Atheistic Humanism and the Media

Phoebe Davies-Owen and Scott Douglas Jacobsen

[Previously published in Conatus News]

Image created by Nick Pisca

Humanism encompasses a range of beliefs including the theistic, such as Humanistic Judaism or Unitarian Universalism and the non-theistic, such as atheism, agnosticism, even deism or apatheism. More than a specific set of precepts, humanism is a lifestyle incorporating a worldview. An ethical and philosophical stance for guidance in one’s life, relations with others, and perception and conception on the nature of the world.

Unfortunately, this seems less understood by the wider public, but it is not their fault, necessarily. There’s simply fewer humanists, so fewer spokespeople and representatives — and impetus socially and culturally, even politically — to openly advocate and promote it in the public arena to a wide audience.

Indeed, the mass media, news, and the public relations industry have enormous sway over the general public’s mind and perception of social issues and others’ views on the world, even, unfortunately, to the point of stereotyping others, e.g. atheistic humanism. Strict nonbelievers in God, gods, or the supernatural are given a negative portrayal in the popular media.

Sometimes, they can have virtues such as intelligence. At other times, they can be demonized, quite literally. More often than not, the humanist subpopulation who are atheists are not represented in the media at all. So even if, or the rare when, an atheist is represented in the media, they might have a virtue, but come with numerous obvious vices. What kinds of tired tropes are there?

Common, tiresome tropes assigned to atheist characters are anti-sociality, cynicism, depression, drug addiction, and narcissism. These can be seen in some characters that you may be familiar with, Brian Griffin from ‘Family Guy,’ Sheldon Cooper from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and Dr. Gregory House in ‘House.’ Brian Griffin is demonised by society for being an atheist and is critical of religion without much thought or care for the beliefs of those he lives with.

Sheldon Cooper, while possessing genius intelligence, is reliant on the faith in science and has complete disregard towards religion, stemming from his growing up in a deeply religious environment. Cooper is surrounded by friends who do believe he is often insulting and self-righteous. Also, he is initially antisocial and doesn’t conform to social norms.

Dr. Gregory House is again, written and presented as a deeply intelligent but egotistical misanthrope unable and unwilling to effectively engage with the world socially, or emotionally.

House, Sheldon — with the exception of Brian Griffin — are the leading characters of their shows and as a result they carry it through season after season, and it is a problem when these lead characters are portrayed as Atheists/Humanists like narcissists, cynics, anti-socials are that they create stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is that they create an image of a certain person — atheists are conceited, highly intelligent and unfriendly — and soon we begin to view all atheists/humanists as the same. Which of course isn’t true!

There may be people who fit that description outside of the TV screen but otherwise Atheists and Humanists are a diverse group of people, encompassing people from different countries and backgrounds. While the characters we see on the TV representing the Atheist/Humanist community are interesting and amusing to watch, they don’t represent the wider community and as a result Atheists/Humanists are very dramatic caricatures.

Most of us who are Atheists/Humanists don’t even think about it — we just go about our lives without the belief in a supernatural creator and don’t tend to make a fuss about it. We should be fighting for real representation of the community, normal everyday working families who raise their children as skeptics and who are well behaved and charitable just because you can be, without any other motivation.