Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Glee" and Atheists In Popular Culture

Today, I re-watched an old episode of the Fox TV show "Glee". This was the third episode of the second season entitled "Grilled Cheesus". This episode focused on religion and the role of religion in the lives of the characters.

First of all, I think this was a great topic. I in no way oppose public discussion of religion and faith in general. Exposing kids to the issues and viewpoints at hand isn't a bad idea. I also (generally) approve of the Glee approach. Glee always presents its story in an exaggerated and satirical way, which often lightens up what would otherwise be rather heavy. 

As is to be expected, I did have some problems with this episode. These problems happen to be the same ones I have with almost every popular reference to atheists. I feel that the non-religious are often misrepresented, though I can almost understand this considering that "nonreligious" is a very broad term. I felt that, in this Glee episode, the religious characters were portrayed realistically and used arguments that I hear used often by theists. The atheist characters, however, we the typical atheist stereotypes who cite present or past trauma as reasons for their unbelief. The two atheists in the show, Sue and Kurt, both assert that their personal issues led to their lack of faith, Sue with her sister and Kurt with the fact that he felt persecuted for being a homosexual. While some atheists may have lost faith over experiences such as these, they are rarely the only reasons. Furthermore, such stereotypes only perpetuate the idea that atheists are inherently bitter, grumpy or angry people. Anyone who believes this needs to spend more time with atheists.

I also took issue with the fact that both Sue and Kurt busted their butts to silence the theists in the story. Again, this only perpetuates some very, very bad misconceptions. There are no laws against being openly religious in the public schools. The schools themselves simply cannot promote religiosity. In the case of the Glee club, the children were the ones choosing the songs and the religious pieces were performed for artistic, rather than promotional, reasons. This would have been just fine in American public schools. Yet the both the school and the atheists in Glee appeared to be persecuting the religious characters, something that only happens in the minds of the fundamentalists.

It also bothered me slightly that Kurt was portrayed during the church scene as being rather ignorant of Christianity (he crosses himself in a baptist church). Statistically, many people who choose to reject religious teaching don't do so blindly. Many of them are indeed familiar with the rituals and teachings of the various religions. In some cases, that knowledge is what led to their lack of belief. I was also irritated by the fact that Mercedes virtually chastised Kurt for not "believing in something greater" after Kurt specifically said that he drew comfort from strong people such as his father. 

Don't get me wrong, I love Glee and I think that the topic was a good one. I just wish that the nonbelievers in the group had been portrayed less as angry victims and more as people who acquire peace and hope from the world around them rather than a world beyond. In the end, I think it's safe to say that we have the same struggles as everyone else, we just choice to deal with them differently. Should not our methods be given a fair representation?

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