David Boreanaz is one of my favorite actors. So when my wife recently discovered the TV series Bones, my interest was peaked. I was also intrigued by the concept of two leading characters with an interesting dichotomy: one is a theist and one is an atheist. Toss in some reasonably gruesome (and good) props, a dose of science, a bit of super-tech make-believe, and FBI murder drama, and you should have a pretty awesome show. In fact, it has been renewed for a 10th season. So by most significant measures, it should be regarded as successful.
But there is something seriously wrong here. There is an obvious religious bias in the plots and character development.
The forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance 'Bones' Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel), is the atheist character. She is hyper-rational to the point of ridiculousness. That is, she is portrayed as incomplete, highly flawed, and inferior compared to her partner, Agent Booth (played by Boreanaz), who is a devout Catholic.
The problem was subtle at first. The writers made it look as if both characters brought something unique to the table. The atheist forensics expert, Bones, is exceptionally anylitical, not missing any subtle clue a dead body might contain. She is intellectual, able to spout encyclopedic historical data off the top of her head on the fly.
The FBI agent Booth (portrayed as a theist) has a nearly magical ability to read people and an instinct for finding the murderer. He typically interviews witnesses and suspects, and pulls confessions out of most suspects in short time.
If they simply left the duality in place and played off of each other's strengths, the show would be pretty good. The plots are not very deep, and one can typically solve the mystery from the couch about 10 minutes in if they pay attention, but it is still pretty good.
But there is an obvious intent to portray the atheist character as severely flawed and incomplete. She makes irrational choices, though her character is hyper-rational. She lacks any tact whatsoever, to the extent that Agent Booth must often hide her in the car while he interviews witnesses to avoid her upsetting them with her blatant references to gory murder imagery. She stands behind the mirrored window of the interrogation room amazed at Agent Booth's interviewing skills and instincts and even attempts to learn how to read people herself at one point. But she lacks spirituality, however, so she is never going to be as good as Booth.
She is portrayed as being an atheist due to a tragic life event, abandonment by her family. Her interest in forensics is portrayed as a sub-conscious response to a desire to solve the mystery of her abandonment issues. Her atheism, therefor, is portrayed as 'just a stage'. This portrayal is actually stated in detail, not merely my interpretation or conjecture.
But it is in direct conflict with statements she makes. She does proclaim that she is an atheist due to a lack of evidence for the supernatural. But they play it like Hollywood often does, that she is short-sighted and close minded to the point that she believes that if something is not obvious, not tactile, it is not real. While on one hand this is sort of true for many atheists, it is not an indicator of being close minded or short sighted. It is an indicator of being rational.
It is pretty much ultimately a rip off of the X-Files in many ways. If you remember, that was also a dichotomy of a believer and a skeptic (in that case, of aliens) where the believer, who lacked concrete evidence beyond personal convictions, is portrayed as the hero with eerie instincts and abilities while his skeptic partner was merely holding him back, nagging at him to abandon his quest.
Is there ever going to be a protagonist character portraying atheism as a positive? Or can we at least get an atheist character that is treated as someone with a valid position (not just going through a phase)?
In the movie Contact, the protagonist is indeed an atheist. Her character is really muddled, however, as her fascination with astronomy, specifically radio astronomy, stems from a childhood tragedy (losing her father) and her attempts to contact her mother (and later her father too) using a HAM radio setup. So she believes in an afterlife... sort of.
Ugh. Contact. It is quite cringe worthy. In the end she goes into a wormhole and speaks to an alien that presents itself in the form of her father. It is stupid.
The movie Contact at least attempted to portray a realistic notion of how zealous theists would descend on the discovery of an extraterrestrial transmission with religious themes, and how the world might be hesitant to let a skeptical atheist be their ambassador to make first contact with an alien race.
That movie ends with a severely anticlimactic loss of momentum and has some really shoddy science built in, despite the writer having consulted the likes of Carl Sagan for input.
So what is the big deal then?
Atheists are unfairly portrayed as:
1. being damaged : going through a phase due to a tragedy.
2. being incomplete : there is always a theist character that guides them along.
3. being inferior : the theists and majority have abilities the atheist lacks.
I contend these trends in entertainment are deliberate and offensive.
Can anyone think of other examples of entertainment trashing atheists?
Only one example comes to mind where the skeptic was not portrayed poorly. In the Star Trek movie, the Undiscovered Country, the crew find themselves face to face with something claiming to be god. Of course, Kirk is not an idiot and questions this 'being' after it asks him for access to his ship. Kirk simply asks, "What does god need with a star-ship?" He avoids certain doom by questioning, by using reason and logic (even the Vulcan on his landing party failed in this), and by questioning his perceptions (there was visible and audible proof of the being, but the request was illogical for a god).
That is a quote that has stuck with me personally through my transition from Christianity to atheism. I used variations on this in many arguments. "What does a god need with a boat (Noah)" or for that matter, "What does a god need with water (to kill humans)?"
It seems that examples of atheists being portrayed in a positive light are few and far between beyond Star Trek.
Even Star Wars screws it up. Han Solo is an agnostic atheist. He doubts the existence of the force. He considers it just 'luck' when Luke uses the force to predict where the bolts from a training robot would be thrown and blocks their path with his light saber. He is portrayed as incomplete, cynical, incompetent, proud, pompous (though funny), and close minded throughout the trilogy (maybe a bit less close minded after Luke saves his ass from Jaba's palace in Return of the Jedi).
At some point, we should expect the media to turn around such that Star Trek is not the only place where atheists can feel comfortable.