In stark opposition to the substanceless Britney episode last week, this week’s Glee offered us some incredibly serious discussion about religion, and more importantly, atheism. There was plenty to like and plenty to be frustrated about. In this post, I’m going to dissect the episode in quite a lot of detail, moreso than many will even think necessary. If you haven’t seen the episode, don’t read this post!
Many will disagree with me about the nuances of this episode, and that’s fine. I’m only speaking on my own behalf in this post. And yes, I can’t expect the episode to be perfect or only favor atheism, so to those of you who think that accusing me of being too picky or whiny is a good reason to disregard my thoughts, well, get over yourself and hear me out. 🙂
Regardless of any of the details I describe below, “Grilled Cheesus” accomplishes a few very important things for network TV: Multiple characters come out as atheists and the story does not end with their conversion. Aside from South Park, serious discussions about atheism and critiques of religion are seldom heard on television, and so while I have numerous critiques (including the fact that the a-word was never actually said), I am quite proud of the show for this important step and the discussion it offers.
Let’s take a look at some of the things that came up related to faith in this episode.
Pareidolia and Finn
We’re introduced to this episode with Finn discovering Grilled Cheesus, which he continues to pray to throughout the episode. This, obviously, is a classic example of pareidolia, making meaning of things we see when such meaning isn’t really there. You see two circles and a line, you see a face, and suddenly you attribute a significance that wasn’t there before.
Religious pareidolia is all too common and gets way more attention than it deserves, as Finn’s story shows us. Finn is a little dimwitted, and out of fairness to believers, I think it was a little unfair how quickly he went from worshiping Cheesus to “losing his religion.” If anything, I think this lesson of the episode is an important one for believers. Emma’s lines challenge those who do have faith to be more thoughtful about how they interpret it:
God works in all kinds of mysterious ways, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to speak to us through sandwiches.
What Finn’s story does show is how it only takes poking one hole in faith for the whole balloon to deflate. Faith is a pedestal we imagine for ourselves to stand on, and when we realize it isn’t there like we thought it was, we fall pretty quickly from our perch, not unlike Wile E. Coyote. Finn may be dimwitted, but his words actually speak to the challenges of arriving at nonbelief and reconciling the messages society sends us about the importance of faith:
It was sort of a cool feeling like I had this direct line to God. Now I just feel like everybody else, you know, like we’re all just floating around in space. I don’t like that.
We are just floating in space, but that’s a good thing. We have each other and that’s all we need and that’s all we’ve ever needed. It’s alarming to realize that after society has convinced you for your entire life that there is something greater and that it’s the something greater that is really what makes life worth living. No, life makes life worth living, and once Finn realizes that, he’ll probably be quite happily nonreligious.
Burt, Kurt’s dad, introduces us to the concept of things “sacred,” like the tradition of Friday night dinners Kurt’s mom started. Sacred is obviously a word with interpretations both religious and secular. Burt’s strikes me as incredibly secular:
The whole point of having something sacred is that it takes precedence over anything else you got going on. … If you start giving up things like Friday night dinners, then you got nothing to hold onto.
This is a sentiment I think we can all relate to. It speaks to tradition, relationships, and social comforts—making sure we have support we need in our lives. Some will argue that god plays the same role, but he doesn’t have to.
While I have plenty of misgivings about how Mercedes treats Kurt in this episode, I do think it’s interesting the parallels drawn between her comments to him in church and what Burt said.
But you’ve got to believe in something. Something more than you can touch, taste, or see. ‘Cause life is too hard to go through it alone, without something to hold onto and without something that’s sacred.
Now, this is very pushy about religious belief, and I expect most religious believers feel vindicated by it. She told him! He has to believe SOMETHING. The truth is, I think this vindicates Kurt’s atheism more than anything. Kurt doesn’t necessarily have beliefs, but he does relate. What he holds sacred isn’t beyond this world, but his relationships and traditions are no less sacred. He remembers the first Friday night dinner after his mom passed away, and how important his family is.
I don’t believe in God, Dad. But I believe in you. I believe in us. You and me—that’s what’s sacred to me. And I am… I’m so sorry that I never got to tell you that.
I found this notion to be incredibly redeeming of nonbelievers.
Coming Out Atheist
For as absurdist as Glee can be, I thought Kurt’s coming out as atheist was an extremely real portrayal of how challenging it can be. (We discuss this on this week’s Queer and Queerer as well.) Think back to the beginning of the series when Kurt first came out as gay. It really wasn’t a big deal to New Directions; they loved him just the same. In this case, Kurt is already faced with trauma in his life, and yet the response is anything but welcoming.
In fact, the defenses go up almost immediately. Here’s the whole dialogue of that scene:
Kurt: Thank you, Mercedes. Your voice is stunning, but… I don’t believe in God.
Tina: Wait, what?
Kurt: You’ve all professed your beliefs. I’m just stating mine. I think God is kind of like Santa Clause 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.
Let me interrupt the scene here for a second. Kurt delivers this incredibly calmly. He’s not aggressive, but he’s in tremendous pain about his father and he’s in tremendous pain for how he’s been treated for being gay and he is simply explaining himself. The kid is clearly in pain, but where do things go from here?
Mercedes: But Kurt, how do you know for sure? I mean, you can’t prove that there’s no God.
Suddenly it’s all about Mercedes’ beliefs being challenged. Forget that Kurt’s dad might soon die or all the hurt he’s experienced from religiously-provoked anti-gay sentiment… isn’t it important he still consider god? Talk about provoking somebody when they’re down!
Kurt: You can’t prove that there isn’t a magic 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?
Brittany: Is God an evil dwarf?
Quinn: We shouldn’t be talking like this. It’s not right.
Notice Quinn says “we” when she really means “you.” Rather than hear poor Kurt out, she’s telling him what he can and can’t say. This is not acceptance and it’s not open-mindedness, and it is all too often the response people get to disclosing their nonbelief.
Kurt: I’m sorry, Quinn, but you all can 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.
Kurt makes a smart decision, I think. He leaves the room. He removes himself from a situation in which he does not feel comfortable. He doesn’t raise his voice; he doesn’t get angry. He even shows gratitude for their thoughts. Do any of them show any concern or appreciation for his point of view? No.
Atheists are still one of the most stigmatized groups in the country, and this episode resonated that fact clearly and profoundly. Simply by revealing himself, Kurt made others feel attacked. Did he attack them? No. And yet the idea that someone might not share their beliefs became more important than that person’s grief. It’s pretty sad that the fragility of faith so often inspires people to think selfishly rather than see past their own insecurities to care for a fellow human being.
Religion in Schools
This matter was not really addressed in detail, and thus it is hard to comment on. It’s unclear what exactly “the lesson” was that Mr. Schue was “teaching” in glee that week. Students are, of course, allowed to express their own spirituality in schools. Also, sacred texts may be studied. (Obviously, many—if not most—of the masterworks of choral music use sacred texts and they simply can’t all be ignored.)
Schue suggests doing “songs about spirituality.” That’s all the context we have, and it does strike me as a fine line. If Kurt is an atheist (which could very well mean “not spiritual” to him) and is being forced to do something that is spiritual, that could very well be an imposition of religion against his 1st amendment rights. For the sake of the show, we have to entertain the benefit of the doubt that Schue’s lesson crossed the line.
I would take this line with a grain of salt, though:
Guys, you can still sing whatever songs you like that sum up your feelings about God, about spirit. You just can’t do it on school time.
They probably could. It probably just can’t be an assignment in a class.
Sue’s Motives and Atheism
Believe it or not, I actually thought Sue was perfectly in the right in this episode. Some (including my mother, oy) feel that she was using Kurt to get at Schue like she always does. This time, though, I thought her motives were sincere, not manipulative, and spoke to principle, not sabotage.
Here’s the scene where she talks to Kurt:
Sue: How’s your father?
Kurt: They say his condition is critical but stable. Good news, I guess.
Sue: I’m sorry for what you’re going through, Lady. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. And I guess I don’t have to—I think Mary Lou Retton’s, like, an orphan or something. I don’t like what Schuester’s doing in that classroom even more than usual. But I can’t go to the school board without an official complaint from a student.
Kurt: So you want me to be your scapegoat?
Sue: No. You don’t understand. I know at times I mess around with you guys for fun. I admit it—it aids digestion. But I’m not joking here. I want to be your champion.
In case the audience feels that Kurt simply caved (why wouldn’t he? he was so bullied in class he had to remove himself), Emma becomes our next stand-in to assess Sue’s motives.
Emma: There is a boy in that Glee Club that might lose his father. How could you get in the way when the only thing anybody is trying to do is give that poor child just a little bit of comfort? What happened to you, Sue? Please tell me what horrible, horrible thing happened to you that made you such a miserable tyrant.
Sue: Have a seat. Since I was a little girl, I’ve had exactly one hero: my big sister. You know how much I worshiped her? She was the sun and the moon to me. And while I was still very young, I noticed that other people didn’t feel the way I did. People were rude to her. They were cruel. They laughed at her. And so I began to pray. I prayed every night for her to get better. And nothing changed. So I prayed harder. And after a while I realized it wasn’t that I wasn’t praying hard enough… it’s that no one was listening. Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn’t a moral thing to do. It’s cruel.
Emma: Don’t you think that’s just a little bit arrogant?
Sue: 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?
Emma: Well, if that’s what you believe, that’s fine. But please keep it to yourself.
Sue: So long as you do the same. That kid could lose his father at any moment. You should start preparing him for that.
Here again we see an atheist coming out quite calmly, and yet provoking a defensive reaction. While Sue may normally be the villain, her words here speak truth to a lot of people’s experiences. No one should have to be forced to “play along” with the religious belief of others, not out of guilt and not out of peer pressure.
If Sue really is just out to destroy glee this week, she has a funny way of showing it. Personally, I think she should be commended for being the one person who validates Kurt’s feelings and experiences. Seriously, no one else does.
The members of New Directions seem nonplussed—if not indignant—about Kurt’s nonbelief. It’s as if there is nothing they can offer the poor guy if he doesn’t want prayer. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to just be there as a friend to him. They’re too consumed with their own intent to pray to actually see where he’s coming from. The episode suggests he is pushing them away, but honestly, are they giving him anything to hold onto?
The scene where Rachel, Quinn, and Mercedes are all praying for Burt really irritated me. It didn’t bother me that they were there at the hospital; it bothered me they were only there to pray, even though Kurt had already specifically said he didn’t want their prayers. And they’re pretty arrogant about it:
Mercedes: Rachel, Quinn, and I are taking turns. We’re from different denominations and religions, so we figured one of us is bound to be right.
Unfortunately, many people feel this way. Again, Kurt really isn’t all that confrontational (certainly not “aggressive”), saying simply, “I didn’t ask you to do this.” Finn’s Mom, Carole (who took way too long to appear in this episode), again speaks to defensiveness.
Carole: Honey, I know you’re upset about what’s happening. I get it, but friends help out, even when you don’t ask.
Kurt asks them politely to leave, and as they leave, Rachel insists, “We just wanted to do something.”
Well, they picked the one thing Kurt already asked them not to do. And apparently if he won’t accept that, they have nothing else to offer. Faith comes first, then friendship?
Later, Mercedes persists in forcing faith upon Kurt.
Mercedes: Kurt, can I talk to you for a second? I know you’re going through a really scary time right now, but I feel like I don’t know how to be around you anymore, and I know you’re not really spiritual or whatever, but I feel like you’re closing yourself to a world of experiences that might surprise you.
Okay, so, it’s Kurt’s fault that Mercedes doesn’t know how to deal with his unbelief, it’s Kurt’s fault that the believers don’t know how to be around him, and it’s Kurt’s fault that he’s struggling to cope because he wouldn’t have the same problems if he opened himself to “surprises.”
Mercedes could have said the exact same thing when Kurt came out to her as gay. If she had, it would have been really hurtful and they probably wouldn’t have become best friends like they did. Why is it any less hurtful for this identity?
Hint: It’s not. But you know what people do sometimes when they can’t resist the bullying anymore? They just take it. They acquiesce. People only have so much fight in them. Kurt realizes that, apparently, the only way he can maintain his friendship with Mercedes is if he caves to her pushiness, so he does.
Kurt: You’re right. I’m sorry. I should be pushing my friends away, especially friends as fabulous as you.
What is he sorry for? I don’t know. They were the ones who belittled him and ostracized him. Is his apology enough for Mercedes? Of course not. The proselytism must continue:
Mercedes: Do me a favor—one thing. Come to church with his Sunday…
She just won’t be satisfied until she wins him over. This is the epitome of insecurity in faith. Until Kurt signs on to her faith, she just doesn’t know how to be around him. How sad.
Now let’s revisit that church scene. It’s pretty sweet for Mercedes to go out of her way to get her church to dedicate their service to Kurt’s dad, but take a look at the situation she brings him into.
He’s almost the only white person in the church. He’s certainly the only man wearing a hat, which some would consider very disrespectful. And who knows how that congregation feels about gay people? Then, he’s left in the pew by himself. And if that weren’t enough, Mercedes then calls him out and calls out his nonbelief in a church full of strangers. Let’s see that full quote:
Mercedes: Hi church! I have a favor to ask you guys. My friend Kurt Hummel’s dad is in the hospital. And it’s pretty bad. And I know we have all of our own worries and troubles, but if we could just put them aside and focus all of our prayers and give them to Burt Hummel, and to my friend Kurt. I know you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in the power of prayer, and that’s okay, to each his own. But you’ve got to believe in something. Something more than you can touch, taste, or see. ‘Cause life is too hard to go through it alone, without something to hold onto and without something that’s sacred.
Oh, that’s okay. We’re going to pray for you anyway. Just take it. Just endure this most uncomfortable situation, because we believe it’s good for you.
Nothing silences atheism quite like boisterous gospel music (though atheists are quite capable of appreciating it). The song was beautiful, and was a wonderful tribute to a friend, but if you watch Kurt, he doesn’t ever really feel comfortable. Why would he? All of that is being imposed upon him against his wishes and without respect for his own point of view. Even the most heartfelt bullying is still bullying.
At no point does anyone suggest to the other students they ought to better appreciate Kurt’s point of view. Their pushy prayer and proselytism go unchallenged. While I found this incredibly frustrating, I have to give the show credit for how realistic it was. As I wrote about before, the act of prayer can be an incredibly selfish one, and this episode certainly showed an example of what that can look like. When we help people, I think it’s so much more important to consider what they need from us than what we want for them.
Resolving Sue and Kurt’s Stories
This is the part where I was most frustrated. While I was glad to see that neither Sue nor Kurt converted, I was disappointed to see them both acquiesce. It was as if the moral of the episode was that the way to get along is to contribute to Christianism and religious privilege. Sue tolerates songs about God and welcomes prayers from her sister. Kurt apologizes for not accepting people’s prayers.
Given the conversations we’ve been having lately about bullying, I’m just so disappointed that the message is giving in. The conflict of pushing beliefs on others goes unaddressed. Perhaps the episode Glee has committed to doing about gay teens will have a better message about bullying.
Still, we all go on… as friends and as family. While neither Kurt nor Finn seemed enthused about singing “What If God Was One of Us,” they were still very much members of the glee club family, and that kind of harmony is a message no one can disagree with. And while we may not be sure what direction Glee is taking us this season, we cannot deny that it still has the power to speak powerful truth to the challenges of the world we live in (and that even in the most serious episodes, Brittany can still be hilarious!).