The following article is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Godswillchurch website last year. The article is no longer available through Godswill, but I found it on the Internet Archive.
Several years ago, I determined to create a fiction series about an atheist private detective. As an atheist, I felt that the world needed a realistic heroic character that had no need of a religious belief system to base his or her good deeds upon. I began writing the series a decade ago, and in that time, I’ve noticed that perhaps some others had the same or a similar idea; especially in the television writing field.
Recently, it seems to me that television has made something of a leap forward in the portrayal of atheists, at least in the fictional realm. Numerous characters have either expressed atheistic ideas or have declared themselves to be atheists and that skepticism is a vital part of their character identity.
Granted, some have done so only in passing, Chris Colfer’s character, Kurt Hummel, on the television show Glee announced his atheism on one episode where the plot involved his father dealing with a heart attack. The issue of his disbelief was handled tactfully and respectfully by the show’s writers, and then was never mentioned again. Meanwhile, several other characters on the show frequently talk about their own Christianity or Judaism, and in a more recent episode, the Kurt character was unfortunately shown being superstitious about the color shirt his father wore at a follow-up visit to the doctor. Superstitiousness is a decidedly unskeptical characteristic.
Another series where the issue of a character’s atheism was handled matter-of-factly was the Joss Whedon space-western, Firefly. Whedon is an atheist himself, so the fact that his alter-ego, Malcolm Reynolds, is also one should not come as a surprise; however, Whedon deftly handles the topic by also introducing a minister with a questionable past, a naïve ingénue, a self-assured prostitute, and a primal wild-woman character to struggle with the ideas of morality, evil, lust and other vagaries which the religious would otherwise reasonably have to consider as pat and settled. In one memorable scene, the wild-child, River, is seen cutting up the minister’s bible to reassemble it in a way that would make it internally consistent. “Bible’s broken,” she tells him. “Doesn’t make sense.”
Other current programs featuring atheist protagonists include Bones (Temperance Brennan played by Emily Deschanel,)The Good Wife (Alicia Florrick played by Julianna Margulies,) Dexter (the title character portrayed by Michael C. Hall,)The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon Cooper played by Jim Parsons,) Family Guy (Brian Griffin voiced by Seth MacFarlane,) Scrubs (Dr. Perry Cox played by John C. McGinley,) House (the title character played by Hugh Laurie,)The Cleveland Show (Cleveland Brown Jr. voiced by Mike Henry,) and one probable atheist on The Mentalist (Patrick Jane played by Simon Baker.)
The Mentalist never directly addresses Jane’s belief-system; however they frequently walk that line. A comparable program, Psych, features the identical premise, a fraudulent psychic working with the police to solve crimes. Even the theme song to that show joyfully declares “I know you know that I’m not telling the truth.” On a personal note, this plot device represents a dilemma for me. On the one hand, it’s entertaining to see the conceit that psychic talents have merit lampooned as being simple parlor tricks. On the other hand, in real life, we as skeptics know that self-declared psychics are self-serving ghouls. Do I root for the hero who is in many ways no better than an evangelist at a tent revival, or do I ignore the fictional chicanery to admire the theme of “psychics aren’t real?”
Another unfortunate issue with atheistic characters on television is that so many of them get their atheism from a lack of empathy. Bones, Dexter, Doctors House and Cox, and Sheldon Cooper are all emotionally stunted characters, and one is an outright sociopath. Also, it seems that when the writers want to humanize the characters, they often do so by resorting to having the characters temporarily question their atheistic resolve. In a recent episode of Bones, the character dealt with a traumatic event by receiving visions of the ghost of her dead mother. The Sheldon Cooper character frequently deals with shock or fear by calling out to “the God he doesn’t believe in,” as the show’s Hindu character, Raj, once put it.
Also, it should be noted that it’s not as if atheism as a characteristic in fiction is entirely new on television. The character of Mike Stivic played by Rob Reiner on All in the Family in the 1970s was a lapsed Catholic atheist. In the mid to late 80s, the series Moonlighting featured Cybil Shepherd in the role of Maddie Hayes, an atheist. In 1999, the teen comedy/drama Freaks and Geeks featured the atheistic character Lindsay Weir played by Linda Cardellini. Battlestar Galactica, which ran from 2004 to 2009 featured the atheist character Billy Keikeya played by Paul Campbell. In fact, all of these characters were much better drawn, more rounded, empathetic characters than most of the atheists we see in television today. Yet they were fewer and further between.
In film, it often seems that atheistic characters are only played by real-life atheists who often create the characters for themselves to portray. Woody Allen often writes the characters he portrays as atheists. Jodie Foster portrayed the role of an atheist in the film version of Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact. Kevin Bacon played an atheist in Flatliners. Simon Pegg wrote and played an atheist in Hot Fuzz. Each of them has a spot on the list of atheist celebrities. Even Spencer Tracy, an atheist, was chosen to portray the atheistic lead, Henry Drummond, in Inherit the Wind.
In other fiction: novels, comic books, video games; we seldom come across sympathetic or heroic atheistic characters. They do exist of course, Tony Stark (Iron Man,) Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye,) Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code et al,) and sub-textually most of what has been written by John Updike are some notable examples. But I suspect that most of the modern fictionalized characterization of atheists as emotionally stunted intellectuals or cynical social outcasts originated in the character of Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s groundbreaking private investigator is the archetypical forerunner of Robert Langdon, Temperance Brennan, Gregory House, Sheldon Cooper, and others in that he is emotionally stoic, quirky, smugly superior, and obsessively focused on the problem at hand. Like Tony Stark, Holden Caulfield, Henry Drummond, Malcolm Reynolds, Dexter Morgan, and others; Holmes operates from his own moral center. The rules don’t have to be apparent or understandable to others, so long as they are “internally consistent” and make sense to him.
Having been written for a mass audience during the Victorian era in British history, Sherlock Holmes was not an overt atheist. He expressed disdain for philosophy and cared little for the interpolations of social mores onto his objectives, but he never said in so many words that he rejected the concept of God or heaven. Rather, he simply ignored the topic. Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was not, himself, an atheist per se. He spoke against organized religion, but he was a believer in spiritualism. Still, he created a character who had no need for such considerations as the heliocentrist vs. geocentrist debate (A Study in Scarlet.) Holmes also quoted the bible, but never insisted on its veracity. This tradition of ignoring metaphysical questions and postulates has generally persisted in the genre Holmes spawned. With popular fictional detectives from Phillip Marlow to Sam Spade to Nero Wolfe to James Rockford, the reader/viewer is seldom ever privy to the religious views of the gumshoe. In fact, when confronted with philosophies of a religious nature, the detective character more often than not either expresses disinterest in or disdain for the religious pontifications of the holier-than-thou.
With this history in mind, and with the new openness toward non-belief as an impetus, when creating my own fictional detective series I determined to make my detective an overt atheist, disdainful of the pontificators, distrustful of the devout, and willing to say so in so-many words. His moral foundation is unimpeachable despite his “European” attitude toward monogamy. His patience for the religious delusions of others is predicated solely on their patience for his lack of same. Yet still, he shares the same observational talent, the same obsessive single-mindedness to task, and the same abundance of quirky habits that have become staples of the genre.
The one trap of writing a fictional atheist that I wanted to avoid was making him socially awkward. To that end, I gave my character a stubborn charm that a certain type of intellectual beauty finds irresistible. He’s a lothario but not a heart breaker. He’s careful and caring about the kind of woman he courts, preferring a more worldly type over the slavishly adoring.
I also determined to create a foil in the form of an intelligent and religiously neutral woman who genuinely does not see the appeal he holds for so many. She narrates the stories, the Watson to his Holmes, with more social awkwardness on her end than his. Through her eyes we come to understand both POVs, his atheism and the theistic individuals (both good and bad) that he interacts with in his casework.
Today’s audience, one hopes, is finally primed to accept an atheistic character who simply is. In real life, theists and non-theists interact daily. Believers and non-believers work side-by-side often sharing jokes and family stories, neither one knowing or caring if the other shares their belief-system unless it somehow comes up in conversation. So why should fiction writers be afraid to create atheistic characters who simply are? After all, there was a time when the homosexual down the street was portrayed as the confirmed bachelor; gay couples never came to dinner on the Dick Van Dyke Show; none of the Brady kids ever questioned their sexuality or mentioned “that one time at camp.” Yet today, every show has a gay neighbor. Stan on American Dad has dinner with the gay couple that reads the news. Every teen-centered show from 90210 to Glee deals with the personal drama of coming out to mom and dad, some shows on an almost weekly basis. That more than almost anything has probably affected the zeitgeist leading to the almost universal acceptance of homosexuality in the upcoming generation. Hopefully fiction can do the same thing for atheism. It’s worth a shot.