Atheists tired of religious tropes on TV and seeking a sense of community can now tune in to a channel created just for them.
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne
Has this ever happened to you: You’re half-watching something on TV and at a crucial plot point—someone has been diagnosed with cancer, a family pet runs away—a wizened character beholds the misfortune, draws a meaningful breath, and sagely imparts, “Everything happens for a reason.” Another character nods, taking in the depth of the statement. The wise elder may even continue, comfortingly intoning, “God has a plan.”
It’s trite, but that’s because it’s also a convenient way to wrap a scene while affirming most viewers’ faith that life is imbued with spiritual meaning.
This is where, as a non-believer, I disengage and seek out less hackneyed programming (or a book). Of course, there’s that which can be avoided: the Hallmark Channel or anything from former-presidential-candidate-turned-executive-producer Rick Santorum’s EchoLight Studios. But even in supposedly secular television, there are scads of other religion- or spirituality-derived plot devices—more than 275 according to TVtropes.org—from full-fledged series like CBS’s Joan of Arcadia and Touched by an Angel or TNT’s Saving Grace to a Christmas episode of Scrubs in which Turk loses his religion, only to regain it after intuitively locating a missing pregnant woman. And who could forget The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Carlton meeting his guardian angel…Tom Jones. It may be silly, or harmless, or plain unoriginal, but, for viewers like me, it can also be a reminder of just how isolating atheism still is.
Enter Atheist TV, which premiered this past August, currently streaming online and through Roku. For those who want TV without religious rhetoric, this new channel offers Richard Dawkins’ uncut interviews, tips on how to parent without God, and skeptical interpretations of the Bible.
While detractors might wonder why atheists would need their own television channel, consider both the American media landscape—one that largely assumes some religiosity—and what it feels like to be an atheist, a broadly stigmatized group here.
Atheists are among the most disliked people in America, distrusted on par with rapists. In June, the Pew Research Center’s largest survey of American cultural attitudes showed increased tolerance for racial differences, nation of origin, sexual orientation, and gun ownership—across ideological lines. But 49 percent of respondents still said they would be unhappy if an atheist married into the family and 53 percent said they would be less likely to vote for an atheist for president.
So it’s no wonder many atheists take their time going public with their beliefs, or lack thereof. It can be painful to tell parents and other family members. Even for young people who are ‘out’ about their atheism at college, where organizations like the Secular Student Alliance can offer support, there is still fear of rejection, or even violence, if word of their atheism reaches home.
For students like these, for adults like me living in a small Midwestern town, for anyone interested in the questions that inspire and drive non-believers, Atheist TV offers a sense of community beyond its God-free programming. The channel purports not to smear or mock the Hallmark-watching set, nor to provide hedonistic depictions of all the vice many religions caution against. No, said David Silverman, president of American Atheists, the organization behind the channel, instead Atheist TV will “provide a breadth of content, from science to politics to comedy, all centered around our common freedom from religion.”
For now, the channel will broadcast content from YouTube, comedians, and activist organizations, like The Richard Dawkins Foundation. Viewers can check out The Atheist Experience, a live, cable access call-in show produced by The Atheist Community of Austin featuring atheist hosts in “feisty” debate with religious callers (who evidently are eager to equate “non-believers” with Marxists and the devil). There’s also Atheist Viewpoint, co-hosted by Silverman and Dennis Horvitz, which, despite its snappy atheists-from-history opening montage, has the low-budget feel of a local politics hour.
But there’s more to come from Atheist TV. The channel has hired producer Liz Bronstein, whose previous credits include Joe Millionaire and Whale Wars. As Dave Muscato, public relations director for American Atheists, told Young Progressive Voices, “We have a lot of viewers who are fans of shows like Doctor Who, Cosmos, Game of Thrones, and so on. We would love to start creating our own content that appeals to our supporters.”
As it grows and continues to aggregate content from likeminded organizations, Atheist TV aims to be a place where reason can be entertained and any non-believer can tune in, trusting that religion will neither be presumed nor broadcast.