The media have an extraordinary power to shape public opinion and influence the general public. They serve as gatekeepers to information; the major news outlets on television decide what stories qualify as new and determine how to allocate time on the air to cover each issue. Other sources of news (like WordPress blogs) may be able to provide near-instantaneous coverage of news, but oftentimes offer little to no fact checking or credibility to back up their facts. Similarly, media outlets aren’t immune to this either; most cable news networks run on a 24-hour news cycle that scrambles to fill the airwaves with enough content every hour on the hour. In a 24-hour news cycle, oftentimes stories get blown out of proportion and drawn out over extended periods of time in order to stall for time and fill the airwaves. But during some days multiple events can transpire in such a small window that the important stories of the day do not get the coverage they perhaps deserve. But news programs aren’t the only form of influential media. Broadcast television and cable programming can influence mass audiences just as news media do. Although, they tend to influence audiences in different ways.
Actors, performers, comedians, and even reality stars on television have an enormous power to shape culture. They have the potential to serve as role models as well as cautionary tales to millions of viewers. The behaviors and opinions of television characters are dynamic and meant to read off the trends in popular culture. And perhaps confusingly, they simultaneous play a role in shaping the culture that they themselves are a part of. Arguably we read off of popular culture what we project onto it; the values that we as a society hold are displayed up on the television and in turn the television programming that we are exposed to informs our values. And much like the major news outlets, broadcast television also serves as a gatekeeper. Television studios decide which which television programs to put on the air and therefore they decide which television characters get time on the airwaves. Nielson ratings may determine how long that television program lasts before being cancelled, but network executives pull the plug, often times to the consternation of the devoted fans who watch.
I’ve been thinking about the portrayal of atheists in the media and lately, the only positive portrayal of atheists I’ve seen is Mythbusters. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage host an educational show on the Discovery channel that features the pair dispelling urban legends and other common misconceptions along with a trio of sidekicks Torey Belleci, Grant Imahara, and Kari Byron, who tackle such quandaries as: could the bus from the movie Speed really have made it over that jump like the we saw in the movie? Some might be surprised to learn that Both Savage and Hyneman are atheists; Hyneman is much more reticent about his lack of faith, but Savage spoke in the Reason Rally last March. Mythbusters is perhaps one of the few shows on television that champions science, reason and skepticism. Other shows feature atheist stars, but their subject matter is anything but enlightening. Atheist Seth MacFarlane has two television shows that air Sunday nights on the Fox network (American Dad and Family Guy), and although you’re in for an hour of crude jokes, MacFarlane takes shots against the religious like no other, all the while not sparing any other racial, ethnic, or age demographic, either. Characters like the atheist Brian the Dog and the devout Protestant Stan Smith represent the broadest range of religious beliefs on television. Perhaps I can find solace in the fact that Macfarlane is also the producer behind a brand-new iteration of Carl Sagan’s The Cosmos. Hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, this series will delve into the greatest scientific discoveries of the modern age in an easily-digestible format for general audiences.
This is a welcome change from regularly-scheduled programming. Few television characters have been champions of science, reason, rationality, secularism or atheism and even fewer of them have been positive role models. CBS’s The Big Bang Theory features Jim Parsons as the asexual, Aspergers-afflicted, aggressively agnostic former child prodigy Sheldon Cooper. Cooper is a theoretical physicist who cringes at the thought of most social interactions while he struggles to interpret sarcasm, display empathy or read facial cues. Unceasingly arrogant and frustratingly eccentric, Sheldon is a constant source of exasperation to is nerdy friends who put up with his less-than-charming idiosyncrasies Parsons isn’t the actor playing an only atheist character on television, though; who could forget Michael C. Hall’s character the irreligious Dexter Morgan from the eponymous Showtimes-original series? Antisocial Morgan is a Miami blood spatter analyst by day and a serial killer by night. As another avowedly atheist protagonist, our main character grapples with his Dark Passenger, his anthropomorphic compulsion that compels him to kill with alarming regularity (I really hope Miami Metro Homicide Department is more competent at catching serial killers than how they are depicted on this show…).
There is such a need for a positive portrayal of atheist characters on television. At times it’s frustrating to see a lack of secularism But then a thought occurred to me while reading the latest Pew Survey on religion. As many as one in five people consider themselves to be irreligious, meaning they seldom if ever attend church and their faith does not play a role in their life. And I began to wonder how many of television shows feature families who go to church (or mosque, or temple) with any regularity? And the only shows I could come up with were cartoons (Family Guy, American Dad! and The Simpsons feature the family in a church). Although, I recognize that there are live-action, scripted shows where religion plays a much bigger role. For instance, Blue Bloods on CBS seem to portray faith in relatively benign ways. Otherwise, few shows portray faith at all. Perhaps it’s a positive sign that religiously-affiliated programming on television is the exception and not the rule in the United States. Still, religion plays such a large role in the United States. To ignore it completely would be to overlook an important facet of American life.
Rather than ignoring the topic of religion, more shows should acknowledge the role that it plays in society and recognize the good and the bad that comes from all faiths. When it comes to social commentary about religion, I think that the fake cable news programs that take home the gold medal. The Daily Show with John Stewart, the Colbert Report, and yes, Real Time with Bill Maher seem to tackle religious issues where other programs tend to eschew programming that touches on issues of faith. Granted, I find Bill Maher to be an abrasive ass and an arrogant bully at times, but he still asks the questions that the hosts of other shows would likely avoid. This clip from an episode from last season features Maher interviewing Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel.
So where does this leave the state of television? I’ll leave that for you all to decide. If you can think of any television shows that clearly come down as religious or irreligious, please leave a comment below. And keep on the look out for any new shows set to air this upcoming year that portray the secular in a positive light. (My apologies to any international readers of this blog, a discussion of American television probably isn’t that interesting. I’ll be back next week with something less so provincial.)