How to Write the Most Unlikable Atheist for TV

So I came across this post on the Friendly Atheist. It includes this image.


This is such a fundamental misunderstanding of storytelling. These are interesting, likable characters. Dexter Morgan and Sheldon Cooper are so interesting that they carry the weight of their otherwise poorly executed stories on their shoulders.

Let’s ignore for a fact that being robot or a misanthrope or a pessimist is not even a flaw. Let’s ignore that the positive characteristics of all these characters except Dexter is much more than their flaws. They’re intelligent and witty and independent. Let’s think what should be done to satisfy the person who made this image.

Let’s imagine that you have written an atheist character who is completely flawless. She fits to the society. She’s nice to everyone. It is a human being, with abundance of emotions, is a pacifist, loves humans as much as butterflies, and speaks in inspirational quotes photopshopped over the image of a scenery. Congratulations, you have created a character with no literary worth, whom the viewers will wish to violently die in every episode. You have managed to deconvert Mary Sue. She’s boring, and serves no point.

These characters are likable, interesting, and greatly written in spite of their flaws, but because of them.

Because the engine of a story is conflict. Conflict makes things interesting. Internal conflict is better. Flaws create conflict. No one likes to watch 8 seasons of a perfectly adjusted doctor who treats patient for the same reason you don’t go to a great hospital for entertainment.

Plus, such conflicts open a window to our own flaws, to how humans work. They provide insight. They are what makes literature valuable.

And you know the other fundamental misunderstanding is to treat characters as representatives of demographics rather than individuals. There are types, and works that deal with types. But great characters are individuals and should not be generalized into statements about atheists as a whole.

Literature and arts are not propaganda. They aren’t meant to advertise atheists or any other groups. They should be interesting and insightful, and they should be challenging and take you out of your comfort zone.

The last time we had a literary movement dedicated to praising an atheist and portraying him as flawless that atheist was Joseph Stalin and the movement was Socialist Realism. Nobody studies that movement for literary reasons now.

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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • Nathaniel Frein

    I absolutely agree with your post.

    It would still be nice to see a show where a character like Dr. Wilson (To use House as an example) was an atheist.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      Wilson was an atheist as well. Chase was the only theist along them.

      • Nathaniel Frein

        I admit I’m only up to the third season (I started watching the show cuz it came on Netflix). My impression has been that Cameron is agnostic (and somewhat soft agnostic, at that), Wilson is some sort of Jewish, Foreman doesn’t really say what he is but he does knock on Cameron a bit for her agnosticism, and Chase is, as you hinted, straight-up-Catholic.

        They all (with the exception of Cameron) do seem to disagree with House’s hard-line atheism. When it ever comes up. Which isn’t very often. It was late and that was the first example that came to my mind. I was trying to make the point that dmgregory made much better @#3.

  • gworroll

    I’m not familiar with all of them, but yeah. The ones I am, save Dexter… they have flaws, fairly deep ones. But they rise above them without leaning on faith.

    Some of it may lean a bit on sterotyping atheists, but still, they rise above their flaws on their own merits. This is something that people need to see about atheists.

  • dmgregory

    I think the concern here is not that the characters have flaws (as all good characrers should, Kaveh quite rightly points out), but the particular *clustering* of flaws that seems to reinforce common stereotypes of atheists.

    It’s totally fine for TV shows to have characters who lie, or who are greedy/stingy – those are real flaws that we all share to some degree. But if it’s specifically Jewish characters who are often portrayed as the lying/stingy ones, now we’re not just representing human diversity, we may be perpetuating unfair and harmful stereotypes through this targeting of particular flaws to characters with particular backgrounds

  • marko

    Is this not a necessity with some of the characters?

    I’m not particularly familiar with many of them, but surely it wouldn’t make any sense for the cold, logical physicist of Sheldon to also have belief in god, it wouldn’t work at all with the character, I think in this case the character is not defined by atheism but is surely an atheist by definition?

    I think asshole is unfair for Dr Cox from Scrubs, is this not part of the make up of his character? He is a bitter, jaded, cynical surgeon who has been working in chaos around death and politics for years. I can’t remember being particularly confronted with his atheism in the show; I could be mistaken, but is he not drawn around the “he abandoned god because he was abandoned by god during times of personal crisis” thing?

    • Jeremy Mullins

      Dr. Cox wasn’t a surgeon, his specialty was internal medicine (Turk was the only lead character on the show who was a surgeon), but your point still stands..he was very jaded from years as a physician. His atheism was brought up on the show on a semi-regular basis, but it was usually done as a foil to someone trying to base their decisions on religion. Yes, he was an asshole by nature, but he was shown to genuinely care for almost everyone, and while he might poke fun at someone for their religion, when it got down to it, he wasn’t going to hold it against them. That was most pointedly obvious during the storyline involving Laverne’s death.

  • morsgotha

    People always overlook the awesome of Admiral/Commander William Adama, he was totally atheist and a handy foil to the awesome-but-in-a-bad-way-atheist Gaius Baltar and the pious President Roslin.

  • gshelley

    Perfection is a bit much, but being able to form normal adult relationships surely isn’y

  • Russell Glasser

    Piper Chapman of Orange is the New Black is an atheist. She’s kind of entitled, but overall she’s a cool chick.

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