Kate Bigam is a freelance writer and blogger living in Ohio. Crossposted at  FriendlyAtheist.com.

GleeAfter seeing last Tuesday’s preview, I was excited for the new episode of “Glee” for two reasons. Firstly, I couldn’t wait to watch my TV crush, Puck, perform a song by my musical crush, Billy Joel. And secondly, the previews promised me there’d be gospel music, and Jewish or not, I sure do love gospel music.

A mere three minutes into last night’s show, I was already uncomfortable. It wasn’t just that Finn claimed to see Jesus in his grilled cheese (“grilled Cheesus”), which was funny, or that he asked Mr. Shue if the Glee Club could perform songs praising Christ, which was unfortunately a bit too reminiscent of my own high school choir experience. No, it wasn’t just those pieces of the plot: It was Kurt’s story that made me squirm.

Kurt, the gay kid who angrily shuns religion because, he says, if there were a God, S(H)e wouldn’t have given him a life of being gay, a life of bullying and belittling. Within the first 10 minutes of the episode, “Glee’s” portrayal of Kurt as an atheist sets up two unfortunate and all-too-prevalent stereotypes: that of the angsty homosexual & that of the militant atheist.

Across the board, the other Glee Club members, Christians & Jews alike, are shocked by Kurt’s admission that he doesn’t believe in God. Throughout the show, they try to talk him out of atheism and into religion, never once acknowledging that he’s entitled to his own beliefs – or lack thereof – or showing any respect for his views. In fact, the only character to defend Kurt’s atheism as a legitimate world view is Sue Sylvester, the show’s antagonist, who goes on to use his atheism as a tool of manipulation to help sink her arch nemesis, Mr. Shue, for permitting religious music in Glee Club. This is where I should note that, in writing this, I’m also ignoring the show’s inaccurate portrayals of church/state separation and what is and isn’t permitted in public schools; last night’s episode toed across the line there, too.

The most unfortunate part of the episode is that the story line was valid: Kurt, terrified of losing his father to a heart problem, is genuinely struggling to deal with his pain; his friends want to help, but they’re not sure what they can do for an atheist who doesn’t want their prayers – because prayer is the most common way they know of for dealing with such situations. Yes, it was a believable plotline – but if “Glee” wanted to teach an important lesson, as it has so often done, there was ample opportunity to do so in a way that didn’t offend. The writers could’ve focused on Kurt pushing his friends away as a result of his dad’s condition, a natural but unhealthy reaction to dealing with fear. They could’ve lessened the strain, the anger, the push-&-pull between the religious members of Glee Club and the one atheist member. “I appreciate your thoughts,” Kurt tells them, “but I don’t want your prayers.” And not one of them will accept that: They show up at his father’s bedside to pray. They dedicate church services to him. They try to sing songs about God’s grace. And never once does anyone but Sue Sylvester stop to recognize how offensive it is to push your beliefs, no matter how well-intentioned, upon someone else – especially when that person is already enveloped in hurt and grief.

While I typically appreciate “Glee’s” depictions of diversity – in many cases, its sense of humor & refusal to be politically correct in order to make important observations about society – I was undoubtedly disappointed in the way the writers opted to depict Kurt’s atheism. But you know what? It didn’t do much for religion, either. Why do the other Glee Clubbers have to be so forceful in insisting that they pray for Kurt’s father, both in front of and to Kurt? Couldn’t they have kept it to themselves? And out of school? Their insistence that Kurt recognize the power of prayer is just as dangerous in its characterization of all people of faith as pushy, well-intentioned zealots as was the show’s portrayal of Kurt as a defensive, angry atheist. (Not to mention that I was frustrated that the episode described religion, in blanket terms, as being intolerant of homosexuality – NOT the case for all of us!)

At the end of the show, though, I suppose the atheist wins. After all, Kurt is the only character to recognize his friends’ good intentions & to overlook their hurtful actions because of it. His friends and educators, for their part, never really recognize that they’ve hurt him or apologize for doing so. And though Mercedes concedes to understanding that he doesn’t believe in “the power of prayer,” she continues to passively urge him to find God, indicating that she cannot conceive of the wrongness of her actions toward her friend.

On this point, the only credit I give the writers of “Glee” for last night’s episode is that (spoiler alert!) the episode did NOT end with Kurt’s becoming a believer, which would’ve been an even bigger letdown, and it did address the things that he, as an atheist, turned to instead of religion to get him through a difficult time. The memory montage of his childhood – including his mother’s funeral – was set to his emotional performance of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” the one song of the night that (purposefully) didn’t reference God or religion as a means of highlighting his faith in family and love as a source of personal strength. He did, however, allow Mercedes take him to her church, where she performed “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for him, and where he ultimately accepted his friends’ prayers for his father as an act of friendship, not of proselytization.Unfortunately, the grief it took to make these few progressive points wasn’t worth all the other reprehensible depictions both of atheism & of religion. I wish the writers had explored other creative ways to incorporate religious tunes (which is, really, a fun concept!) into an episode & to address faith (& the lack thereof) without turning the entire cast into an offensive – and largely incorrect – parade of stereotypes.

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Showing 5 comments
  • Samantha Friedman

    I must respectfully disagree with Kate, though with the preface to my comment that if atheists — or anyone else — were offended by the episode, then I would never seek to argue with their personal interpretation or offense taken.

    For my part, I simply didn’t walk away from watching last night’s episode with any problem with the way any particular religious group, including atheists, were portrayed. In fact, I thought the show did a good job of first presenting some stereotypes that Kate refers to – such as the suggestion that atheism might be a bad, or un-American, thing – but then attempting to address and tackle them. By the end of the episode, Kurt has reunited with his friends and accepted the fact that while they may want to sing about religion, that’s ok, even if he personally doesn’t think their prayers will help him or his father.

    I felt that by the end, everyone sort of understands each other and has accepted each other’s beliefs, whatever they may be, or lack thereof. Kurt has gone to church with Mercedes — and enjoyed it! Maybe he just likes it because the music is good and it’s a distraction from worrying about his father; but he doesn’t hate the religious environment simply because he doesn’t belive in God. He has reached a point where he can respect others’ appreciation for religion and not feel uncomfortable in its midst.

    These are high school kids – everything is a learning process, and the show is known for bringing up stereotypes and then sort of debunking them.

    While the Glee kids initially didn’t accept Kurt’s atheism, there was clearly discusion among the adult characters about whether or not the kids’ response of pushing prayer was acceptable, and how they, as teachers, should respond to it. By talking about it, they did emphasize that it wasn’t a given that religion should be a part of the school day, thereby addressing an issue the kids were perhaps too young to fully recognize was controversial. I certainly would find it hard to believe that most viewers would relate the portrayal of Kurt to one of a “militant atheist.”

    Given that this show is predominantly designed to entertain, not to provoke serious discussion about serious topics, I was personally impressed by the references to religion in school and separation between church and state. I actually feel that Glee consistently does a good job of finding ways to bring serious current issues into the show and then confront them, while still maintaining its primary purpose of bringing extremely talented young voices and the struggles of being “different” in high school to the forefront.

    Lastly, in respect to Kate’s reference to Kurt’s character blaming God for his being gay, again, I must disagree. I didn’t interpret that scene as Kurt voicing frustration that “God made him gay,” Rather, I believe his point was to emphasize his belief that if there were a God, he wouldn’t allow people to belittle him for years BECAUSE he was gay. Two different things.

  • Lachman Bhatia

    I applaud the writers for tackling a subject long considered taboo particularly in these Tea Party times. The inaccuracies about state-church separation are certainly no less egregious than those who would claim that no such thing as the wall of separation was even intended by the Constitutional framers.

    That aside, the comment: “but if “Glee” wanted to teach an important lesson, as it has so often done, there was ample opportunity to do so in a way that didn’t offend.” suggests that Glee has a duty not to offend. In my experience, most religious persons take offense at the mere suggestion that their deity is a figment of their imaginations. Were the writers to tiptoe that carefully around the sensitivities of believers, there would have been no plot.

  • Randall Holm

    These comments come somewhat late but as someone invested in the intersection of pop culture and faith, I applaud the writers of this episode of Glee for an interesting and honest wrestling with matters of faith, notwithstanding the original “cheezy” premise. But on another level even the grilled cheesus works at exposing a predominately altruistic American expression of faith. In fact the episode represents well two sides of the proverbial same coin.

    On the one hand Finn “believes”, because his prayers were seemingly answered. The shallowness of those prayers only serves to expose the weakness of this common theological position. On the other hand, both Sue and Kurt represent the other side in their denial of God. Kurt denies God, because only a cruel god would have made him gay and Sue denies God because god did not respond to her prayer to heal her older sister. Their respective positions, at the risk of sounding cruel merely mirror Finn’s. Conclusion, god if God exists must be utilitarian. “I believe if I get from god what I want or I do not believe if I do not get from god what I want.” In this respect I submit much of what goes on in the name of in Christianity and atheism suffers from this same faulty construct.

    In essence what the episode does through the first 2/3rds is deconstruct a very American notion of God with a little light humor and compelling drama.

    Latter in the episode the scene with Mercedes and Kurt at church suggests an alternative approach that fractures the altruism of the previous examples. It is interesting that the church in question is an all black church. I wondered what the effect would be if it was a “white” church? In any event the scene works because nothing is for sale except the honest held surrogate hand that Kurt had been “praying” for in his earlier lament “I wanna hold your hand.”

    The bravest moment of the episode comes at the end with the back to back scenes of Sue and her sister, and Kurt and his dad. If faith is found in the intersection of courage and hope than we have in these two scenes perhaps the most authentic examples of faith in the episode. In Sue’s case her sister takes the lead and becomes the teacher. Sue, she said, God doesn’t make mistakes (despite her disabilities) and then offers to pray for Sue. In Kurt’s case, he says to his dad, “I don’t believe in god, but I believe in you.”

    Combined together I could not help but think that this is mirror image of the Centurion’s prayer in the gospel. In his case he prayed. I believe, help me in my unbelief, in this story in effect Kurt and Sue say, independently, I don’t believe, help me in my belief.

  • Alyssa Mallozzi

    I don’t watch Glee, not because I dislike it;I just forget when it’s on, and I don’t watch much TV to begin with. I have to disagree in a few instances with the author of this piece because I have seen this kind of behavior firsthand in school. In my senior year of high school, I was coddled into attending a prayer group that held court in one of the classrooms before classes began. I really didn’t want to go, but I felt bad about letting the girl who invited me down. It was like going to a tent revival. It was creepy. It was run by the Earth Sciences teacher, who would insert bits of creationism into his lessons.
    Much as we say there’s separation of church and state, I have seen much to the contrary. Any time someone wants to open a town/city meeting with a prayer other than Christian, people go ballistic. We have big, grandiose monuments of the Ten Commandments planted in courthouses, lunatic religious typs being elected and trying to force their faith into legislation.
    I once had people try to faith heal me of my birth defects and partial blindness as a child. It scared the daylights out of me, because I never thought adults could act so strangely. I didn’t regain my sight in one eye, nor was my deformed nose fixed. I find it obnoxious and condescending for people to ‘pray’ for me, especially to convert me to God. I’m quite happy with my own faith, and I really resent it when they get pushy and downright aggressive if I politely decline. I think the show was dead on in its portrayal, and I didn’t think there was any exaggeration. We just choose to turn a blind eye to the reality of it all.

  • Rafa

    But maybe there really is some kind of correlation between atheism and homosexuality…don’t you think the episode was a little biased?

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