'True Detective' star Matthew McConaughey at the 83rd Academy Awards.

‘True Detective’ star Matthew McConaughey at the 83rd Academy Awards. Photo by David Torcivia via Wikimedia Commons.

HBO’s True Detective, which debuted last month to glowing reviews, features an atheist lead character played by Matthew McConaughey.

He marks the latest entry in a rising trend: Atheist characters in popular TV shows. Last year, two characters on the acclaimed CBS show The Good Wife—including protagonist Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies—made waves after declaring their atheism. Others in recent years have included Patrick Jane in The Mentalist, Gregory House in House, and Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.

Atheist TV characters can be a mixed bag—some are likable, fully realized, and appealingly human, while others come off as caricatures. But just as the increased visibility of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) people in TV and film has helped humanize LGBTQ people, the growing number of nontheists on TV may combat anti-atheist stigma.

To celebrate the rise of atheists on TV, here’s an unscientific ranking of five of the best fictional nontheist characters to grace American TV screens in the last five years:

1. Britta Perry, Community

Gillian Jacobs speaking at the 2012 WonderCon in Anaheim, California.

Gillian Jacobs speaking at the 2012 WonderCon in Anaheim, California. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

Her friends may use her name as a synonym for screwing up, but Britta (played by Gillian Jacobs) is truly the earnest, justice-oriented core of Dan Harmon’s hilarious and heartfelt Community, currently in its fifth season on NBC. While she’s every bit as flawed as her study group friends—a recent episode revealed that Britta smoked weed at devout Christian character Shirley’s son’s baptism—she’s also an endearing and ultimately winning atheist presence on one of network TV’s best-reviewed shows.

During the season one episode where she revealed her nontheism, Britta called for tolerance regarding the group’s diverse religious beliefs. And when she and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) argued about religion in season three, Britta made a cogent point rarely heard on TV—or anywhere else: “Your religion isn’t the same as morality, and calling me amoral because I’m atheistic is religious persecution.”

Interestingly, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) gets more flak for being agnostic than Britta does for being atheist. When Jeff talked about his agnosticism in season one, the study group groaned and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) said, “Agnostic! The lazy man’s atheist.”

2. Tara Gregson, United States of Tara

Toni Collette

‘United States of Tara’ star Toni Collette at ‘The Way Way Back’ premiere at the State Theatre in Sydney. Photo by Eva Rinaldi via Wikimedia Commons.

The fourth episode of the first season of United States of Tara—a Showtime comedy-drama about a woman living with dissociative identity disorder, created by Oscar-winning writer Diablo Cody and executive produced by Steven Spielberg—opened with Tara declaring, “I don’t believe in God.” While her atheism wasn’t central to the series, it was refreshing to hear a rich, complex character state it in such plain terms. Toni Collette won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for portraying Tara, a courageous woman who clearly believed in many things—her family, her art, and being kind to others. And though it was cancelled in 2011 after just three seasons, United States of Tara is still beloved; just last week Entertainment Weekly published an essay saying that they’re “still not over” its cancellation.

3. Piper Chapman, Orange Is the New Black

Atheist viewers cheered when Piper Chapman—protagonist of the acclaimed Jenji Kohan series Orange Is the New Black, which premiered on Netflix last year—delivered this rousing speech in an episode near the first season’s end:

“I can’t pretend to believe in something I don’t… I believe in science. I believe in evolution. I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Christopher Hitchens—although I do admit he could be kind of an a–hole. I can’t get behind a supreme being that 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 that people die young because God needs another angel. I think it’s just bullsh-t… Feelings aren’t enough. I need it to be real.”

Will the show explore Piper’s atheism further? We won’t have to wait long for an answer: Netflix just announced that season two premieres in June.

4. Kurt Hummel and Sue Sylvester, Glee

'Glee' star Chris Colfer at a book signing at The Grove in Los Angeles, CA.

‘Glee’ star Chris Colfer at a book signing at The Grove in Los Angeles, CA. Photo courtesy Ana Rivas via Wikimedia Commons.

The Ryan Murphy sensation Glee launches its sixth and final season on Fox later this year. I haven’t seen it in a while but I was a fan of season two’s “Grilled Cheesus”—which not only highlighted the atheism of two main characters, but presented them as the most sympathetic, compelling people in the episode.

Struggling after his father’s heart attack, Glee club member Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) stood up to friends who challenged his atheism in the face of tragedy. Kurt was also the heart of the episode, telling his father, “I don’t believe in God, Dad, but I believe in you.” And when a character told atheist cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) that she was arrogant—a charge directed at atheists regularly—Sue responded, “It’s as arrogant as telling someone how to believe in God; and if they don’t accept it, no matter how open-hearted or honest their dissent, they’re going to hell. That doesn’t sound very Christian, does it?” Surely many theist and atheist viewers alike agreed.

5. Lindsay Weir, Freaks and Geeks

Linda Cardellini at the 'Freaks and Geeks' PaleyFest reunion in 2011.

Linda Cardellini at the ‘Freaks and Geeks’ PaleyFest reunion in 2011. Photo courtesy Doug Kline via Flickr Commons.

Okay, I’m going to break my five year rule; the brilliant Freaks and Geeks, created by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and Knocked Up director Judd Apatow, aired in 1999-2000. But this cult classic has had a long shelf life: TV Guide named it the best “cancelled too soon” show and one of the greatest TV dramas of all time just last year.

The protagonist’s nontheism came up throughout the series—most directly when she smoked marijuana for the first time and admitted to a deeply religious childhood friend, “I don’t believe in God… God doesn’t make sense.” And the show’s first episode painted a moving picture of how she realized her atheism. In an exchange with her brother, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) said:

“Did Mom and Dad tell you I was the only one with Grandma when she died? … She grabbed my hand, told me she didn’t want to go… I said, ‘Well, you know, can you see God or heaven or a light or anything?’ [And she said] ‘No. There’s nothing.’ She was a good person all her life and that’s what she got.”

Who are your favorite atheist characters on TV? Who did I leave out? (Before you protest: Louie creator Louis CK doesn’t consider himself an atheist.) Do you disagree with any of my choices? Let me know in the comments.

39 Comments

    • Hey, Bob…they did mention Gregory House. Also they said “Patrick James” from The Mentalist…but his name is Jane, not James. Anyway, cool list! Loved the OITNB speech! Haven’t seen True Detective yet, hadn’t really heard anything about it, but this article makes me want to see it now.

      • Sgt Dietrich from Barney Miller (Steve Landesberg’s character) was probably the most well adjusted and mundane portrayal of an atheist I have ever seen. Well educated, a little quirky but just matter of factly atheist.

        Not the “God wasn’t here for me!” or “all religion is evil!!” sort you see on TV. The ones where the atheist is seen as someone “damaged” or just a “wounded believer”.

        There is one line which I always love bringing up. Barney asks Dietrich, “So suppose you die and find yourself standing in front of the pearly gates, ready to be judged?” Dietrich just looks at him blankly and says “Oops.”

        • I’m glad someone else remembers that line. I loved it. No one else has remember when I’ve mentioned it elsewhere.

          He was a great character. He was always my favorite.

  1. I’d include Bones. She seems to represent a true Faithiest; accepting of her husband’s Roman Catholicism; quite willing to work with people of religious faith for the common good.

    • I was pretty much put off the show completely when she had her near-death experience, which gave the clear indication that, as far as the show’s universe was concerned, she was wrong. Haven’t watched it since. Did they backtrack from that idiocy?

      • NDE’s are not religious in nature. They’re scientific fact. NASA can purposefully recreate a NDE during astronaut training, in the centrifuge device. It’s a matter of firing neurons and the human brain making sense of confused or randomized signals, and the human brain has a way of hallucinating when it happens, before people tend to black out.

        Theists just pin on it because they err in thinking there is no science that explains it.

        That said, tv producers aren’t the most creative sort, so your show may well have been using it as a “prove the atheist wrong” plot device, which is admittedly ridiculous and overused.

        • Oh, I know it’s not religious in nature. Theists typically fail to get what the N in NDE stands for (just as alien conspiracy nuts do with the U in UFO). NDEs are actually fairly well understood at this point, though not completely. Of course, any gap in understanding is always pointed out as evidence by those anxious to advance a theistic agenda.

      • The near death experience can be interpretative anyway you like it to be. Heaven is an idealistic end result and Temperance did grow up in america which is saturated with the christian belief.

        Coupled with her missing her mother it could have easily just been her mind hallucinating and trying to cope with the fact that she was dying. Temperance is a very self aware person, that and the fact that some studies show how realistic dreams can be right before you die, I’m going to just interpret that scene the way I want to interpret it, because they haven’t mentioned it since, it could easily have been some of Booth’s religiosity rubbing on her psyche, and It doesn’t really distract from the interpersonal connections I watch the show for.

        • Yes because this theory can’t possibly be wrong according to u atheists. Love how u western atheists preach tolerance and yet some of the most intolerant people when it comes to others beliefs.

          • Do you realize how drenched in hypocrisy your words are? I’m 16 and an atheist, and I am clearly more tolerant than you will ever be.

          • Says the guy coming on to an atheist thread and bashing them for non-belief. How very tolerant of you.

          • Not saying boo for fear of offending someone’s beliefs isn’t tolerance, it’s condescension.

  2. McConaughey’s character in True Detective is THE BEST atheist character I’ve seen. He has some of the greatest lines, including “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of shit.”

    • Yes, McConaughey’s character is my favorite too, although probably not the ideal role model for atheists. He is sort of the apologist’s strawman nihilist version of an atheist.

      Oscar from the Office was an atheist as well as being gay. They didn’t talk about it, but he refused to say “Under God” during the pledge of allegiance once.

  3. It is wonderful to see the world waking up.
    The end of religion is the beginning of philosophy, science and wisdom.
    Atheism is the only honest approach to the absence of any evidence that any gods are real.

  4. Freaks and Geeks is the only one of those shows that I ever watched.
    Loved Lindsay Weir but hated the whole grandma dying stuff. I wish American TV would just let her be a pothead like that character would be in real life……Instead they had to come up with this kind of nonsense as the trigger of her rebellion. It’s sad really

  5. I almost forgot Davos Seaworth from “Game of Thrones”

    “I think mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night.”
    ―Davos Seaworth

    • Unless Martin comes up with a huge twist, the irony is that within GoT, atheists are almost certainly wrong. Davos was always one of my favorite characters when I read the books, even before any atheist tendency was apparent. He is calm, critically aware, interested in educating himself and gaining intellectual skills, and just too honorable not to be abused.

    • Yeah, Brian Griffin rocks and should’ve made the list even though he can (well, “could,” now they killed him off) be a real down-your-throat liberal douche.

  6. If you expand it and stop talking from a US-centred view, many detectives from novels were agnostics or atheists, or at the very least, had no patience for religion in general. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse and many others in novels, TV and movies could be added to the list. It’s no surprise that fiction matches real life – critical thinkers tend to be atheists, those who want easy answers are believers.

    And let’s not forget any Star Trek made while Gene Roddenberry was alive, none of the pro-religious drivel made after he died. Roddenberry’s goal of using TV to make social commentary and change (e.g. the first black-white kiss on TV) included his atheism. Many of his characters reflected that, especially in the “Next Generation” series.

    • What about the original Sherlock Holmes in the books?

      Quote from “THE BOSCOMBE VALLEY MYSTERY”:

      “God help us!” said Holmes after a long silence. “Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.’”

      Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan; Estate Ltd., The Conan Doyle (2011-08-15). THE COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES and THE COMPLETE TALES OF TERROR AND MYSTERY (All Sherlock Holmes Stories and All 12 Tales of Mystery in a Single Volume!) … Conan Doyle | The Complete Works Collection) (Kindle Locations 5841-5843). The Complete Works Collection. Kindle Edition.

  7. Matt Albie (played by Matthew Perry) from the insanely wonderful and way too quickly cancelled Studio 60 is for me, the best example of atheism on TV that I’ve seen. He was witty, earnest, intelligent and thoughtful (albeit at times sarcastic and incredulous- but who of us isn’t?) in all of his discussions and debates about religion (and there were MANY). His longtime and fiery relationship with Sarah Paulson’s Harriet Hayes, a devout baptist and spiritual music-recording comedienne, made for some of the best, funniest, and evenly matched arguments on the subject of religion in television history. [A relationship that's rumored to be based on writer Aaron Sorkin and his ex actress/singer Kristen Chenoweth]

  8. A lot of the children’s books I read my kids have parents who aren’t religious. In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume, for instance, there’s a section where the boy tolerates the annoyance of his religious grandparents. No one talks about god in Harry Potter, and Rick Riordan’s books are all about Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. I agree with the poster above that many writers must be atheists or agnostics themselves.

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