Religion

The Three Best Characters on Glee Don’t Believe in God or Else Suspect He is an Evil Dwarf

(Post title edited from “The Two Best Characters on Glee Are Atheists” on the recommendation of @modelshipwreck.)

Well, the most recent episode of Glee (which, shut up, I know you watch it, too, and if you post in the comments that you don’t because you think it’s awful then we’ll all just assume you’re overcompensating because you love it so god damn much) is all about JESUS, but really it’s all about Kurt because honestly, if Kurt and Jesus are co-starring in anything you know who’s going to steal the show. THIS GUY:

“I hope our genuflection to the great spaghetti monster in the sky doesn’t take too long.”
– Kurt “The Adorablest Atheist Ever” Hummel

Here’s the gist of the episode: Kurt’s dad has a heart attack and lands in a coma, and all the Glee kids are thinking of religion because Finn the Moron has started worshipping a Grilled Cheesus. So they all keep talking (singing) about god, and Kurt’s all “Hey thanks, great song, but I don’t believe in god,” which he says pretty damned respectfully and calmly considering that his dad is in a coma and everyone is bugging him with their stupid god-talk and Whitney Houston songs. Here is where Kurt proves that he is just the best:

“You’ve all professed your beliefs, I’m just stating mine. I think God is kind of like Santa Claus for adults. Otherwise God’s kind of a jerk, isn’t he? I mean he makes me gay and then has his followers going around telling me it’s something that I chose, as if someone would choose to be mocked every single day of their life. And right now I don’t want a heavenly father. I want my real one back.”

“But Kurt, how do you know for sure? You can’t prove that there is no god,” says Gosperella.

“You can’t prove there isn’t a magical teapot floating around on the dark side of the moon with a dwarf inside of it that reads romance novels and shoots lightning out of its boobs but it seems pretty unlikely doesn’t it?”

Says the brilliant Brittany: “Is god an evil dwarf?

“We shouldn’t be talking like this,” says the Abstinence-Only Single Mother. “It’s not right.”

“I’m sorry Quinn, but you can all believe whatever you want to but I can’t believe something I don’t. I appreciate your thoughts, but I don’t want your prayers.”

I LOVE YOU KURT!

That’s not enough to shut them up, though, demonstrating that yes, the rest of the Glee club (besides the wonderful Brittany) are incredibly annoying. They even go to the hospital and sing spiritual songs to Kurt’s dad behind Kurt’s back. WTF? Who does this? Have you people even met this guy before? Stop touching his head in an overly familiar manner!

Eventually Kurt learns that his friends are just trying to help him using their crazy magical chants and whatnot, which, okay, is a good lesson to learn. But nobody else really seems to learn the lesson that maybe you should STFU about your religion when it’s actively bothering your grieving friend.

EXCEPT the school counselor, who gets a well-deserved bitch-out from none other than the episode’s other atheist: Sue Motherfucking Sylvester.

“Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn’t a moral thing to do. It’s cruel.”

“Don’t you think that’s just a little bit arrogant?”

“It’s just 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. Well that doesn’t sound very Christian, does it?”

“If that’s what you believe, that’s fine, but please keep it to yourself.”

“So long as you do the same. That kid could lose his father at any moment. You should start preparing him for that. Now get the hell out of my office. I realize you’re only half orangutan but I’m still very allergic to your lustrous ginger mane.”

I LOVE YOU SUE SYLVESTER!

As awesome as the two atheist characters are, though, the portrayal of atheism could have been better. Both of them give reasons for their atheism, and both reasons are because life was unfair to them and they couldn’t see how a loving god would allow that. That’s a perfectly valid reason for not believing in an omni-benevolent god, but it obscures the main reason why I suspect most people have no religion: because there is no evidence. This is at least briefly covered in Kurt’s referencing of Russel’s teapot, but Sue’s back story leaves us remembering both of them as tortured souls who maybe just haven’t found Jesus yet.

Final criticism: Kurt’s big song was a pretty super, slow, emotional version of I Want To Hold Your Hand. Okay. But couldn’t he have had some big atheist number since everyone else got all Jesusy (or Yenta-y as the case may be)? A cover of Sarah McLauchlan’s cover of XTC’s Dear God, maybe? Or Nick Cave’s Into My Arms?

Anyway, it was nice to see some awesome characters on a really popular show come out as proud atheists who don’t get converted at the end. But yeah, we could still do better.

What did you think?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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51 Comments

  1. I don’t watch it because I think it’s awful…

    Well actually I don’t watch it because there’s only so much time to watch television in, and a lot more television to watch, so I have to pick some things and leave others be, and once I’ve started not watching something it’s difficult to start watching it.

  2. Thanks Rebecca for describing this in such detail! As much as I love The Girlâ„¢, Glee is not a thing that we share, and I’m sure that she’ll want me to watch this episode. Knowing about it before we watch will help a great deal. Plus, maybe if I watch this episode of Glee, I can convince her to watch Phil Plait’s Bad Universe with me afterwards. Muahahahahahaaha!

    Oh, and @turbomike: The phrase “jumped the shark” is now recursive: Using it relegates ones’ point to irrelevance.

  3. Episode hit home for me. Not because of the atheism issue, but because my mother died a few weeks ago from her metastatic cancer. (Okay, actually it was the chemo that did it, but that’s a whole ‘nother post. )

    In her last two days, she was mostly unresponsive, and slipped into a coma on her last day. I kept slipping my hand under or over hers and I couldn’t get a squeeze, which broke my heart. Because my mother was always someone who was looking to touch and squeeze and hug.

    So, yeah, the hand-holding imagery and Kurt’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sent me into a weeping fetal position. Hate on Glee all you want, but they had that nailed. (The whole acupuncturist and non-family visitors with an open candle in the ICU thing, not as much, but not as dramatic, I get that.)

  4. I do watch Glee. I was not impressed when I first started watching the series but it has grown on me. Kurt is a big reason I am now a fan. My critique of the show is basically identical to what you posted here. I did love Grilled Cheesus. That was a hoot.

  5. “which, shut up, I know you watch it, too, and if you post in the comments that you don’t because you think it’s awful then we’ll all just assume you’re overcompensating because you love it so god damn much”

    Rebecca, I love ya, but I don’t love ya today. How dare you assume that everyone watches what you watch. That’s the kind of thing I’d expect from a religious fanatic, not a usually clear headed, clear thinking person, which you almost always are. I wouldn’t have even responded to anything about Glee except for that assumption. Actually, I killed my television in 1998 and have never missed it once.

  6. Rebecca Watson: Hi Rebecca! I loved this post. I am a relatively new Christian (like two years) and I know I still find it terrible when people use hell as a conversion mechanism. I disagree with using hate and fear as a way to convince someone to believe what you believe.

    Long story short, I approve of what happened in this show. People have a right to believe what they want. Sure, I feel like I want to them to believe what I consider to be right, but I can’t force something down their throat.

  7. @Rebecca Watson:

    Thanks. My sibs and I have decided this was one of the worst timed episodes in TV for us.

    @wayne23:

    Is it odd that I’m seeing a parallel to the Sue/Emma conversation here? You’re upset that Rebecca loves Glee, and discussing how much better your way of thinking is since you don’t apparently watch much TV.

    Personally, I think my TV signal comes from Russell’s teapot.

  8. I sure do watch it, and on balance I loved this episode. Like you, I thought there were things they could have done better. I appreciated that neither Kurt nor Sue were converted by the end (though the ending of Sue’s storyline kind of bugged me a bit). I did wish that the other club members had gotten more of a smackdown for shoving their beliefs on Kurt, despite him clearly and respectfully telling them that wasn’t what he wanted or needed.

    I too had been hoping for a little Dear God, but upon reflection I’m glad they didn’t, as it only would’ve fed into the “angry atheist” stereotype. I thought Kurt’s song (in addition to being heart-breakingly beautiful) was highly appropriate. The others were singing about what they held sacred, and so was he. His theme just happened to be love and family instead of God. I thought it was a wonderfully positive portrayal of how atheists do, in fact, have meaning in their lives. They just get it from somewhere other than religion.

    Oh, and Sue’s verbal smackdown of Emma was one of the best things I’d ever seen.

  9. I’m glad it didn’t end with Kurt being shown the “error” of his ways. Too bad he thought acupuncture would help his father but, meh, you can’t win them all.

    This episode also reminded me of Christopher Hitchens and his response to people’s prayers. I don’t think I could be so magnanimous. I’d probably end up the curmudgeon and say, “Thank you for your thoughts but as for your prayers, you can go suck on ’em.”

  10. @Chasmosaur: Sorry for your loss. We’re coming up on the first year anniversary of my dad’s death from cancer, and that’s part of the reason I’ve avoided watching this episode, even though I wanted to check it out for the atheism aspect.

    That, and I watched the first couple episodes and the utter overuse of auto-tuning on “Don’t Stop Believin'” (I think that was the song…) was a total turn-off. But I may have to give it a second shot.

    Also, interesting that mainstream TV shows are actually relatively progressive compared to the rest of American culture. Last TV season there was an episode of Community where a couple of the main characters declared they were atheist or agnostic without much reaction or judgment from the rest of the characters. And just last week there was a kiss between two married (or life-partnered, I forget) men on Modern Family.

    Slowly, millimeter by millimeter, social liberalism is becoming mainstream. The evolution is being televised, I guess.

  11. OK – I admit it. I saw this episode (my wife makes me watch it, ahem).

    I agree with Rebecca but two big negative additions:

    Kurt says, essentially, “Get your religious god fantasy out of my father’s hospital room. Now, I have to apply some mysticism-based acupuncture to him to improve blood flow to his brain.” There was no irony to this at all – I think this is what passes in Hollywood for intellectualism. It was a major fail for his character, but the writers probably don’t see it that way. It was not unrealistic, though – I know lots of people who are atheists but lacking in skepticism in other areas.

    Second fail – Kurt visits a black protestant church. His sexual orientation is, shall we say, obviously in evidence. He is greeted with nothing but smiles and support.

    Problem is – black protestant churches in the US are militantly homophobic. This was just unrealistic, and glossed over a major negative of religion.

    While I applaud the writers for even knowing about Russel’s teapot and the FSM, in the end I felt it was a bit of pro-spiritual propaganda.

  12. @Chasmosaur:

    My father also died from chemo side effects. But it was the chance we took, you know? He was definitely dead without it. But, I totally hear you, even if no one else notices that bit. This December is 18 years for me. Could have been yesterday.

    I was really glad when they dragged Kurt into it because Sue is, to me, the most profoundly unsympathetic character on TV. I see that her character is complicated, but damn, I simply can’t tolerate teachers who torture students. I’m glad she stood up for Kurt, though. I still despise her.

    I found the whole proposition that she could get whatshisbutt fired preposterous. The kids obviously always bring in their own material, and this is no different. Even during class time, students’ rights of expression are protected according to case law.

  13. Watch Glee. Love Kurt. Love Sue. Haven’t watched this episode but just might now.
    Wasn’t going to because I really do not want the god thing shoved in my face anymore. It’s omnipresent and it gets annoying.
    Might watch it now that I know my favorite character isn’t going to be delusional.
    Might not.
    Still waffling.

  14. Watched it. Really liked it (usually do, just for the singing if nothing else). But had a slightly different take on it than some of the folks here. Steven Novella wrote:

    ” ‘Now, I have to apply some mysticism-based acupuncture to him to improve blood flow to his brain.’ There was no irony to this at all… It was a major fail for his character”

    I don’t think it was a major fail for his character… even if it might have been for someone who is a skeptic. Kurt wasn’t arguing against religion or beliefs (nor was Sue). But they were advocating respecting the viewpoints & beliefs of others, and having a reasonable dialog. Quinn, for example, doesn’t want that initially. But

    Skepticism isn’t (to me) just about choosing “the right view” every time, it’s also about ways of arriving at improving your viewpoint or position. In that regard, Glee got it right. You do that through rational communication – even with people that you disagree with their conclusions. As Mercedes did with Kurt, and as Kurt did with Mercedes. And as everybody did in the final song.

  15. @Steven Novella: “Kurt says, essentially, “Get your religious god fantasy out of my father’s hospital room. Now, I have to apply some mysticism-based acupuncture to him to improve blood flow to his brain.””

    This! That drove me nuts!

    @ everyone: I loved this episode on the whole, because they managed to treat atheists with the most respect I think I could ever hope for on network TV. I think they are also going to tackle the bullying of gay students in an upcoming episode, so kudos for that as well. Glee is becoming a bit Degrassi with music, and not in a bad way.

    But I do wish there were a few more appropriately-aimed zingers. For example, when Mercedes says “we’re just trying to help” after Kurt asks them to stop praying and leave, I wish he had said something like “I’ve told you what I need. Right now you’re not helping me feel better, you’re helping yourself feel better.”

    I also didn’t like the “just come to church with me this Sunday” gambit (which I have been subjected to). What has she done for Kurt other than badger him about respecting her beliefs? He owes her nothing.

    But yes, on the whole Kurt had some very good things to say that I was a bit distracted from because I was scared they’d convert him by the end of the show. But happily, they did nothing of the kind. He accepted the kindness given to him, however misguided and somewhat bullying, and continued to believe what he wanted.

  16. @brdavis: What was annoying about that for me was the promotion of acupuncture on the show in general. What the character says and does and whether it’s consistent is a separate issue from the writers just sticking that in there because, seemingly, they didn’t know anything about medicine and had to say something medical-sounding there. Alt med is uncritically promoted on mainstream TV fairly often. It’s annoying and a major fail of the show’s writers.

  17. I thought it amusing how Emma used logic to talk Finn out of his Grilled Cheesus belief. Seems she might be easily converted into an atheist herself if she got out of her own way.

    I remember being conflicted in HS choir when it was Christmas and we’d always do Handel’s Messiah. I was an atheist even then (1979) and my teacher pointed out that I could appreciate the beauty of the music without believing the message in it.

    I was upset that the only people Kurt could rely on as friends were the same ones practically attacking him this episode. Taking religion into the hospital room crossed the line.

  18. In our self-serving self-reporting, we tend to say that our reasons for becoming atheists are purely intellectual, based on deep reflection of the meaning of life. But I’m not so sure that’s true. I believe that our religious/existential decisions have a major, inextricable, emotional component. I don’t think I could ever be a good evangelical, no matter where the evidence led. I believe that atheism happens to be the most rational position, but if we want to be as rational as possible, we need to recognize our vulnerabilities.

  19. Normally enjoy the show but I was not impressed with this episode at all. The 11th hour semi-capitulations of both Sue (asking her sister to pray for her…blechhhh!) and Kurt (attending church) left me gagging over the saccharin sentimentality.

  20. All the characters are human. Sure, Sue and Kurt have issues, but who doesn’t? They were the lightning rods in the episode.

    Notice the more subtle aspects of Finn’s story where he went from an apparently uncritical implicit atheism to faith in the Grilled Cheesus to losing his religion (culminating in the farewell consumption of what was finally seen as just a grilled cheese sandwich). His approach to religion may be seen as superficial, but isn’t that a valid criticism of how religion is approached so often in real life practice? Even the most convoluted faith-based theological efforts boil down in the end to superficialities.

    Ultimately Finn is the atheist I identify with. A little stupid, yes, not to mention gullible at times and capable of being rather selfish in his three wishes–but not a bad guy altogether, and one capable of coming to his senses after all is said and done. Finn isn’t expressly identified as an atheist, yet he should be included as one nonetheless. He is the future of atheism, where it just doesn’t matter anymore. Faith was just a part of his process of growing up, rightly discarded after the counselor kindly explained that the magic he temporarily believed in was not actually responsible for the events in his life.

  21. I loved the episode. I was worried that Kurt might “see the light” by the end of it, and was so touched and relieved when the strongest scene was driven by pure emotion towards his dad, without any kind of supernatural force.

    The acupuncture ticked me off too, but I think it was portrayed with a tiny grain of salt: Kurt saying it “hasn’t worked…yet” sounds, at least to me, like he doesn’t really believe it would work, but has no other option. That in itself is a pretty unfortunate aspect of alternative medicine, but at least the show didn’t make it seem like acupuncture saved the day.

  22. Cue the “I don’t even own a TV! Only idiots watch the idiot box!” comments.

    Oh.

    Wait.

    PS: Do you own a computer? Have you ever, even once, watched a YouTube video, a movie, or even *gasp* a TV show on that computer? Then you own what is essentially a more interactive TV! Sorry to burst your bubble. ;)

  23. I had a quick look on You Tube but not being a Glee watcher (feel free to boo and hiss) I couldn’t find a clip of either incident. I’d love to see it though. I’m outside the US so Hulu etc. aren’t available to watch the full episode. Does anyone have a a link?

  24. I actually thought that the choice of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was a good choice and very moving. Instead of focusing on what he doesn’t believe, it put the spotlight on what is important in life to Kurt, the love and support of his father. It made the point that being an atheist doesn’t mean being being unloving and uncaring about other people.

  25. @Skept-artist: A shack in the woods? A squirrel to deliver your notes? Talk about luxury! I live in a hole in the ground and write my comments (in my own blood as I don’t have a pen) on falling leaves which I toss in a passing stream in the vain hope that it reaches someone who can post them here.

  26. @Rebecca Watson: So who is the third atheist? Is the change in post title referring to end-of-episode agnostic Finn, or to Artie, who had, depending on interpretation, significant silent looks or annoyed silent looks when folks were talking about general universal injustice?

  27. It was interesting reading the other responses. After the show, the SO and I looked at each other and just shrugged.

    To us, it felt very stagnant – there was one believer who gave it up (Finn), and one non-believer that maybe kind of opened up to it (Sue – at least that’s how we saw that ending). It was a fine episode, but I would never recommend it as OMG AWESOME!

    The “I Want To Hold Your Hand” rendition was similar in styling (though not emotion) to the one in “Across the Universe,” so that took a little of the punch out for me. And I loathed that arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Why is “Bridge” gospelized so often anyway? It never struck me as spiritual.

  28. The “Is god an evil dwarf?” query really was sheer genius.

    By the way, no doubt there will be people pissed off about the attack on religion by having Sue represent the tolerant atheist allowing her retarded sister the luxury or prayer because (presumably) it makes her feel better. You so know someone out there will look at it that way, right? “Having faith is being compared to having a mental condition!” Oh, the horror.

  29. Hey!!!!! *SPOILER ALERT*

    Jebus, a little head’s up would be nice! /snark

    Yes, I watch and love Glee but only because it takes the place of Ugly Betty for me. It’s actually pretty similar. Likable characters played in an over-the-top manner that is usually just sweet but occasionally surprising, and the pest character was the villian.

    I have not seen this episode yet but will probably be touched but very annoyed by the end. Overt religiosity get to me every time, if there is a reason for it and it fits a character or leads to an interesting discussion then fine, otherwise why is it there?

    I see the portrayal of atheists on television (and in movies) to be on a similar track to the portrayal of gays, just a few years behind. Atheists and skeptic used to be strictly bad guys and antagonists. Now they are lead characters on shows (House, The Mentalist, Bones) usually cranky or weird characters, but at least they are there. There was a time not long ago that the only gays on tv were FALAMING or completely unacknowledged (Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Lirabeace) yet today they are more “life-like”. There is still a way to go but it’s better. Keep in mind that they rarely make ANY character on tv that isn’t cliché-ridden, so there’s that.

  30. I love Glee. It hits a lot of the things that matter to me.
    Part of what I enjoyed about this episode was that one, it showed how incredibly dull Finn really is and how incredibly selfish he is. Him, and many of the others in Glee. They’re all very self-centered, and it showed through. (and it reinforced the fact that Quinn is a total jerk.)
    However, it ALSO showed that Puck is not a bad guy through and through. I liked that, because he’s a dick and everything, but he’s not Satan.

    The representation of atheism (and, I think in some cases, more agnosticism) was good, in my opinion. They weren’t the people who I hate that are atheists, they were just people who had their own way of seeing the world and wanted to be left alone with it. I get that.
    Sue was awesome. Kurt was awesome.
    I don’t think not believing in a god makes it impossible to be spiritual – so the acupuncture thing didn’t really bother me.

    I also didn’t have a problem with Kurt going to the church with Mercedes. He went because Mercedes was his friend, and even though (many) churches can be uber anti-gay, I have seen churches where they are accepted – even black churches – and this was supposed to show Mercedes sharing her love of Kurt in the best way she could.

    Also, I am not a huge fan of the Beatles, but Kurt’s “I want to hold your hand” was beautiful to me because it was very simple, and incredibly emotional. It was more about believing in LOVE, not about *not believing in god*. I appreciated that.

    And hell, I was really mad at ignoring Arty this episode – if anyone has a right to be mad at God (aside from Kurt, and Sue), it’s Arty!

  31. @Finn McRNo I believe rebecca said the third of the three best characters (not three atheists) was Brittany, who wondered if God is an evil dwarf.

    Not the best episode ever, unfortunately. But it could have been the nit-picking going on inside my head that caused that, the acupuncture incident really rubbed me the wrong way as well. And I loved Grilled Cheesus.

  32. Having watched the episode on Hulu, I’m a little late to the game, but I have two small rebuttals to Rebecca:

    “They even go to the hospital and sing spiritual songs to Kurt’s dad behind Kurt’s back. WTF? Who does this? Have you people even met this guy before?”

    Actually, yes. They made an explicit point of this earlier in the episode, when Finn reminded Kurt that Burt Hummel is the closest Finn’s ever had to a father in his life. Remember last season’s episodes about Kurt having a jealous reaction to his dad’s relationship with Finn?

    So there’s nothing unusual at all about Finn and his mom being there, nor Rachel since she’s Finn’s girlfriend. Mercedes’ and Quinn’s presence, ok, that’s a little odd (especially since Quinn didn’t say anything in the scene). But given Finn’s relationship with Burt, I thought it was downright rude for Kurt to demand that Finn *and Finn’s mom* leave the hospital room, and to insist that Finn and his mom not grieve in a way that Kurt didn’t agree with.

    Secondly,

    “But couldn’t he have had some big atheist number since everyone else got all Jesusy (or Yenta-y as the case may be)?”

    By “everyone else” do you mean “maybe Mercedes”? Because the other songs in the show weren’t Jesusy at all: Billy Joel, REM, Joan Osborne, and the aforementioned Yentl showtune. Even Mercedes’ numbers weren’t very Jesusy: Whitney Houston’s number is generically religious if not exactly overtly Christian, but Bridge Over Troubled Water is essentially secular.

    It’s not like Kurt was given a Beatles song while the others were singing hymns or Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant numbers.

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