by Jeremy Miller
Hollywood has a problem. In particular, Hollywood has a problem with realism. Hollywood has been heavily criticized by conservatives who believe Hollywood portrays religion unfairly or unsympathetically. Michael Medved in his book Hollywood vs. America portrays the cinema as out of touch with its audience, an industry and medium that frequently attacks religious values and religion generally.
While I agree with this criticism, what bothers me most is something often overlooked in these criticisms: nearly all of the characters created by the entertainment world are practical atheists, despite any profession they may make to the contrary. I have to wonder: what consequences does this have for the world beyond the screen? As new shows and films appear on a daily basis, it is clearly beyond the scope of this essay to analyze each and every manifestation of the modern entertainment world to back up this point exhaustively. I must trust the reader is familiar with enough modern entertainment and pop culture to know the truth of this claim without much effort on their part, after or even before a few illustrations.
I’ve always been a bit of a horror fan. Not really the blood-and-guts type, where people are ripped from limb to limb, but the suspenseful kind which keeps you on the edge of your seat while minimizing the gore. Recently, I’ve discovered a television program I enjoy quite a bit, which is unusual for me as I don’t tend to watch TV. The show is called Supernatural. The show traces the lives of two brothers who hunt ghosts, demons, and monsters. Over the first three seasons that’s pretty much all they do. Season 4, for me, is where things got interesting. It will be impossible to discuss this show however without some discussion of the events in season 4, and thus some “spoilers” will be inevitable. For those of you who plan to see the show, but would like to read anyway, I will try to keep them to a bare minimum.
In season 4 the show answers a question I had been wondering about from the beginning: “If Dean and Sam are spending so much time hunting demons, why do we never hear about their counterpart, the angels?” In season 4, the angels arrive. Much of what takes place in seasons 4 and 5 is basically an imaginative retelling of the apocalypse narrative some believe is told in the book of Revelation (among a few other places), and to be honest a lot of it kept me on the edge of my seat. With seasons 4 and 5, new questions arose for me, but one in particular: why would God choose Dean (one of the brothers) of all people? If what we see on screen is any indication, he doesn’t even seem interested in God. In fact, I’d say if he isn’t an outright atheist in terms of his beliefs, at the very least he is probably a “practical atheist.”
The term “practical atheist” is not really a commonplace term, so we should define it before proceeding. In the simplest sense, a practical atheist is one who lives as though atheism were true. As a Protestant, I was overjoyed on November 14th, 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI gave a fuller definition, “A particularly dangerous phenomenon for faith has arisen in our times: indeed a form of atheism exists which we define, precisely, as ‘practical’, in which the truths of faith or religious rites are not denied but are merely deemed irrelevant to daily life, detached from life, pointless. So it is that people often believe in God in a superficial manner, and live ‘as though God did not exist’ (etsi Deus non daretur),” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2012).
As Pope Benedict pointed out, one need not actually be an atheist in order to live as if atheism were true. A good friend of mine, who identifies as agnostic, has stated he views himself as a “practical atheist.” The term simply refers to an individual who lives his life “as if” there were no God, or they live as if the worldview that includes God is beside the point.
So the question that keeps running through my head is: why of all people, is the practical atheist Dean the character who interacts with the religious elements of the supernatural? It’s not that I think that God can’t use Dean for his own purposes, because of course he can. In fact, the history of the church is full of men and women who were less than ideal doing an about-face and serving God, but “saving the world from the apocalypse” is a huge mission and, I would assume, one that one would require spiritual preparation. Jesus didn’t just step on to the world stage out of nowhere; he first went through a process of becoming the kind of person who would be successful on his unique mission. He spent time praying, fasting, studying the Holy Books, asking questions at the synagogue, etc., etc.
For me, what separates an atheist from a religious individual is his or her relationship and practices in regards to their fellow man and God. I would expect these areas would look different for a practicing believer in comparison to someone who doesn’t believe. I would expect, at a minimum, that the religious man would pray, meditate, fast, give alms, or study the Bible. I would expect them to spend time serving their community, or on a retreat, or living humbly and simplistically, or going to confession, or worshipping the Lord, or, you know, be familiar with the inside of a church. How often have you seen any of these things represented in our favorite characters on the big screen or on TV do any of these things, or even refer to them?
While there are isolated exceptions to this, such as George Bailey praying in It’s a Wonderful Life, or Eddie Mannix in Hail, Ceasar! attending confession, not many come to mind. Instead, the prototypical religious person in Hollywood is more like Ross Geller on the hit TV show Friends. According to the show, Ross is Jewish, as is his sister Monica. Whether they are active adherents of the religion or maintain a more cultural relationship, the show does not clarify. We do know Ross was religious enough to attempt to teach his son about the faith.
Yet, do we ever see Ross or Monica pop into the synagogue, or pray, or volunteer at a homeless shelter, or anyone of a number of other religious activities they could be doing? Do they do anything besides crack jokes and try to get laid? God is irrelevant to their lives. Other than an episode where Ross likely offends the entire Jewish population by dressing up in an armadillo suit to try to teach his son about the faith, I can’t recall any way in which he displays religiosity at all. But it’s not just the possibly nominally religious who are portrayed this way; almost every character created in Hollywood endures the same constraints from the makers. Yet how can character development or plot development truly take place without acknowledging this most fundamental aspect of our lives? When are the items listed above (prayer, fasting, alms-giving, church attendance) ever portrayed in Hollywood, outside of a rare mention or nod?
Thus necessarily, the worldview which emerges through these characters is that life is a series of events we try to control on our own, sometimes with a little help from our friends. That is it. That is all. Now my concern in all of this is not that people will get the wrong impression of God or religion, though they likely will. My concern is people will mistake this approach to life as something “normal,” or even as the way things should be. More importantly, I’m concerned that people who watch these shows will not even consider any other approach to life as having validity. For those who have any concern about the subject of Truth at all, what if living as if there were no God just happens to be incorrect, or even not in our best interest?
The results of mass media on our psyche, on our sense of how our fellow tribe members live, is so vast and subtle that it is impossible for one person to entirely trace so many threads of cause-and-effect. Nonetheless, it seems more than plausible that this practical atheism, portrayed as the norm to billions of people, has enormous effects. Albert Bandura’s application of Social Learning Theory to television illustrates this well. Several TV shows in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have incorporated his theory to try and model good behavior through the characters on the screen. A drama in Mexico, for example, tried to promote the positive effects of literacy and the result was that nearly one million people enrolled in a program to learn to read (Dittmann, 2004). In another scenario in Tanzania, which according to some is facing a population issue, researchers found that marital partners were more likely to discuss family planning methods and the need to control family size after watching the shows (Dittmann, 2004). So I wonder: what would be the effect of a large number of TV heroes shown engaging in prayer?
It’s tempting for the nonbeliever to shrug and say, so what, yeah nearly all the characters in Hollywood are practical atheists, what’s the big deal, right? Well, it may be a very big deal indeed. With the emphasis in Hollywood on practical atheism, the Pope Emeritus sees the introduction of a crisis in values, and room for a destructive relativism with innumerable consequences. I would agree, but I don’t think his speech is exhaustive. My personal belief is that God has placed a desire for himself in all human beings, and that thirst will not be quenched in other ways. Disregard God, and you disregard one of the primary ways in which humans find peace. With the tendency in humans to mimic what they see on the TV, could this be, at least in part a source of some of the widespread misery we see in the world today?
Dittmann, M. (2004, October). Changing behavior through TV heroes. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct04/tvheroes.aspx
Pope Benedict XVI. (2012, November 14). General Audience. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben- xvi_aud_20121114.html