The Humanism in ‘Orange is the New Black’

I watched the first episode and I just couldn’t get into it, but the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black” has an atheist lead character (“Piper Chapman“) and this scene contains the sort of dialogue I haven’t seen since that episode of “Glee” where Kurt refers to a “magic teapot” floating in the sky:

Piper: I can’t pretend to believe in something I don’t, and I don’t [believe in this]… I believe in science. I believe in evolution. I believe in Nate Silver, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Christopher Hitchens, although I do admit he could be kind of an asshole. I cannot get behind some Supreme Being who weighs in on the Tony awards while a million people get whacked by machetes. I don’t believe a billion Indians are going to hell. I don’t think that we get cancer to learn life lessons. And I don’t believe people die young because God needs another angel. I think it’s just bullshit. And on some level, I think we all know that…

Sam Mauceri of the American Humanist Association believes that “Orange is the New Black” is a show “humanists should absolutely be watching right now”:

Orange is the New Black makes it clear that it is not [character] Pennsatucky’s and Piper’s religious values that make them good or bad people, but how they treat others. It is a respect of others’ beliefs, a willingness to coexist, and an avoidance of extremity that allows many of the other prisoners to befriend one another and avoid conflict. This struggle to firmly maintain one’s own beliefs while living amongst others is a universal issue that humanists can certainly identify with.

In an environment [jail] where living ethically and living at all are at times mutually exclusive, the women behave in ways that make us question which courses of action we would take ourselves. In a system that effectively dehumanizes people, Orange is the New Black sheds light on the humanity of prisoners in ways humanists will certainly appreciate.

The first season of the show is now available on Netflix.

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.

  • WallofSleep

    Excellent speech and all, but this goes far beyond my capacity for “suspension of disbelief”. As everyone knows, there are no atheists in prison.

  • Sarah Moglia

    The first episode isn’t great, I wasn’t hooked until the second or third episode. It’s worth getting into, IMO.

  • Houndentenor

    Agreed. You have to get through the first couple of episodes to see how good the show it. It’s a little rough. These are characters we don’t really want to spend time with in real life. But it deals with difficult issues and doesn’t shy away from matters of class, race and religion or take any easy ways out. I’m 11 episodes in (plan to finish today as it’s too hot to do anything but stay home and watch videos!).

  • WallofSleep

    On the other hand, a Christian who views an expression of disbelief as an act of grave disrespect deserving of death, that shit is totally believable.

  • Brian

    Yeah, some series take a few episodes to get warmed up, and some are great from the get go. And even though Orange is a good series, i cringe at this particular scene, it just seems a little bit too preachy for my tastes (oh, the irony), almost as if they tossed in every atheist cliche and trope to make a point (name dropping Hitchens and NDGT? Come on now)

  • Kodie

    Christ sake, is this humanist or atheist? What is the exact difference?

  • WallofSleep

    “What is the exact difference?”

    I’ve been wondering that myself for some time now. I consider myself an atheist, but I’m not really sure that I could be considered a humanist.

  • Kodie

    Even though I agree on a number of human rights issues and that people should not just be left alone in times of need, I find it hard to identify as a humanist, per se, for various reasons I’ve tried to express a few times but deleted the comments because they were boring and lengthy. I find the sentiments expressed by the character to be atheist, i.e. I don’t believe in supernatural intervention. Why is this labeled for humanists? I don’t get it.

  • C Peterson

    I often wonder how many Christians (or Muslims) are actually atheists who simply can’t admit that truth to themselves or others…

    I think that if we could truly examine what people believe, there are now (and always have been) far more atheists around us than any statistics indicate.

  • C Peterson

    RIght, there’s nothing humanist about the quoted passage. It’s an affirmation of atheism. (That’s not to say the character isn’t necessarily a humanist, just that there’s nothing in what she says here that suggests that one way of the other.)

  • James_Jarvis

    I think it is worth mentioning that Pennsatucky is clearly insane. (Spoiler Alert) She tries to kill Piper for disrespecting her and not her religion, just as she killed the nurse in the abortion clinic. She is being used and manipulated by “Christian” zealots who clearly know she is insane and not a true believer. That is truly evil.

  • WallofSleep

    I think you’re right. For myself, despite being a non-believer for many, many years, it was not until a few years ago that I was able to admit to myself that “atheist” is what I am.

    EDIT: Also, there are a great many non-believers who claim one religion or another simply for the perks and opportunities. Take any christian church here in the States, and you will find a percentage of non-believing parishioners who show up every Sunday simply to exploit business and networking opportunities, or to fleece the gullible.

  • # zbowman

    I tend to render concepts right down to basic axioms wherever I can, and this difference as I see it is fairly clear…although I’ve probably got an oversimplified take on it (which still works for me, and I figure that’s kind of the point) but the way I’ve always seen it, atheism is just a lack of belief in a god (and the supernatural in most cases). Humanism is the actual ethical system that results from that, based on human empathy as opposed to rules supposedly imposed by an external source.

  • Jennifer T

    Because it’s someone from the American Humanist Association doing the labelling?

  • UWIR

    I think that it’s rather clear that the percentage of Americans who truly believe, deep down, in Christianity is not more than 5%, if not zero.

  • ShoeUnited

    I don’t watch a show because it identifies with my ideal. I watch a show because it is entertaining.

    The whole “Every X should watch this…” smacks of conspiracy theorists, neo-nazi videos, and religions. I’m glad these humanists are enjoying this show and enjoy this particular part. But I don’t like to be told to support something just because it has X in it. I’ll watch it if it’s entertaining.

    I watch Nightmare on Elm Street because it’s entertaining. That doesn’t mean I believe there’s a literal Hell. And anybody who does activities merely because it’s an echo chamber for their ideals aren’t people who are thinking.

    If this show is entertaining then I’ll watch it. But please, don’t tell me to watch a show just because of a ‘take that’ on religion.

  • Jim Jones

    Very young children may be true believers. No one who hasn’t studied several religions before choosing just one can be.

  • Kodie

    I have human empathy sometimes.

  • Kodie

    That’s what I thought. I don’t like concepts conflated like atheism & humanism any more than I like Christians to mix up atheism & nihilism.

  • Kodie

    That’s probably the best explanation. Maybe humanists encompass atheism and sometimes forget that they are two different things.

  • Kodie

    I’d seen this title and assumed it was just another inaccessible cable program that I would have to wait for if it turned out to be any good, then I would watch all the seasons after it ended. I didn’t know it was about prison. I kind of like that people who are interested are cataloging “atheist characters on tv” or whatever, but I am probably not going to watch this any more than I watch Bones or pretty much didn’t get the charm of House until the last part of the last season (because nothing else was on at the same time).

    Fucking hell if I’m going to watch Glee. That show is terrible. It seems to earn marks for portraying a positive message for the outcasts of high school, but I already went to high school. There are a lot of shows I don’t watch because they’re just ridiculous.

  • gg

    I wonder how difficult it was to find an actor to play the atheist, and if it has had any impact on her life outside of acting if she IS a christian. If she actually an atheist…good on her!

  • Keulan

    I agree with this. I’m not going to start watching a show just because it happens to have a decently-portrayed atheist character in it. I’ll watch a show because I find it interesting and entertaining. If a show I enjoy watching turns out to have a decent atheist character in it, that’s a bonus.

  • AxeGrrl

    (Hemant) “I watched the first episode and I just couldn’t get into it……..

    and Sarah:

    “The first episode isn’t great, I wasn’t hooked until the second or third episode”

    SOOOOO true. I was looking forward to watching it, but turned off the 1st ep after about 30min because it wasn’t grabbing me ~ but two or three episodes in, and I was hooked :)

  • AxeGrrl

    the way I’ve always seen it, atheism is just a lack of belief in a god (and the supernatural in most cases). Humanism is the actual ethical system that results from that, based on human empathy as opposed to rules supposedly imposed by an external source.

    I don’t think I’ve come across a clearer and more succinct description of the differentiation than this. Nicely done, zbowman :)

  • WillBell

    I believe it is one of many ethical systems available to atheists, for example I would not call the atheistic philosophy Objectivism at all related to Humanism, perhaps I could even call them opposing ethics.

  • # zbowman

    That’s true, it’s far from the only one.

  • joey_in_NC

    (misplaced post)

  • joey_in_NC

    There is no ethical system that “results from” atheism. If you want to say that humanism results from human empathy that’s fine…so long as you keep in mind that theists and atheists alike can both possess human empathy. They also can both NOT possess human empathy.

    From my viewpoint, the popular definition of humanism is believing in the inherent dignity of human life without the belief in supernatural gods. But what I find contradictory is that the belief in inherent human value is actually a belief in the metaphysical/transcendent (or supernatural, if you will), since you cannot detect human dignity/value through the senses or in the laboratory, but yet you recognize that it’s there. Does a human baby have intrinsic worth even if the entire world doesn’t
    recognize it? Most who believe in human dignity would emphatically answer YES!

    But if you completely reject all supernatural belief, then how can you argue that humans have inherent dignity…since human dignity is not a material thing? Humans must not have inherent value but rather subjective value. In other words, human value is entirely relative and merely dependent from person to person.

    That is what “humanism” (without the supernatural) really is. It is a belief system based not on human dignity or the inherent/intrinsic worth of all humans, but rather on the belief that humans have subjective value. Actually, humanism is more of an opinion system rather than a belief system, since beliefs generally are things that you recognize as absolutely true.

  • Michaela Samuels

    The problem with the scene is that Pennsatucky is absolutely psychotic. No one takes her seriously for good reason. A schpeal to a crazy person over crazy comments don’t land quite as well as an evenly matched conversation.

    That being said, the show is pretty good and the characters are expressive in a way not typically seen on television.

  • allein

    I watch Glee because it’s an absolute train wreck. And sometimes the music is good (though less and less so as it goes on).

    Also I’m curious how they’re going to handle the death of an actor who played a main character. They are not all that good at handling The Big Issues, generally, so I’m hoping they do a better job with this one.

    I likely won’t watch Orange because I don’t have Netflix.

  • Anna

    Speaking of new shows, the Australian series Please Like Me also has an atheist lead character.

    “You can’t threaten an atheist with Hell, Peg. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like a hippie threatening to punch you in your aura.”

  • Randay

    Hemant apparently never watched the “Lucky Louie” show by Louie CK. Here is an extract of two characters discussing god. “Jim Norton Debates the Existence of God”:

  • Nicole Introvert

    The character Piper refers to herself as a secular humanist in an episode before this particular dialog.

  • Cole Martin

    She’s not crazy. She’s chosen. I mean, just look at her dress! ;)

  • Cole Martin

    I realize I’m like, a month late to this conversation, but if you really think about it? Piper isn’t particularly someone you’d want championing for atheism or humanism. She’s portrayed as being fairly self centered and oblivious to the plights of others because of her privileged upbringing,