Friday, 28 March 2014

True Detective and TV Atheists

In the last few weeks I have been among those engrossed in HBO's True Detective. For the uninitiated, it follows two police officers who, over the span of 17 years, investigate a spate of serial murders in rural Louisiana. That short synopsis doesn't really do the series justice and it is genuinely one of the best crafted series of television ever made (though I am unsure about the ending).

The central performances are part of what makes the show exceptional. Whilst Woody Harrelson puts in a perfectly fine performance as the flawed, womanising family man Marty Hart it is Matthew Mahogany's role as Rustin Cohle that gives True Detective it's dark dark heart. To help make my point, here's rust on humanity

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

A quick side bar, I can't imagine hearing this dialogue on a British crime drama (can you imagine Idris Elba's Luther saying the above) and I see this as more evidence that the US in general and HBO in particular are so far ahead of us Brits in terms of intelligent serial drama (Sherlock not withstanding).

Matthew Monogamy's Rust Cohle is, like many other on screen detectives, a tortured, world weary alcoholic. What set's him apart is one interesting fact, Cohle is an atheist.

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. ... You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What's that say about your realityi?

I can hear many of my fellow atheist travellers cheering both the sentiment of that statement and the fact that it has been aired on mainstream television. But perhaps we should hold our applause for a moment. McHogmanay's Cohle is part of set of atheist characters' that fit a small number of very narrow stereotypes. The media in general has struggled to portray atheists in fiction and there are very few “out” atheist characters on TV. Non-believers are perhaps the most stereotyped people on screen (well, after women, Jews, Muslims, gay people and basically all people who are not straight white men). So maybe we don't get the worst wrap from the screen compared to other groups but I still think that, with a some notable exceptions, many on screen atheists fall into two main categories.

Post Traumatic Stress Atheism (PTSA)-
Atheism, in the minds of many TV writers, is very often explained away as the bi-product of some kind of past trauma. Rust Cohle is part of this trope. Much of the darker parts of Rust's soul, which includes his atheism, comes from the fact that he lost his young daughter. He is not the only one. A character often heralded by the atheist community is Firefly's Malcom Reynolds. Reynolds, the Whedonverse's answer to Han solo, is as misanthropic, sarcastic embittered war veteran who dismisses any reliance on the divine as a “a long wait for a train don't come”. This cynical side of Mal, (again this includes his atheism) seems to come from his being on the losing side of devastating war and watching all but one of his soldiers die during the final battle of that conflict. 
Scrub's Perry Cox, another misanthropic atheist, had an abusive father and has been battered by years working in the often de-humanising American medical system. A tough childhood also seems to be a causal factor in the atheism of of other characters, of note being Six Feet Under's resident atheist, Brenda Chenowith, grew up with overly sexually liberated (and arguably abusive) parents and grew up with a slightly over amorous brother. As well as being synonymous with cynicism, atheism is also synonymous with addiction, whether that be booze (Cohle, and Cox), pharmaceuticals or sex (Chenowith).

For these characters, atheism is part of a general malaise of cynicism drawn from a trauma that has lead to a loss of faith not just in god, but other people.

Atheist Spectrum Disorder
Not content with dismissing atheism as symptom of post traumatic stress disorder, TV land's other main explanation for deistic scepticism is personality disorders. One archetype is the the atheist savant who can be placed firmly on the autistic spectrum. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock as an obsessive who, though brilliant, is either unable or unwilling to engage with other humans on an emotional level. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is similarly exceptional in his chosen field but much of the show's humour is derived from his inability to relate to those in his tight nicked circle.

It's not just autism. Dexter from Dexter is a sociopath and his atheism is in part connected with his detachment from the moral and the sentimental. Jeff Winger from Community is a clinical narcissist (to the point where it's questioned if he is in fact his own god) and fellow agnostic Mark Corrigan from Peep Show is less a man and more of a coagulation of various personality disorders.

The King of TV Atheists - Gregory House

Of the limited number of telly atheists available to choose from, perhaps the one who fits into my thesis almost perfectly is Gregory House. I have mixed feelings about the show House. I have watched a a good number of episodes. I enjoyed the episode where House makes three attempts to solve a diagnosis he was initially uninterested in whilst saying something shocking and offensive to one of his colleagues or patients. I also like the episode where House says something offensive and shocking to a colleague or patient and then solves a diagnosis (he was initially uninterested in) on the third try. However, after the 20th “is offensive to someone and solves a case after three tries” episode I gave up. However, Hugh Laurie's performance is exceptional and many atheists tout Gregory House as great ambassador for disbelief. He is a genius, saves hundreds of lives and is very witty. It helps that House is at his acerbic best when he is engaging in theological arguments -

Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.

However, I hesitate to herald Dr. House as a representative of the atheist community as he is perhaps the archetype of the both the type of non believers that we are most likely to see on TV. He is a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Atheism, the most obvious cause of which is his leg injury that has left him with a cynical outlook and a Vicodin addiction and it is revealed that he experienced the abusive childhood requisite for some on screen atheists. As for where he is on the Atheist Spectrum Disorder, there has been a lot of discussion about what personality disorder(s) House actually suffers. As with House's prototype Sherlock Holmes, some have suggested that he suffers from some kind of Aspergers, though his ability to read and manipulate people's emotions probably precludes this. Others have also suggested psychopathy, though he (apparently) displays signs of remorse. Perhaps the most accurate description of his personality type is clinical narcissism (though unlike most narcissists his trousers do live up to his mouth). The fact that there is so much discussion, and that there is even a book that attempts to answer this riddle, suggests that Gregory House is very firmly on the list of atheists with personality disorders.

In the final analysis my main objection to the character being used as an atheist hero comes from one unavoidable fact. House is a dick. I feel that many who sing the character's praises are ignoring the fact that if you met him in real life you would dismiss him as a bigoted arsehole. He may be exceptional but as far as I can tell, he and his team of perpetually offended Guardian readers get at least 66% of their diagnoses wrong. One of the reasons I stopped watching was that I couldn't be in the room with him any longer.

Maybe I'm Being Too Sensitive
I am not rejecting all of the above examples as necessarily being based in any genuine bigotry towards atheists and it's worth noting that many of the creators of the above character's are atheists themselves (Joss Whedon being the prime example). It's also worth noting that many of the more sardonic elements of the above characters are often in keeping with the tone of each series. I can't imagine that the True Detective would be the same show if Cohle was an optimistic atheist espousing positive humanist values and Scrubs would not be the same if Perry Cox had the same outlook on life as Stephen Fry.

I am objecting to the fact that overall, atheists are almost always represented as being traumatised, having some kind of personality disorder or psychopathy or all of the above. In the same way that individual films that fail to pass the Bechdel test are not necessarily sexist, the problem reveals itself when you step back and realise how many of your favourite films fail to pass what seems to be a very simple test. In the same way, the number of (the very few) TV atheists who don't fit into these two categories becomes an issue when you step back and realise how rare the exceptions are.

Atheists in Real Life
In my daily life, where I work for a Humanist organisation, I am very much at the centre of a very diverse community of atheists and I can say that there is a notable lack of savants, psychopaths, embittered war veterans and alcoholic detectives unable to get over the death of a child (if only my life were that interesting). In my experience atheists, are no more likely to have suffered any major past trauma or suffer from personality disorders than any other group of people. In fact, international demographics suggest that far from being a product of the darker recesses of humanity, atheism is actually positively correlated with high living standards whilst religiosity is closely correlated with povertyii.

So where did the idea that atheists have to be either traumatised or maladjusted come from? It's worth noting that most of my examples come from the US a country I which there are places where it is still quite difficult to be an atheist. There are many across the pond who believe that atheism is correlated with suicide and obesity and, yes, childhood trauma. I will direct you to Pat Robinson for more on that.

I suspect that much of it comes from the bog standard lazy stereotyping that plagues our TV. Perhaps there are Christians who could write an identical article about how their co-religionists are represented on screen and the medium certainly has a slightly tetchy history of representing Muslims. Perhaps it is just easy to write a series where Christians are all devout judgemental family people, atheists are all embittered misanthropes and Muslims are all terrorists than it is to write something original.

In the end, I am unsure as to why these tropes are so well entrenched. Any suggestions?

It's not all Bad
Thankfully, there are some exceptions to the above rules that have sneaked on to our small screens. There are a couple of examples where atheists have fitted into the role of the less eccentric and better adjusted characters such as Lindsay Weir in the painfully short lived Freaks and the Geeks (though the fact that she became an atheist due to her grandmother's death may qualify her for PTSA). Oscar Martinez from the US version of the Office is of note for two reasons, the first being very subtle way his atheism is expressed - through his remaining silent during the “under god” part of the pledge of allegiance, and the second being that his is an out Gay character, who talks openly with his colleagues about his sexuality but he keeps his atheism close to his chest (which suggests his colleagues are accepting of his sexuality but would be scornful of his beliefs). Britta Perry from Community, whilst being a classic privileged liberal know-it-all and wannabe activist, is not in anyway insane and acts as the main optimistic counter to the morally grey and cynical Jeff Winger's. In fact, I would say that Britta is perhaps the closest representation of my stereotype of a 21st century atheist in that she flawed, liberal, friendly, politically engaged and often too quick to offer an opinion (yes, I include me in that last part).

Final Thoughts
Despite these exceptions I still think that TV, and the media in general, has still not moved away from the idea that lack of belief in the supernatural is somehow associated with darkness, cynicism and emotional detachment. It's certain I have missed a number of both good and bad examples of TV atheists as I have not gotten round to watching the “All of Television Ever” box set. Please enlighten me if I have excluded anyone important. In the end perhaps this rather long article is essentially a product of the media's obsession with tropes and stereotypes. I feel it would be nice to see an atheist who represents the average atheist you would meet in the street – friendly, positive, thoughtful and, above all, normal.

If you have any thoughts comment or tweet me @blakeleynixon

Update:  I have been told by a number of people (namely) I should watch "The Good Wife" as apparently has a positive, none PTSA/Spectrum disorder atheist character .

i To clarify, I would suggest that Atheists don't believe that religious people are "pieces of shit" but that if you genuinely need a higher power to act morally there is something wrong.  

iiThis is not to suggest that religion necessarily causes poverty and atheism causes high living standards. It does seem, however, that atheism seems to emerge in more economically stable environments.    

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