devastated Japan). It further requires that before the fictional work ends, this lost soul rekindles their faith by some means.

Ever find yourself wanting to throw a shoe at the screen when these all-too-familiar cliche types of irreligious characters are inserted into a story line only to be shown to be untrue to their convictions? Are their other tropes the article missed?

I’m a member of The Boston Atheists Meetup Group for atheists and skeptics. The question there was, “Would anyone on the list like to share some examples of portrayals of atheism (or skepticism, etc.) in the media, which are particularly galling?”

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26 Answers

Seek's avatar

It’s all too easy to find galling references.

I prefer to look for positive ones. Gregory House, title character of one of my favourite shows, an outspoken atheist for no reason other than he has a passion for reason. Of course he’s an asshole, but that’s not because he’s an atheist. And he never “rekindled” faith. He just never had it.

I love that Ricky Gervais is always an atheist in everything he plays in. One episode of Extras just killed me, when he tried to pretend to be Catholic to a priest.

As a big X-Phile I always found the Scully/Mulder thing to be amusing. The skeptical Catholic and the atheist believer.

wundayatta's avatar

I tend to consume atheist friendly media, so I don’t see much of this. What galls me most is the use of the term “God” in politics. I don’t believe that many politicians really believe in a literal god. I think they use the term politically and they use religion politically, which, as an atheist, I can hardly fault them for, and if they are careful about not defining what they mean, it isn’t even lying.

Theonormativity is all over the culture in the US. Being annoyed by it is like being annoyed by the weather. Everyone complains, but no one does anything about it. There’s little that can be done. So it doesn’t bother me too much. I know I can find a world where people support my point of view.

glacial's avatar

Atheists have higher standards. ~

But seriously, I don’t watch any shows where these cliched atheists occur. In fact, I’m thinking over the few tv shows I watch regularly, and the main characters are mostly atheist, as far as I know. Just like in life, if a favourite character turns out to be religious, I feel a sort of vague disappointment in them.

janbb's avatar

I don’t watch many shows but for me, what is galling are the obligatory “God Bless Americas” at the end of every political speech.

poisonedantidote's avatar

I don´t really have much of a problem, when say a channel like fox news starts talking badly about atheists, because they are fox news, or some other cheap tv show, and their nonsense is on a whole different level, that I feel does not require much defending or debate.

Also, I don´t really mind when a movie has an atheist stereotype in it, with some guy who is on drugs and suicidal and what not, and just can´t see the error of his ways, because movies are mainly stereotypes anyway.

When was the last time you watched a movie, and the truck driver was not a fat guy in his 40’s, wearing jeans and with an iritable harsh personality, or when was the last time the bald guy with the eye patch and scar turned out to be a fairly friendly guy, who happened to have a fishing accident.

The part that annoys me, is when the news, who are supposed to be reporting facts, say something like “1000´s of people gathered to clense themselves of their sins” As if sin is now globally accepted, and their ritual is scientifically proven to clense sin. Instead of just saying they gathered for a religious ceremony that they believe will clense their sins.

I also get annoyed by them saying things like “The most haunted house in the country” as if we have a government pie chart some place, or any talk of predictions and what not.

burntbonez's avatar

Theonormativity. Heteronormative. Normative, normative, normative.

Fuck that shit!

I’m going to live my own life and you can’t make me conform to some idealized version of life. For one thing, it isn’t possible. For another, it can’t be done. So what if I repeated myself. I’ll say it again: can’t be done.

DigitalBlue's avatar

This is making me hate Bones this season. The main character has always been a bit of an atheist cliche, but she was always comfortable in her atheism before the last two seasons. Now she is having an increasing number of religious, and specifically Christian, experiences that appear to be the focus of the story. It’s disappointing. I don’t pay a great deal of attention to TV shows or even stereotypes on television, including how atheists are portrayed, but this particular character is/was one that I felt was easy to relate to, a character that I could love easily and see reflections of myself in, and it’s sad to me that they had to take this one aspect of her character and turn it into such a big (and negative) thing.

Seek's avatar

Also – is it weird that the current most popular atheist main character is a serial killer?

Mmm.. Dexter.

gasman's avatar

On the flip side, the only mass-consumption fictional drama I know of where atheism is portrayed sympathetically and respectfully is Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. She prevails in clashes with religious dogmatists.

American society is still digesting the elevation of minorities, women, and gays to the status of full-fledged human beings. Atheists will take a bit longer. As for the world at large – don’t hold your breath!

Judi's avatar

Not all theists are rude to athiests. I just saw this quote about an experience at The Wild Goose Festival. I can’t figure out how to copy and paste from Facebook so here is a link. Today it’s the post on top.
Basically the guy ( an atheist) says he was surprised to not only see an athiest speaker at a festival celebrating spirituality, justice and art, but that several of the attendees were also athiests. He was pleasantly surprised at the mutual respect. (And most of the theists were Christian.)

augustlan's avatar

I never think about it…it’s just a fact of life. We are “other”, and outnumbered by far. When actual people believe these stereotypes, and worse act based on those beliefs, that is troubling, of course. We have to work to dispel those myths, though. Theist entertainment professionals sure aren’t going to do it for us.

glacial's avatar

@gasman I love that movie, even if it is a bit corny.

Michael_Huntington's avatar

I’m still annoyed with racist/sexist/homophobic stereotypes

fundevogel's avatar

It’s a fairly uncommon concern of mine as any show that strikes me as overly rooted in a theological perspective is one I don’t continue watching. And I’m really sensitive to that set of view points so it’s almost unheard of for me to watch that sort of show long enough for a straw atheist to show up. I remember watching the pilot for something (not sure what) and it ended up being about some protagonist who was compelled to stop some comely female stranger from making a catastrophic choice. It turned out he had to stop her from aborting her baby which was going to grow up to be Mozart or something. I remember the preview the following episode was also about babies in peril.

I couldn’t even watch past the 2nd season of Fringe because it was too woo. Never bought Walter as a scientist or an atheist. I hate it when TV/Movie scientists express themselves with magical thinking.

I never expect to get atheist friendly shows, so I’m tickled pink when I see one. I don’t watch any more but I loved it when Kurt on Glee was revealed to be an atheist.

tom_g's avatar

No. Not at all. I don’t see tv as presenting an accurate portrayal of people in general, happiness, suffering, existence, technology, ethics, beauty, nature, or anything.

Seek's avatar

Oh! I just remembered – Barnaby from Midsomer Murders. He’s fantabulous. A total nonbeliever, but just a regular Joe. Not particularly smart, not particularly bumbling, not very clever, but devoted and hardworking, and yet doesn’t believe a stitch of that religious stuff.

Great character.

fundevogel's avatar

There’s The Beeb’s Sherlock too.

bolwerk's avatar

I think the thing is, speaking as an atheist, storytelling and religion/spirituality are actually quite keenly linked. That’s not to say atheists can’t be literary, but being literary means tapping into imaginative parts of the mind that also correspond to religious belief. Many atheists seem to love Phillip Pullman, who wrote what amounts a coming of age story paralleling the change from childlike innocence to adult understanding against the backdrop of the supernatural being defeated by the natural.

Narratives are full of familiar tropes – journeys (Gilgamesh or the Ulysses of James Joyce), relics, heroes (Achilles), spiritual awakening (St. Augustine?), good v. evil, a fall from grace, wise men carrying a staff (Wotan or Moses -> Gandalf), blah blah. They are familiar even to simple people. They pretty much all go back to finding a sense of place in the universe for ourselves, which grants them nearly universal appeal. What is even more interesting is we can sometimes see that they came about in certain times, but survived. I’ve seen the case that there was no inner turmoil in literature before Shakespeare – that all characters were flat until then.* That’s a 400-year-old paradigm shift. I think nearly all these things have their root in religion, even if they were adopted in literature.†

But in the End we are all ephemeral. Ending a narrative corresponds to a mini-apocalypse, whether the ending is happy or sad. One way to unsettle a reader/listener is to deprive them of a resolution – an annoyance of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. @ETpro: you might be interested to read Frank Kermode’s book on narrative theory, “The Sense of an Ending.”

* c.f., Priam made Achilles relent, but he didn’t change him on the inside – or his fate.

† some are even a little past their prime. Sex is often used to convey characters’ depravity.

deni's avatar

I don’t really watch TV but I get what you’re saying. Yeah it sounds obnoxious. But then again almost everything in entertainment these days is. Television commercials in general are among the most frustrating things out there for me right now, for so many reasons. So it’s not just religion that is ridiculous, but it is one of the big ones.

Seek's avatar

You know what helps? Cancelling Cable. Then you’re not channel-surfing through crap, hoping for something worth sitting down for.

I get full seasons of shows I’m interested in watching, and crank them out in a weekend. No commercials, no waiting week-to-week, and best of all, I haven’t seen a Reality TV show since MXC was replaced with Wipeout.

bolwerk's avatar

Cable always seemed like a fucking rip to me. You pay for it, then you watch craploads of commercials for the benefit of the media companies. Now media companies control much if not most internet access too, and want to keep you from accessing content on it without paying for it.

fundevogel's avatar

I’m with @Seek_Kolinahr, tv works best a la carte.

glacial's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr YES. Haven’t had cable in about six years, and don’t miss it one bit.

ETpro's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I have to admit that I have personally not watched much TV drama, sit-com or “reality” show programming in ages. I’ve seen a few episodes of House and do appreciate the curmudgeonly guy. He’s not an asshole because of his lack of faith, he’s an asshole because he’s a screaming genius with little patience for stupidity.

Back when the X-Files were running new, I watched a fair number of the episodes and enjoyed the same interplay you noted. But of late, the only reason I even have cable is to keep my wife happy.

@wundayatta & @janbb May God protect us from the delusions that politicians of every stripe seem to think they can command God, and that any speech where they fail to do so is a wasted opportunity to get divine blessings beyond what we deserve. Moreover, may God protect us from saps stupid enough to believe that these political invocations have some effect on a supreme being.

@glacial Actually, same here. I’m just echoing my fellow Boston Atheist’s rant. My scant level of exposure to TV, almost entirely news and cable news, renders me largely immune.

@poisonedantidote Faux “News” is a propaganda arm of the RNC. It’s a right-wing equivalent of Pravda or the Korean Central News Agency of DPRK on the left. I only tune in to keep abreast of what hog swill they are pouring down the throats of their regular audience at any given time.

@burntbonez OK. Hey, I believe you.

@DigitalBlue Now that’s what I’m talking about. Good thing I don’t watch Bones.

@gasman I follow you on the patience message. I liked Jodie Foster in Contact but didn’t like the movie on so many other levels. Ah, such is life.

@Judi Nice. Thanks for the link. Cool.

@augustlan Can I know it, and still not like it?

@Michael_Huntington I’m painfully aware of the big load of fish to fry.

@fundevogel Indeed. Apparently, magical thinking is confused with science by many a TV writer.

@tom_g Great point. I couldn’t agree more.

@bolwerk You may well be right. I hope that doesn’t render me unable to craft a compelling story, because I do have a novel to write, and it does touch on religion. I’ll just added The Sense of an Ending to my reading list. Thanks for the tip.

@deni Perhaps the height of inanity is calling some of the most produced and scripted shows on television “reality” shows.

deni's avatar

@ETpro Exxxxxactly. Most reality shows are so far from reality! “Amish Mafia”....and I won’t even say anything more about that.

ETpro's avatar

@deni Yeah the “Amish Mafia” is such a huge problem up here in Boston. Everywhere you go there are horse and buggies with sawed off shotguns sticking out.

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