A Character on the ABC Sitcom ‘Malibu Country’ Came Out as an Atheist

There aren’t too many atheist characters on television, but with the changing demographics in America, you would think a young atheist would be both a common occurrence and a compelling character.

Thankfully, we have a new one! And she’s a skeptical female, which is a nice change of pace, too. What’s especially interested is that the show she’s on is a sitcom and not a drama.

On Friday night’s episode of Reba McEntire‘s ABC sitcom, “Malibu Country,” her character’s daughter June (played by Juliette Angelo) had a crisis of faith, which she admitted to her brother Cash (at the 3:49 mark):

Reba: Well, that was a nice service, wasn’t it, mama?

Grandmother Lillie Mae: You know, I like this church. It’s got plenty of God and they don’t beat you over the head with it.

Reba: It’s gonna be a beautiful Christmas Eve.

[They leave]

Cash: Hey, wait up!

June: What?

Cash: You just sat there. You didn’t pray. You didn’t sing.

June: You didn’t sing either!

Cash: Well, I didn’t know the words, but I still moved my mouth and tried to look joyful!

June: Maybe I’m not that into church anymore… Maybe I don’t even believe in God.

Cash: Shhhh! Good lord! You’re in His house!

Later, June was decorating a Christmas tree (7:36):

Cash: Oh, look at you. Decoratin’ the tree — the tree that’s supposed to celebrate the birth of a guy whose father you don’t believe in.

June: Maybe I would believe in him if there was any proof.

Cash: There’s proof all around us, June. The proof is in the oceans. The proof is in the tree. The proof is in the puddin’. [Looks down at his pudding] Oh.

June: Sorry, Cash. That’s not proof. That’s just a list.

Cash later tried to convince June that God existed with the help of a plant (9:51):

Cash: Ah, hello, Little Miss Atheist. You wanted proof of God? Well, I’ve got proof. Here.

June: A plant?

Cash: No, not just a plant, June. A tiny plant. Now, how does a tiny plant turn into a big plant? The answer is a little thing by the name of “God.”

June: The answer is a little thing by the name of “Photosynthesis.”

Cash: Photo… Ok, now you’re just making stuff up!

June: Photosynthesis — you know, carbon dioxide and water combined with electromagnetic energy to create oxygen and glucose? You should’ve learned all this stuff in fifth grade.

Cash: Hey, I had mono.

Then it came time for mom to confront June (13:44):

Reba: C’mon kids, let’s go [to church]! June, why aren’t you dressed?

June: Uh… I don’t feel like going.

Reba: Are you sick?

Cash: Oh, it’s worse than sick, mama. She doesn’t believe in God. [To June] I’m sorry! I had to say something. How am I supposed to enjoy Heaven when you’re in Hell?!

Reba: Cash, why don’t you wait in the car for me. I’ll be there in a second.

Cash: All right. [To mom] Tread carefully. She knows a lot about science.

Reba: June, is that true? You don’t believe in God?

June: I don’t know…

Reba: Honey, it’s ok. You can tell me how you feel.

June: Well, I’ve been thinking

Reba: … and?

June: And maybe I don’t… believe in God.

Reba: Okay… have you felt this way for a while or did something happen?

June: Actually, something didn’t happen. When you and dad were going through your… problem… I prayed every night that you guys would stay together. But you didn’t. So either there is no God or he just doesn’t care. Hard to have faith either way.

Reba: Yeah, it is…

June: You’re not mad?

Reba: Oh, of course not, honey. But I will say this. I’ve come to believe that faith isn’t something that keeps bad things from happening. Faith is what helps us get through bad things when they do happen.

Cash [walking back in]: So, are you makin’ her come to church?

Reba: No, she has every right to believe what she wants.

Cash: What…? Huh. By the way, I don’t believe in Calculus. Do I have to go to school?

Considering how many horrible ways a parent might handle that situation, that’s about as ideal as you can get. (What else would you expect in a family show?) But kudos to the writers of the show for incorporating that conversation into their script.

I don’t know if they’ll focus on June’s atheism in future episodes, but I really hope they keep with it. We need more likable atheists on TV.

(Thanks to @charlescrain for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • David23

    I wonder how much hate mail this actress is going to get.

    • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

      Or the show.

      • Coyotenose

         None of that concerns me so much as the implication that millions of people still think Reba McEntire is funny.

      • Willy Occam

        …especially considering the fan base is Red State America.

        • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

          “How dare you show a sympathetic atheist character on television!”

  • http://twitter.com/cwebb619 Chris Webber

    They did something similar with Tim Allen’s show Last Man Standing.  His daughter and boyfriend are raising his grandson without religion.  The grandmother is a geologist and the boyfriend got into an argument about her being a scientist and the importance of evidence and how she could ignore all the evidence against the existence of a god.

    • Pawel Samson

      Also in Home Improvement, Tim Allen’s youngest son became an atheist.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

        Really? When did that take place?

  • EllieMurasaki

    *eyes wiki page for show* So…Hannah Montana grew up?

    I mean, I would love to support a show that represents me, but not if it’s going to drive me batshit.

    • Coyotenose

       Hannah Montana grew up back in the 1980s, when her name was Jem and the Holograms :P

      • WallofSleep

        Outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

  • Tainda

    Wow!  Never thought I would see the day!  Especially as I do believe Reba is pretty religious.

    Nicely handled. 

  • Bookie

    Ten to one if they continue to pursue the topic she will eventually come back to her faith.

    • ReadsInTrees

      Or something horrible happens to her. Just like in horror movies…it’s the “loose” girls that die first.

    • Coyotenose

       Yeah, this. Take a look at her stated reason for abandoning Christianity. The weakest apologist (and they’re all impotent to begin with) could take her down.

    • Mario Strada

      Thank you for typing this. Saved my fingertips

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      Totally! It happens on every television show where a character starts to express doubt. I’ve never seen one go through the process of leaving a religion and stay deconverted. Usually they’re revealed to have had some highly emotional reaction to a problem, and that led them to be bitter, and then at the end they “learn the lesson” of how good and important faith is.

  • Jon Peterson

    My level of respect for Reba McEntire just went from “meh” to “actually, quite a fair bit”. Considering that both her and her sister’s careers have a heavy Christian fanbase, the fact that she’s willing to not only bring the situation into her show, but also to treat it in an accepting and welcoming way. So many Christians in the media claim that Christianity is a religion of love for their fellow man, then turn around and demonize every atheist they see or hear about… it’s refreshing to see such a prolific one actually set that positive example for all her fanbase to see.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Cheesecakeczar Andrew Van Marm

    Not only is she female, but southern! Awesome stuff. T.V. helped gays gain acceptance. It should work for atheists too.

  • Nick

    Too bad we can’t get a good atheist character on a show that’s actually good. We did have Brita on Community for about one season, before she devolved into new age lunacy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/dave.pearce.nz David Pearce

      Three words – Dr Sheldon Cooper!

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        He’s not really an out-and-proud atheist, though. The most he’s admitted is doubting the existence of a deity.

        • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

          Dunno. He’s had some fantastic rants about his mom/her beliefs. Just never used the A word.

    • ReadsInTrees

      Do you consider The Office “good”? I love that show, and Oscar is an atheist/agnostic. He’s a secondary character, but they do draw attention to it from time to time. There was one spot where they were saying the Pledge, and the camera went to Oscar while he looked right into the camera as he kept his mouth closed for “under God” and then resumed speaking. Another time, Michael is asking everyone what their religion is, and Oscar says he is a secular humanist. I feel like there was another mention…but now I can’t remember it. Oscar is well known for being a “voice of reason” in the office, and is also one of those, “well, actually…” people. 

    • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

       Have you never watched House?

      • Leigha7

        They did keep trying to make him reconsider, though (mind you, I stopped watching at season 6 and have yet to catch up, so I’m not sure if that continued).

    • BeasKnees

      Dr. Temperance Brennan on Bones portrays a pretty strong Atheist character.

      • Nate Frein

        Except that her atheism always seems to get brought up in order to pound home how weird and out of touch she is.

      • bernardaB

         I replied above to “Bones”, a good serious, about Dr. House too.

      • bernardaB

         I also recommend “Lucky Louie”. On YT see the extracts “Why” and “Jim Norton debates the existence of god”. That was one funny series.

    • Coyotenose

      Doctor Perry Cox!

      Jesus, friggin’ Philistines.

      • Leigha7

        But it fits with the stereotype of being caused by trauma, since it’s a result of his abusive, alcoholic dad. Although it is suggested that it’s partly just him and he’d be an atheist anyway.

    • Guest

      Lisa Simpson from the Simpsons.

  • C Peterson

    I’m fairly convinced that the single most important factor driving the widespread acceptance of homosexuality in the U.S. has been the presence of gay characters in mainstream media- mainly TV. I have little doubt that an increased presence of atheists on TV will have the same effect.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1306655921 Rolf Boettger

    Cue Million Moms call for boycott in 3, 2, 1…

  • MM

    Cue the ineffective One Million Moms boycott in 3…2…

    • http://www.facebook.com/bailey.bednar Bailey Bednar

       40k moms.. they just round to the next highest million.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    Actually, something didn’t happen. When you and dad were going through your… problem… I prayed every night that you guys would stay together. But you didn’t. So either there is no God or he just doesn’t care. Hard to have faith either way

    So basically she’s an atheist for emotional reasons. Not because there’s no evidence of the supernatural, but because her prayers weren’t answered. While the show itself sounds interesting, this part feeds into some of the worst stereotypes about atheism. Frankly, the whole situation sounds ripe for her to undergo a change of heart down the road, especially since she only “maybe” doesn’t believe in a god. Hardly a confident atheist.

    • Brian Scott

      I don’t think that’s a sound objection. How do you distinguish between world in which a being exists who supposedly promised “Ask and you shall receive” and then doesn’t do anything and a world with no such being? That there is an emotional component does not invalidate the test. The test wasn’t “faith will give you whatever you want” even if June really did want something from it. Her mother changed it to that context. The test was “faith is efficacious in a variety of domains because God exists”, and she failed to establish that’s the case.

      Her mother’s response illustrates the utility of faith, as a coping mechanism. Which is fine. But if you attach epistemic value to it, then you change the rules of the game. This is what her brother did when he tried to guilt trip her.

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        I don’t know. It struck me as a very typical treatment of religious doubt that I’ve seen in countless other series and movies. The character always has a crisis of faith for emotional reasons, and it seems like June’s reason is entirely emotional. She mentioned “proof” early in the show, but when they had the heart-to-heart talk, the audience learns that her real reason is emotional. Because the god she believed in didn’t answer her prayer the way she wanted. Most Christians would see that as a petty and immature emotional reaction. As they’re fond of telling their followers: “Sometimes the answer is no.”

        Maybe if June had pointed out other objections to the idea of a deity, it wouldn’t have felt so one-sided. Given that Reba McEntire is an evangelical “born again” Christian, and given that she’s executive producer for this series, I’m not hopeful. Right now I’m betting that June’s character going to convert back in a later episode.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      I became an atheist for emotional reasons, too, initially… but the intellectual reasons kicked in not long after. So that bit of dialogue made a lot of sense to me.

      • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

        You’re an atheist? All this time I assumed you were a convivial bank robber ‘Friendly at heist’. Well you live and learn…

        • lefty

          love it.

        • Tor

          And all this time I have been spilling my guts to “the rapist.”

      • Coyotenose

         Oh yeah, that’s understandable in reality. But… SitcomLand.

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        True. I’ll keep an open mind, but given the way I’ve seen the “crisis of faith” storyline handled on other television shows, I’m skeptical this is going to turn out well.

      • SeniorSkeptik

         Same here.  After a family tragedy I started doubting and questioning the existence of a deity. I explored a couple of other religions before I eventually settled on None.

    • Gus Snarp

      Except, she does mention evidence, and the lack thereof. Our emotions can lead us to question religion, and if that leads us to weight the evidence and find religion lacking, then it’s a good outcome.  After all, being a skeptic and/or an atheist does not mean being a person of pure logic.  That she’s tentative is also reasonable. and realistic. The question will be where they take the character from here.

      If they have her have a change of heart and suggest that her turning away from God was a selfish act because she didn’t understand why he didn’t answer her prayers, then we’ll have a problem.

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        I don’t know; I felt like they hinted at that possible outcome with her mother’s response:

        But I will say this. I’ve come to believe that faith isn’t something that keeps bad things from happening. Faith is what helps us get through bad things when they do happen.

        Any Christian will tell you that believing in a god doesn’t stop bad things from happening. To become an atheist because of a failed prayer is seen as misguided. Her mother might have been nice about it, but she basically told her she was wrong to lose faith for that reason.

        • SeniorSkeptik

           But they will be the first to ask  to pray for you when something does happen so that you will feel better.

    • Crennic

      We should write to the show and support the character! I think the more positive response the better for our community!

    • Leigha7

      I would assume most people who start out religious go through a period where they aren’t sure what they believe. Plus, she’s a kid. They definitely left it open for her to return to being religious, but I wouldn’t say it’s a guarantee (or even necessarily bad if she does, because it still might lead to more parents accepting their children becoming atheists, even if it’s only in the hopes that they’ll “get over it” someday).

      But I think emotional reasons are probably the best way to go in this setting. Like Reba said, a lot of people respond to difficult situations by turning to religion, but she also acknowledges (truthfully) that a lot of people react by turning away. This is something that does happen, and it’s something even very religious people can understand without feeling like their own faith is being threatened. If she were to start talking about all the evidence she has that there is no God, a lot of religious people would shut down and possibly stop watching the show, because they don’t want to feel preached at (yes, irony, but that’s beside the point) and they don’t want their beliefs challenged. This is a better way to present the issue to that audience.

      That said, the actual reason given does present a problem, because I was always taught in Sunday School that when you pray, God has three answers: yes, no, or wait. A no is not an unanswered prayer, it means God doesn’t feel that what you wanted is what’s best for you. (Even when I believed in God, that felt a bit like a cop-out, because how do you know the difference between a “no” and simply being ignored?) But she does say that God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, so I guess that’s somewhat addressed.

  • ReadsInTrees

    Reading the synopses for this show on other sites, they all say that this character is “having a faith crisis” or “beginning to question God”……but the quotes above all make it seem like she’s already an atheist/agnostic, she just doesn’t want specifically say so out loud yet. A lot of us played that game, I think. People are easier if you say, “I’m not sure if I believe in God” as opposed to straight out saying, “I don’t believe in god.” 

  • qp3

    The main character (played byEric McCormack) in a tv-show called Perception is also an atheist. He’s a schizophrenic neuroscientist who teaches kids all about how the brain works and on his spare time helps his favorite fbi agent with her cases involving victims and perpetrators with all sorts of weird mental problems. Was aired this summer. There was at least one episode which was somewhat fatih vs atheism themed, where a boy sect leader with a tumour in his head believed he was literally talking to God.

    • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

      Love that show.

  • amycas

    The only possible problem with this scenario is that they attributed her atheism to her parents splitting up. It reeks of the “something awful must have happened to you” line that Christians use all the time. But, she’s also young and she seems to have other reasons for not believing as well. So I like it overall.

  • http://twitter.com/rlrose328 Kerri Russ

    And kudos to Reba for participating in an atheist storyline.  I know she has deep faith, so she must be okay with it.  Whether or not they let her continue to be an atheist, at least it was there to begin with.  That’s a tiny little drop in the bucket but a drop nonetheless.

  • lefty

    well, forward thinking or not, the dialog is still cheesy as all get out

    • allein

      I agree…especially the brother. I happened to watch because it came on and there wasn’t anything else on, so I just left it on while I did other stuff (reading here, probably). I cringed a bit at his reaction, just because it was so silly.

  • Edmond

    I suspect there may be atheist writers as well, there are some good lines in there….

    “How am I supposed to enjoy Heaven when you’re in Hell?!”

    That’s a very good question, young man.

  • Adrien

    My Wife (Atheist) and her Mother (Christian) used to watch her show Reba all the time together. One of the central charecters was unapologetically Atheist. I think his name was Van. Just saying while I find Reba McEntire unentertaining on the whole, I gotta say kinda neat that she has been involved with two shows involving Atheist’s.

  • Justin

    I have faith…that it’s still a terrible show.

  • bernardaB

    I agree with earlier posters who mentioned lead atheist characters. Dr. Brennan in “Bones” is very open about it as is Dr. House. They counter and mock belief to their friends and colleagues.  Dr. House even mocks the faith of his patients. These are also popular series. It seems to me that “The Simpsons” is strongly implicitly atheist. Think of the episode where Bart escapes forced baptism by Flanders.

    Going back to the 50′s, my feebled memory doesn’t recall that series like “The Honeymooners”, or even “Leave it to Beaver” had any particular religious content. It is so long ago, I could be wrong.

    • Leigha7

      The nice thing about Bones is that she and Booth (who’s Catholic, for anyone who hasn’t watched it) regularly debate their beliefs in a perfectly friendly manner. Most of her open mocking of people’s faith is treated as problematic not because of how she feels but because she’s terrible at dealing with people in general. Even though she thinks that believing in God is stupid, and isn’t afraid to say so, she has no problem with PEOPLE who believe in God, and frequently even tries to ensure other people treat them fairly too.

      I never watched the show consistently, and I was a little bothered by how inconsistent her ability to interact with people is, but I always thought they handled her atheism pretty well (though not perfectly).

  • pamsfriend

    I actually think the line about Calculus is the insidious one.  I hear it as a jibe on how we all have to learn things in school we don’t care about or “believe in”, but the poor little Christians can’t force everyone to learn about Christianity.  We force kids to learn things they don’t care about, so why can’t Christians force people to learn about Christianity whether they care about it or not?

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

    and now I’m reminded why I hate sitcoms. Geeze that dialogue is corny.

  • Laura

     I wish my relatives were more comprehensive, like that.

  • http://twitter.com/thelordjames James Lord

    Cept you never said what happens at the end of the episode when the daughter walks into the church…

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      What happens at the end of the episode? Now I’m curious!


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