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.

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Comment by Idaho Spud on April 27, 2014 at 10:44am

I've only watched a few minutes of Bones a few times because it didn't capture my attention.  I've not watched it enough to notice the theistic aspect.  Thanks for the warning.  I won't bother watching it again.

I watch each of my favorite movies once a year, but after becoming atheist, It's too annoying to watch some of them that are theistic positive.

The most annoying ones are ones where "belief" is idolized, whether theistic or not.  A lot of my used-to-be favorite movies about Santa are now in that category.

For some time now, I've been thinking about theism in "The Big Bang Theory" quite a bit.  I'd like to use this blog to talk about it a little, even though that show doesn't show atheists in a bad light as far as I can tell.

I thought the first season was more laugh-out-loud funny than any other show, and was happy to see religion ridiculed some.  However, it didn't take long to see my tolerance change and/or the show change.  For my taste, It now seems there is way too much respect for religion and religious persons.  The main character's mother is a religious fanatic, and her stupidity is almost never pointed-out.  Perhaps the writers, producers, and directors think just her fanaticism and hypocrisy is enough to cause a thinking person to get it.  They probably can't be to confrontational against religion without loosing some of their audience.

In any case, whenever the mother has a scene, I change channels.  Can't stand the bitch.  I now have very little tolerance of religious idiots.

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on April 27, 2014 at 5:23am

At one point I did indeed believe that the rapture would happen at any moment. And I remember lamenting my lack of a future as well, desiring very much to graduate and have a life, not have it all end. My parents and their cult-church had tried to convince me that Revelations was completely valid. They had diagrams of how certain events in recent history lined up with the imagery of Revelations. They had explanations for the seven horns and seven crowns, the various trumpet blasts, the plagues, etc. It was all so convincing. Then I grew a brain.

One thing they had tried to beat home was this idea that the barcode was the mark of the beast and we would all have to get a barcode tatoo to be able to buy anything and for identification. They said the three bars that divide the barcode into two halves equate to the value '6' making it 666. I found this very alarming. I then investigated about what barcodes actually are and what the values of the lines actually equate to. I did this before the internet (this was while I was living in Germany during the cold war before the Berlin wall came down). I found various books and sources of information on how this technology works. Turns out the three longer bars are the guide bars.They have no numerical value. A 6 in a barcode is formed by four elements, typically in a combination of 1114 for a UPC standard. And all the lines in a barcode are accounted for. There are no hidden lines with some Biblical pretext.

This was my earliest hint that the crap I had been spoon-fed my through my whole childhood was utter B.S. But I escaped irrational beliefs too late, and the damage to my grades was irreparable. Though I did excel in my Junior and Senior years of high school, this was insufficient to rescue my GPA to anything acceptable by even the most liberal university.

What is really amusing is that Revelations was largely regarded as the rantings of a madman even by the early Christian church who simply ignored the book and excluded it from the early Biblical cannons. It wasn't even written until about 95AD. It wasn't even added until between 397 and 419 AD, and even then under protest by much of the Christian scholarship. Even Martin Luther himself still rejected the book in the 16th century.

But my family is involved a sect of radical Christianity (church of the Nazarene) that believes the whole Bible is the word of god. They are unwilling to recognize the truth that it is merely a bunch of self-contradicting crap slapped together after numerous interpretations/translations and committees, written third-hand by unverified and even unknown authors decades after any of the described supernatural events supposedly took place.

I escaped using my brain, making my final severing of this diseased limb in 1997 only after a severe nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. That shows how intense the brain-washing can be, but how ultimately ineffective it is for people with strong logical minds.

I wonder if a detailed autobiography of my experience might make a good book bridging the transitory stage of struggling theists and atheists. I am actively looking for a subject for my next book...

Comment by Michael Penn on April 27, 2014 at 1:46am

Gregory, your comments have reminded me of a few other things that might be related. I came out of Pentecostalism and they do indeed believe that the rapture might happen at any time. Imagine a book like "10 Reasons the Rapture Could Happen at Anytime" written by one of them and you can just as easily see another one's book "10 Reasons the Rapture Cannot Happen at Anytime." It's almost laughable. Then I watched a "rapture" movie where teenaged girls admit the rapture could happen at any time, but they hoped not because they want to grow up and raise families. WTF? I'm telling you, GPD, these people do not really believe this crap! You can instantly be in heaven with Jebus at any time but you hope not. Oh, come on now! Isn't this what it was all supposed to be about? They do not believe this. They are just paying homage to their belief system.

A friend of mine is known to constantly say "This world cannot stand another day." He goes on about it like a broken record. I remember his grandfather saying the very same thing. Maybe things like this are just "tradition."

When I told this man of a relative who died from throat cancer because of smoking he replies, "Smoking. He had better watch out or he's going to wake up in a place where he doesn't want to be." How dumb and stupid! How in the hell is he going to wake up? He's dead! Do you not get it? He's frigging dead and it means he is not going to "wake up." Not now! Not in "heaben." Not ever!

The theist cannot see themselves in this light of total rediculousness, but that's where I believe they reside. Ate up by belief and traditions they tend to believe things that could never be true. Many think we are living in some part of the book of Revelation today, and I've even been asked "how do you think it's going to play out?" It's all song and verse and you want me to say we are into the chorus now. God, I hate these people!

The thing is, just a little short of 2 years ago I was one of them. I believed like they did even though I had not practiced or studied in years. This is scarey.

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on April 26, 2014 at 9:54pm

I have a question. I wonder what everyone's opinions might be regarding atheist literature. I wrote a book, Tools for Debating Atheism which is now available on amazon. But I am looking to write another book (mainly out of boredom). Would it be attractive to atheists to have a book on humanist philosophy and atheism? Or is the market pretty saturated on that subject? 

If so, then what would be a good subject to write about? I may have never went to college, but I have been employed in various jobs that have permitted me to become quite literate on a wide range of subjects. I could do a drill-down on skepticism, morality, Biblical history (and the lack thereof), or any combination of these subjects. With the PhD's kicking out excellent atheist literature, I wonder what layman subjects would be attractive.

Do people give a damn about the Big Bang theory or Quantum Physics such that they might want a layman explanation of these subjects?  I have contemplated tackling these subjects as I have found the existing literature on the subjects a bit too deep, even when simplified for the regular public consumption. Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Michio Kaku have done well to thin out the concepts for mass consumption, but even their works are a bit too involved at times for a lot of folks. I find the subjects to have a much simpler underlying truth that is typically smothered in the superfluous detail that these great minds consider appropriate for the layman. 

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on April 26, 2014 at 9:45pm

 "well, there had better be something else after death or I'm really going to be pissed."

That is a mentality that has always intrigued me (well, ever since I became an atheist). I think theism poisons people into not giving 100% to their endeavors in this life with the promise of an afterlife. To a theist, this reality is but a temporary waste of time compared to an eternal existence.

Unfortunately, I was indeed a Christian through much of my high-school years and was in a specific fundamentalist cult that believed the rapture would happen at any second. I was thereby quite unmotivated to focus on schoolwork, especially because much of it made me question my beliefs. I ended up with really crappy grades in high-school and college was out of the question. My parents would not even pay the fee for me to take the SAT's (which I would have aced) as they too considered it probable that the rapture would happen making college plans moot. 

The concept of an afterlife and the belief in the second coming thus defined my future. But even though I ended up not getting a higher education, I am now quite motivated to make my life as meaningful and purposeful as I can, as it is indeed the only life I will get. I won't be pissed if there is no afterlife as I will have had a satisfying life full of accomplishments.

It takes religion to keep people from pushing the envelope, from challenging the paradigm. It is up to us atheists to leave the world in a better state when we die. We cannot let ourselves be bogged down into just working to pay the bills, or otherwise leading a neutral existence. The more atheists do improve the world, the more people will understand the major flaw of theism, that it insists that our corporeal existence relatively pointless. 

In our lives it is often quite difficult to break out of the patterns, the tediousness of just getting by. But we atheists have a responsibility to the rest of humanity to keep pushing back, to keep trying to do more, to pursue more meaningful accomplishments. It is hard, but we have to seek ways to be actively beneficial to society. This is where we find our happiness, our contentedness and our purpose. I see too many atheists get depressed and look at existence as pointless because there is no end reward like an afterlife. This is quite the opposite way to perceive reality, and is a result of eons of religious programming. We give ourselves purpose, and owe it to humanity to improve the world. I guess this gets into more pro-humanism than pro-atheism. But I find that atheism is indeed quite pointless without also adopting the philosophy of humanism. So you abandoned belief in gods. Now what? DO something.

Who is it that said something to the effect that an atheist has everything to live for and nothing to die for whereas a theist has everything to die for and nothing to live forRicky Gervais I believe... I just wish movies and TV series would express this very valid point.

Comment by Michael Penn on April 26, 2014 at 8:55am

Your 3 points on how atheists are unfairly portrayed is well taken. There may be reasons that the entertainment industry wants to see us this way.

I recently came out atheist to a not so religious friend and he replied, "well, there had better be something else after death or I'm really going to be pissed." I thought it was funny, but the atheist is considered "flawed" even by a lot of non-believers!

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on April 26, 2014 at 1:51am

Come to think of it, are Vulcans indeed theists? Sure they have rites and rituals, but what they are usually DOING in their rites and rituals are actually real processes. When they do a Vulcan mind-meld, for example, they are not invoking the supernatural to accomplish the task. It is a physical ability they happen to have. I cannot think of an example in Star Trek where the typical Vulcans were appealing to a higher power or god...

Then again, in the Star Trek movie the Final Frontier (I incorrectly referenced the wrong movie, the Undiscovered Country, in my intro), there is a central Vulcan character, Sybok, who believes their destination is Sha Ka Ree, their equivalent of heaven. He evidently has started a cult, but seems to be referencing old religious concepts of the Vulcan culture that has largely abandoned religion. I guess cult leaders can happen even in advanced civilizations.

The other characters recognize the same place as their equivalents of heaven as well, indicating religious concepts are still wide spread in this distant future. Of course, when the ship gets to the place they figure out that it is just an illusion.

Ok. I am geeking out now, but the point is that even in Star Trek, which has always seemed to promote rational thinking if not atheism as a positive, still insists that religious ideas will survive, even in advanced civilizations. I do fear that this is likely true. We cannot exactly eliminate our real physical brain feature that generates and promotes these deistic concepts. We can only ignore these instinctive impulses by embracing logic and reason as atheists.

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on April 26, 2014 at 1:20am

The character Bones is also portrayed as highly intelligent and very good at her job. I just don't see justification for making her seem like a Vulcan. If she was indeed on Star Trek, her character would make a great Vulcan (the same quirky lack of human emotion and inability to comprehend context, tact and sarcasm). Ironically, in the Star Trek universe, Vulcans are all theists, not atheists, with strongly held traditional religious beliefs and rites. Is it possible that Star Trek is the only place where atheists look like the norm, and are portrayed somewhat accurately?

Comment by Loren Miller on April 25, 2014 at 7:18am

There's also the matter of Dr. Gregory House, MD, a brilliant diagnostician who comes across as a curmudgeon and misanthrope, though whether this is because of his atheism or not is not firmly established.  I was initially turned off by House's curmudgeonly nature, but to a degree, that's compensated for by the fact that He Doesn't Put Up With Bullshit, and far more times than not, He's Right.

It may be that, as the religious population in the US shrinks and the number of the "nones" rises, we may see a change in Hollywood's attitude toward us.  A week ago, there was an impressive incident on Grey's Anatomy which I found encouraging as regards faith vs. reality.  Maybe more of the same is in the pipe.  We'll see...

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