Total Drek

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Less than gleeful...

Some of you may watch the t.v. series Glee and, thus, know that in a recent episode the issue of atheism and religion was at least kinda-sorta addressed. I say, "kinda-sorta," because the real issues behind atheism are rarely, if ever, addressed by any television show, and Glee was no exception. Now, I don't usually watch* Glee but my wife does and she clued me into recent events on the show so that I could take a looksee.

Now, to give you a brief summary of the episode: Finn, a Glee club member, manages to create a grilled cheese sandwich that has a burn mark that resembles the image of Jesus. He then proceeds to worship this example of pareidolia, referring to it as the "Grilled Cheesus". Around the same time another character, Kurt, learns that his father has suffered a heart attack and is now in a coma. Now, the Glee club folk have long known that Kurt is gay and are apparently okay with that. After one classmate delivers a spiritual in his honor in class, however, they learn something new: he's an atheist. This produces all sorts of consternation and a half-assed conversation about faith during which none of Kurt's points- including the well-timed invocation of Russell's Teapot- are ever addressed by anyone. Kurt politely asks the Glee club people to please not dump their religious sentiments on him, and they proceed to ignore said request. One glee club member, Mercedes, even goes so far as to essentially coerce Kurt into attending a religious service with her. So, apparently, it's okay to be gay now, but being an atheist is another matter. It's as if the writers got a look at Edgell et al. 2006. Meanwhile, the show's primary antagonist, Sue, turns out to be an atheist as well, and files a complaint with the school board for the inappropriate harassment of a non-religious student. This complaint has little, if any, concrete effect on how Kurt is treated, but does result in a rather gripping conversation between Sue and Emma, the guidance counselor, in which Sue points out that pushing false hope on people is cruel. Meanwhile, Finn makes wishes to the Grilled Cheesus, including that their football team win their first game, that he be made quarterback again, and that he get to touch his girlfriend's boobs. All these wishes come true, although in the case of being made quarterback it's with a rather Monkey's Paw-ish injury to the former quarterback. In the end (I'm skipping a lot of carrying-on here) Finn becomes convinced that the Grilled Cheesus is just a sandwich, Kurt's father wakes up, Kurt and Sue remain atheists, and Kurt learns that you should be forgiving of religious people when they insist on praying for you. None of the theists, however, appear to learn the crucial lesson that when your friend is afraid of losing his father, badgering him with conversion attempts is the absolute antithesis of being kind.

Now, opinions on this episode appear to be quite mixed. Rebecca Watson of Skepchick, for example, is of the opinion that the episode is pretty good, though not without drawbacks:

As awesome as the two atheist characters are, though, the portrayal of atheism could have been better. Both of them give reasons for their atheism, and both reasons are because life was unfair to them and they couldn’t see how a loving god would allow that. That’s a perfectly valid reason for not believing in an omni-benevolent god, but it obscures the main reason why I suspect most people have no religion: because there is no evidence. This is at least briefly covered in Kurt’s referencing of Russel’s teapot, but Sue’s back story leaves us remembering both of them as tortured souls who maybe just haven’t found Jesus yet.

And I pretty much agree with her here: while it was nice to see atheists appearing as real people, it's a shame they had to be depicted as angry, soul-torn individuals who maybe would find god one day. On the plus side, the show did manage to show off how creepy theists can be with the incessant efforts of Kurt's "friends" to inject religion into his life despite his repeated requests for them to stop. I don't know how many people noticed that, or sympathized with Kurt, but it was pretty freakish and y'all know how I feel about forcing prayers on people who don't want them. On the minus side, Sue intervened with the school board because Kurt was being harassed, but the rest of the episode kind of pitched it as Kurt and Sue interfering with everyone else's right to freely exercise their religion. In a public school. By repeatedly confronting an atheist about his lack of religious belief. Right. Frankly, I found myself noticing a rather dreadful similarity between those parts of the episode and Christmas with a Capital C. And that's never a good thing.

And yet, I can in a way forgive the show all its faults because of one scene. You see, at one point Finn (the Cheesus worshipper) goes to visit** Emma (the guidance counselor) to confess that he believes it's his fault*** that the former quarterback was injured. He then spills the whole story about Grilled Cheesus and his wishes. Emma, looking decidedly uncomfortable, proceeds to explain all of the fulfilled wishes as being, essentially, coincidences and then dismissively asserts that god doesn't hang out in grilled cheese sandwiches. And you see, this scene is brilliant because it is essentially a quiet argument for atheism. In providing naturalistic explanations for Finn's wishes, Emma essentially makes the point that apparently fulfilled prayers likely are not actually fulfilled prayers at all, but just events unfolding as they will. More poignantly, however, she forces us to ask: how does she know that god doesn't hang out in grilled cheese sandwiches? And the answer is, we don't, and she doesn't, because we can't even be sure that god exists, much less what such a being would choose to do with its time. The assertion that god doesn't live in a grilled cheese sandwich has precisely as much evidentiary value as the claim that he does live in our blood pumping organs, or in the sky, or anywhere else for that matter. The entire thing is socially constructed and effectively arbitrary and very little can make that more apparent than seeing one theist argue with another theist about the nature of the divine.

So, in the end, the episode had its strong points, but there's a long way to go yet before atheists will get a fair shake on T.V.

* I should note, however, that I do have a certain fondness for musicals. And I'm not just talking about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog here.

** This bit struck me as a tad odd since when I was in high school we did everything we could to avoid the guidance counselors. That said, one such counselor appeared to paint her eyebrows on with a sharpie and had covered her office walls (literally covered, there was no empty space) in Ziggy posters and photos of Leonard Nimoy. So, hey, maybe my experience was an outlier?

*** Arguably it was, actually, since the former quarterback was injured after taking Finn's advice on a play. That said, I'm pretty sure this wasn't meant to imply that Finn set him up. Nevertheless, it's interesting that instead of going to Sam (the former quarterback) to apologize for indirectly causing Sam's injury, he goes to the guidance counselor to express guilt for sitting alone with a sandwich and asking an invisible friend to non-specifically make him quarterback. There's a lesson here about the redirection, and even dilution, of responsibility that seems to come along with religion. But that's a discussion for another day.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I comfort myself every day teaching The Humanities because I like to think that in the future, people will look back on the hyper-religious attitude of this time period sort of like we look back with terror on the Spanish Inquisition or the Roman blood-baths in the colosseum. Fingers crossed!!

Friday, October 08, 2010 2:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Interesting Post. I think I have found a new blog to follow.

@sassafrasjunction Wow, are you serious? How in the world are you going to relate the Colosseum (Proper name = Capitalized)to organized religion? I kinda get the Spanish Inquisition reference, but the Spanish Inquisition was so intensely brutal and ruthless that I am very sure that nothing else the Catholic Church (or any organized religion) has ever done even compares.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 5:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I finally got around to watching this episode, and while I'm glad the atheists remained atheists, I'm still upset about how atheism was handled.

Let's say I had a single, gay, male friend. If I were to, say, continually set him up with women to date because I just "wanted to see him happy" or because "I cared" or because I felt he was "closing himself off to a lot of great experiences" my behavior would be seen unfavorably (at least amongst my circle of friends- I'm sure someone out there would think that it is OK for me to try to make my gay friend straight).

Why then is it seen as an act of friendship when the religious cast members continue to shove religion at Kurt despite his request that they not do so?

Friday, October 29, 2010 7:51:00 AM  

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