What TV Show Offers the Best Religion Coverage?

Are there any shows that cover religion in a fair way? That is, they don’t push one particular belief system (or even faith in general) but offer somewhat a little more nuanced?

Mark Oppenheimer argues that The Daily Show stands above the rest:

Stewart comes at religion with buckets of derision, but I do not find him offensive, nor should anyone who enjoys comedy. Like so many of the best comedians, he is an equal-opportunity hater. Sometimes it’s atheists he cannot stand, as in his bit about the beams in a shape of the cross that survived the Ground Zero wreckage, which the American Atheists did not want displayed. Sometimes it’s the Catholic church, which last November proved a useful point of comparison for the football culture at Penn State: “I get that it’s probably hard for you to believe that this guy you think is infallible, and this program you think is sacred, could hide such heinous activities, but there is some precedent for that,” Stewart said, referring to coach Joe Paterno and the sex-abuse scandal. “Yeah, and just like with the Catholic Church, no one is trying to take away your religion, in this case football. They’re just trying to bring some accountability to a pope, and some of his cardinals.” In both cases, it was the culture of certainty that Stewart was mocking, not the belief system itself. It was the human tendency toward hubris.

… the implicit message is one that religion scholars are always trying to convey: all religions have beliefs that seem bizarre to outsiders, and “cult” is often just a word to describe the other guy’s religion. The Daily Show approaches American religion in the spirit of tolerance, but not with the wimpy, eager-to-please hand-wringing that characterizes so much liberal dialogue in this country. Rather, religions are shown to be strange and possibly cringe-inducing: our job is to take an honest look, then tolerate them anyway. It’s a call to rigorous citizenship.

Oppenheimer dismisses Real Time with Bill Maher as too “simplistic,” but I don’t buy that. You don’t hear nuanced discussion of religion on that show because there’s no need to debate the color of a unicorn’s horn when it comes to matters of truth. Maher may not know much about various religious faiths — he’s pretty black/white about what he assumes religious people believe — but he doesn’t let even moderate religion get by with a free pass. That’s not bad religion coverage — that’s just preaching reality.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    David Barton was just on TDS touting his book on Jefferson; I plan to take a few minutes to see the conversation that continued off the air.  What I saw on air was Stewart being far nicer than Barton deserves.  I highly recommend Chris Rodda’s videos straightening out the mangeld mess that Barton makes of history.

  • Ryan

    Bill Maher does not preach reality when it comes to religion. I have multiple times see him criticize members of a particular religion and proceed to make the criticism into one of religion in general. This is false generalization. From what I can tell, he assumes that all religions share the belief/ethical systems of either Christians or Muslims. For example, I have seen him claim on his show that “religion” offers biased views on birth control and sexual education, blatantly ignoring the fact that many religons have nothing to say or the matter. The same with evolution, belief in god(yes there are religions where belief in god or a god is irrelevant)… I could go on and on. False generalizations are not reality. In fact, I would call them the opposite. If he simply were talking about his belif in the(lack of) value of having a religion, I could respect that, but claiming all religions make certain kinds of assertions when only some religions do is blatantly false.

    • BrandonUB

      For example, I have seen him claim on his show that “religion” offers
      biased views on birth control and sexual education, blatantly ignoring
      the fact that many religons have nothing to say or the matter.

      Perhaps some context would be helpful. If he’s referring to religions in the context of the United States, his statement would be more true than not, and more useful than not for discussing American politics. If this is his commentary on religions as a whole, he’s factually incorrect.

      • Ryan

        It was in context of the United States, and I don’t buy the excuse that he is “mostly right”. You know what we call something that is “mostly right”, but demonstrably incorrect in the sciences? A theory that needs to be revised or replaced. If you demand evidence and correctness in terminology, I have every right to be upset when you use a general term that includes me when you really mean something specific that does not.
        If he has a beef with Abrahamic religions, fine. Say that. But to say “religion does/says x” when only one category does is factually incorrect. I believe it was Samuel Clemens(an athiest, if I recall correctly) who said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. And Mr. Maher does this repeatedly, so an isolated slip isn’t an excuse either.

        • BrandonUB

          If it’s something he does on a regular basis, it sounds like he’s using shorthand for something his viewers are already aware he’s referring to. Given that his content is highly political in nature, it seems reasonable to assume that he’s referring to the impacts of religion in the US on public policy, unless he’s explicitly saying otherwise. I suppose he could explicitly say, “Abrahamic religions, particularly Catholicism and evangelical Christianity” rather than “religion”, but it seems as thought this point is already largely clear when people aren’t being pedantic.

          • Ryan

            Perhaps I am being pedantic, however it is a defense mechanism.
            You see, as a United States resident adherent of a non-Abrahamic religion, I take great offense at a shorthand that implicitly denies that I exist or matter in the public debate. You see, the two assumptions that I can make in this situation are either
            1)Bill Maher is making categorical statements about all religions due to simple ignorance, which is not really a big deal, but does make the coverage on religion unsatisfying..
            or
            2)Bill Maher is denying the voice of people belonging to religious minorities.
            As I like much of Mr. Maher’s content, I would prefer to assume the first, as this one does not really decrease my opinion of him, and I prefer to assume the best of people, particularly when they seem to be concerned with positive social issues.

            • BrandonUB

              Fair enough, that perspective makes a lot more sense to me, knowing where you’re coming from. I can fully understand how someone from a non-Abrahamic religion would be offended by being lumped in with people that believe things that you don’t believe.

              As I said, I’m under the impression that he’s using shorthand in this context. Maybe I’m entirely wrong, I don’t watch him enough to have a great grasp on that. He doesn’t strike me as a terribly careful thinker, so you could easily be correct.

              • Ryan

                I appreciate the reasonability and apoligize if earlier arguments did not come across so reasonably on my part. I suspect that the voice of the disgruntled grumpy student of linguistics was coming out a little more than I had hoped.

        • http://www.bricewgilbert.blogspot.com Brice Gilbert

          When someone says that religion is the reason why gay marriage,
          birth control, or abortion are a problem in the US they are right in saying so. Is every religion against these things? No, but religion is generally the only justification. When your views are based on faith (basically the basis of the majority of religion) one mans hatred of gays is another’s veiling of women, or obstruction of science.

          • Pseudonym

             

            When someone says that religion is the reason why gay marriage, birth control, or abortion are a problem in the US they are right in saying so.

            If they say that religion is a reason, they are correct. If they say that religion is the reason, they are wrong, and quite blatantly so.

            These things wouldn’t still be issues if it wasn’t for cynical politicians and their advisors keeping them alive because it is necessary to keep up the appearance of a “culture war”.

  • Nickolas Johnson

    When Stewart covered the WTC cross controversy he failed to mention (from the shows I saw about it) that he is on the 9/11 Memorial  board of directors. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the cross being there, Stewart wasn’t forthcoming with his involvement with the 9/11 memorial organization and neglected to tell the entirety of the American Atheists statement regarding it.

  • DG

    “Maher may not know much about various religious faiths.”

    No he doesn’t.  And it’s telling when representatives of atheism who consider their perspectives founded on facts and truth don’t seem to care. 

    • BrandonUB

      When I don’t think magic occurs at all, how many different types of magic should I learn intricate details of and take seriously?

      • DG

        So  what you are saying is that once you’re convinced that your beliefs are, in fact, the infallible truth, then little things like getting facts wrong and ignoring data are no big deal?  How very, very interesting.

        • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

          If you take the position (as I do) that the only valid definition of religion includes a component of the supernatural, then it is perfectly valid to lump all religion into a single category that can be dismissed as factually wrong and subject to mockery. There is no need to understand every religion in depth. It is the idea of the supernatural that is being challenged; religion is just a vehicle for that nonsense.

          • DG

            Yeah, but you have to admit, there’s a credibility gap from saying that I’ve decided something is wrong, so I don’t care if I know about it or not.  I mean, think about that.  It might appeal to folks who think alike, but it won’t get much traction outside of a given tribal alliance.  And as for Maher, most with even the slightest academic background consider him to be one of those rare individuals who is capable of making Glenn Beck look like a Rhodes Scholar. 

            • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              Maher is a comedian. He’s funny when he attacks religion, and largely gets it right. Not sure what you’re hearing in his words. It’s obvious in listening to him that he’s a pretty sharp guy (unlike Beck).

              There’s nothing rationally wrong with saying religion is wrong because it advocates a belief in the supernatural. There’s no need to know anything about other details of religion beyond that.

          • Pseudonym

             

            If you take the position (as I do) that the only valid definition of
            religion includes a component of the supernatural, [...]

            You can take that position, as long as you are prepared to spend quite a bit of time explaining your unusual definition of “religion” to everyone else who uses a more standard definition, such as academics who study comparative religion.

            Personally, I wouldn’t like to be in the same camp as those who use nonstandard definitions “quantum”, “vibration” or “energy” to include woo-woo.

            • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              There’s nothing unusual about it. The supernatural is central to religion. Good luck finding many people who study comparative religion who invest much effort on non-theistic “religions”. Indeed, it is now conventional to refer to the few that exist (like certain flavors of Buddhism) as philosophies, and not religions at all.

              Toss the supernatural component, and you don’t have a religion anymore.

              • Pseudonym

                It’s not conventional for people who study comparative religion to call atheistic forms of Buddhism or Confucianism anything other than “religion”.

                Yes, it’s conventional on atheist blogs. I think that’s because it makes for a more convenient straw man.

        • BrandonUB

          Not at all – I’m saying that until someone presents actual evidence of claims of the supernatural, it’s wholly irrelevant to me how clever the machinations of their supernatural entities are supposed to be. There’s any “data” that I’m ignoring, and I have no idea what facts you think are being gotten wrong.

          • DG

            What evidence would you accept?

            • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              Evidence for the supernatural would be any observation that lacks a plausible naturalistic explanation. It would be any observation that is better explained by the supernatural than the natural. It could be any observation that clearly contradicts very well supported natural laws.

              Got any observations like that?

      • Pseudonym

        You should, I think, be able to distinguish between at least two types: that which supernaturalists do and that which stage conjurers do.

        • Pseudonym

           Oh, and yes, I did mean to say that supernaturalists “do” magic. Magic clearly occurs in the sense that people perform magic rituals. Whether or not said rituals have the claimed effect is a separate question.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    No TV show I know of covers religious topics fairly. Daily Show has done some good segments about religion, but never points out the absurdity of supernatural concepts.

  • BenZ

    I consider myself a student of the Daily Show and Colbert Report. Colbert does great bits on religion, but Jon gets no credit from me for being unbiased or fair. Jon has numerous times displayed outright bigotry toward atheists and secular causes. Here are just a few of their failures to be fair:

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-june-27-2002/headlines—in-god-we-fuss

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2010/04/14/behind-the-scenes-ffrfs-dan-barker-on-the-daily-show/

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-may-1-2012/exclusive—david-barton-extended-interview-pt–1
    Jon: “You know nobody listens to [atheist] right?”

    The 9/11 cross thing was already mentioned.

  • Pseudonym

    I don’t watch Bill Maher’s show (I don’t live in the US), but if his movie and the clips on YouTube  are anything to go by, I’m willing to bet that the reason why you don’t hear “nuanced discussion of religion on that show” is because you don’t hear nuanced discussion of anything on that show. Maher, or at least his stand-up comedy persona, just doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in nuance.

    Bear in mind that “nuance” is often shorthand for “all the facts, not just the convenient ones”.


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