Ambassador of atheism?

I've been paying a little bit of attention to the media hullabaloo over the Alabama Governor's altar call and it got me thinking of how I wish another high profile figure's comments on religion had gotten a bit more mainstream media treatment. I speak, of course, about the powerful Ricky Gervais. My husband and I are fans of Gervais, who's probably best known as the creator of The Office. The British version of the show is brilliant. Now, little of his work since then has been worth any of your time, but that's another story.

On Sunday night, Gervais hosted the 68th annual Golden Globes. He was shocking and funny. He was also horribly rude. He mocked Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp's recent film performances, mocked the sad sex life of Hugh Hefner, reminded everyone of their past drug use, sexual peccadilloes, and embarrassing box office receipts. But it was a sight to see this man brutally busting everyone's chops while they had cameras on them. Lots of clenched teeth and half grins in that crowd. Some began taking potshots back at him. Much more entertaining than the typical awards show.

There were at least a couple bits related to religion. From his opening monologue:

Also not nominated 'I Love You Phillip Morris.' Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay. So the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists then."

The audience gasps in horror. In fact, his hosting went over so poorly with the crowd that at some point we wondered if he'd been fired mid-show. We couldn't remember the last time we'd seen him on stage. But he came back on stage at the end and sent everyone off with final words. Here's how the Boston Herald put it:

Closing the show, Gervais said, "Thank you to God for making me an atheist."

Robert Downey Jr. summed up the night best: "Aside from the fact that it's been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I'd say the vibe of the show has been pretty good so far, wouldn't you?"

The next day, all the TV critics in TV critic land opined on the hosting. Most of the American ones wrote pieces disparaging his rudeness. I waited a few days to see if any got into the content, discussed the religious aspects, or used the whole episode as a hook to discuss ethics. For the most part, they did not -- even though there were tons of coverage of the hosting. Why not? I have no idea. Is it fear of covering Scientology? Is it the Hollywood journalist version of the somewhat typical tone deafness we see on religion? It's certainly not restraint, is it?

What I was really hoping for was a quick look at how atheists view Gervais. I was thinking, as I finished watching him, about what a "hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones" ambassador for atheism he is. It's probably wrong that I find his humor so funny, but there's no escaping the hatred and negativity there. How comfortable are various atheists with this high-profile atheist being such a hater? What do the "Why Believe in a God? Just Be Good for Goodness' Sake" campaigners think about this fellow nonbeliever? I have no idea and I think it would make for an interesting piece. And it could be tied into Gervais' film, a less-than-subtle argument for atheism that didn't go over well with viewers.

Instead we got approaches such as this one taken by CNN's Larry King replacement Piers Morgan: "Ricky Gervais says atheism shouldn't offend." Morgan seems to think the big takeaway is that Gervais offended Christians -- something that indicates a lack of creative questioning and Christianity. When Gervais says you don't need to be Christian to be moral and that he himself is a good person who treats people well, I was expecting the host to ask whether good people who treat others well should remind others of their worst sins, mock their abilities or judge their motivations. Instead he just moves on to another question.

Here's the thing. It's not hard to understand why Gov. Bentley's altar call raised eyebrows among journalists. It most definitely should be covered (even if it would be nice if such coverage reflected more familiarity with Baptist theology and practice), but how many people in this country were watching Bentley's address? Probably not that many. Many more, surely, became familiar with it after all that coverage. Even so, I bet more people were familiar with Ricky Gervais' remarks than the remarks of the Alabama governor. Alabama has a population of 4.7 million. The Golden Globes had an average viewership of 17 million, making it the number one show of the week.

I'm terribly interested in what the governor said, but people can say interesting things about religion outside the political realm, too. Gervais' suggestion about Scientology and its role in Hollywood is fascinating. His atheist shout-out as well. And these celebrity statements on religion influence the culture just as much -- in some cases more -- than politicians' discussion of religion. Media coverage should reflect that reality.

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