February 19, 2019

More Atheists on TV

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Unless you are over a certain age, what I am about to say is going to be hard to believe. It was not that long ago that millions of Americans never saw anyone who looked like them on television...unless they were White. A few television shows with more than an occasional Black character appeared during the 1970s and 1980s, but many other groups had to wait even longer to see characters who looked like them. And yes, some are still waiting today.

As a White person, it is very difficult for me to imagine what this would be like. It is something I have never experienced. While I have watched some television shows and many (foreign language) movies with casts that did not include any White people, this did not affect me because it was not the norm. The norm was - and still is - predominately White casts. When I try to imagine what it would be like to rarely if ever see someone who looked like me on television, I think it would get old real quick. I think it would be frustrating and that it would make television seem less relevant to my life. I think I'd wonder why nobody who looked like me was deemed good enough to be part of television. I'd also wonder why the world I lived in looked so different from the one I saw on television.

I have heard a lot of complaining from White people on social media about television and film diversifying and casting more characters of color. I've never understood these complaints. Yes, these efforts sometimes lead to a cartoonish sort of diversity where it looks like those in charge of casting have carefully selected one member of every racial group they could find and threw them together in a way that seems unrealistic. I'll agree with that. But so what? They will get better at it over time, and I think it is good that they are trying. I think it is cool for people who have never seen anyone who looks like them on television to finally get the chance to do so.

Would I like to see more open atheists on television? You bet! We have had some, but they tend to be flawed or presented in stereotypical ways. Still, their presence helps to normalize atheism and reduce anti-atheist bigotry. What I'd like to see in the future would be more atheist characters who were allowed to calmly and rationally address some of the many problems with religious belief. In the meantime, I'll take the flawed depictions because I still think they are preferable to none at all. I'd also really like to see more Christian characters struggling with and ultimately abandoning their faith.

Think about a young child seeing an atheist character on his or her favorite TV show and realizing that there are people out there who do not believe in gods. Perhaps this child becomes curious and decides to investigate the topic of atheism. Or maybe just knowing that there is such a thing as atheism and that it is a viable option will help to minimize some of the barriers he or she may face in questioning religion.

It occurs to me that television and film writers and the people who are responsible for casting could use some help from those seeking more and better representation. They don't need our outrage or our complaints as much as they need our guidance. We need to help them understand why having atheist characters matters to us and how to depict these characters more accurately. It probably also wouldn't hurt to let them know that we appreciate their efforts even when they are not perfect.