Glee, Compassion and Talking to Atheists

I know it’s been a few weeks since the religion episode of Glee, but I can’t stop thinking about a conversation that transpired between (Christian) Mercedes and (Atheist) Kurt. In the episode, Kurt’s dad is in the hospital in a coma after a heart attack. Meanwhile, other events also inspire a discussion of some students’ desire to sing “spiritual songs” in the glee club, where Kurt makes clear his objection to religion, primarily based on the church’s treatment of women and gay people. When Kurt is in a traumatic situation, his friends respond by praying over his dad and Mercedes invites him to church.

The scene between Mercedes and Kurt has stuck with me, because I’ve been there. I have friends who feel like Kurt does – they see the pile of injustices that have been endorsed and justified by religion across history, and they want nothing to do with it. I see where they are coming from, though I obviously have a different response. Because of these friendships, I have found myself in a few situations like the one Mercedes does in this episode: an atheist friend is experiencing a tough time, and I’m praying for them, but I don’t know what to say about it.

Mercedes says she doesn’t know how to be around Kurt during this tough time, and then makes a dramatic statement: “I know you don’t believe in God, and that’s okay. But you have to believe in something bigger than yourself.” She also invites him to church and tells him she’s asking her whole church to pray for Kurt’s dad.

Inviting Kurt to church, and offering him prayers are, I think, good things to do. When I’ve been in Mercedes' position before, I’ve told people I’m praying for them, and even though they don’t believe in God or in prayers, they appreciated it. Once, I shared my uncertainty about how to talk to people who don’t share my beliefs with an agnostic friend. She told me that my prayers mean something to her because they mean something to me, and this has made me bolder in expressing compassion with the language of faith to those who don’t share my faith.

Two things bother me about Mercedes’ statement: it makes it seem like all beliefs are the same, and it’s dismissive of Kurt’s strongly-held position. I don’t think a hard time in someone’s life is time for lectures and imperatives, but I also don’t think it’s a time to brush off the specificity of your own belief. I would rather Mercedes say something like “I know you don’t believe in God, but I do, and I would like to pray for you, because I think it’s the most powerful thing a person can do.” Atheist blogger Amanda Marcotte’s response to the episode makes me uncertain if any religious statement would come across as compassion to her, but I wonder if her response would be different if the interaction at hand was a real friendship, and not a fictional one. What I do think is a vague statement about believing in something simultaneously dismisses Atheists and people who follow a real, specific faith.

How do you respond to atheist or agnostic friends who are facing terrible circumstances? How do you show Christ’s love without seeming condescending or smug? These are questions I continue to struggle with, and maybe the ways a person can receive God’s love through God’s people is unique to their situation, but I think Christians have more to offer than generic suggestions to believe in something.

Beth Felker Jones’s similar take on the episode turns to the incarnation as an answer, and I think we're on the same path here. She's pointing toward one thing that makes Christianity different from believing in just anything-- we believe in a God who made himself flesh. And also a hint at how to be more Christ-like in our interactions.

Comments (20)

Leave a Comment
TBH, I don't see the situation really coming up that much in real life. Glee's a show, and fiction -- I don't see someone as militantly atheistic as Kurt having a friendship with someone as devout as Mercedes in the first place. :P I know people who are "light" atheists and "easter/christmas" Christians who are friends, but none that are more extreme in their beliefs.
Can't comment on the Glee episode, as I have seen it only once, and that was the Brittany Spears episode (is this show really an hour long?). I truly doubt that our culture can portray religion in America as anything better than "therapeutic moralistic deism;" our culture shows the worst in religion in America in portrayals of whacked-out extremists or nefarious plotting clergy. I think the show of a few seasons ago, "Joan of Arcadia," tried admirably and interestingly, but still fell into a spiritual vagueness.

The problem, I think, with our response to our atheist or agnostic friends is that if we are truly honest with ourselves, we see them by those adjectives rather than truly and wholly as friends. Do we have an open friendship with them, do we accept them as children of God? or do we always have as an ulterior motive their conversion? And do they perceive that about us---that if they became Christian, they would fully become our friend? The same might go for our friends of other beliefs, whether Catholic or even non-Christian, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. Is the depth of our connection with them contingent on their conversion-potential? "I'll pray for you" is great, but showing objective, tangible love and concern, by standing in the gap with the struggling and suffering friend, is in my book a stronger witness to God's love.
I try to think how I would feel if someone of a different faith were to come to me and say that they were practicing X ritual. If it would bother me, then I need to think about twice about how me offering the same to someone else might come across. Generally, I find it better to ask if I can pray for someone rather than to just say that I'm going to do it.

More than anything, I want to show my friends, regardless of their faith, that I love them. If that's best served by prayer, then I'm all over that. But if there's something that I can DO, I want to make sure that gets done. Because THAT is what they're going to remember.
I guess it depends on your context. As I said in the post, I have a number of atheist friends, which is why the interaction stuck with me. It's one that I've had, though I handled it differently.
Kurt's not "militantly" atheist, whatever you mean by that. You'll note he never even mentioned his atheism until he was put into the uncomfortable position in the classroom of either having to be dishonest with his friend by letting her think he could accept the advice offered in her song, or explain why he couldn't.

I'm an atheist, and I appreciate the question that's being asked here. I've dealt with (and still deal with) some very difficult things that have, at times, had my religious friends at something of a loss as to how to help. A number of them have offered prayers. I can't tell you how every atheist would respond, but I can say that in talking with some others, I know I'm not alone in my own feelings on the matter: we are generally touched by the kindness that we know is behind the thought, but also embarrassed by what we see as an ineffective gesture. Imagine if you will that someone said to you, "I'm sorry your wife is in a coma, I will go home and pet my cat in hopes that it will make her come out of it," and knowing that the person is absolutely sincere in that statement.

You can't slap your forehead, even though it strikes you as ridiculous, because that would be repaying a genuine kindness with cruelty. And yet you're already frayed and exhausted because of what you're going through. So instead of feeling like you're getting support, you feel like now you're tasked with supporting someone else by validating their beliefs, which you don't share, at precisely the time when you haven't the energy to spare to do so.

I have four dear friends who offered support in my most difficult times. One is Jewish, one is a deist of some flavor, the other two have never discussed their beliefs or the absence thereof, and all four are aware that I am an atheist. They provided me with support by giving me their time, getting me out of the home, talking and eating with me, cooking for me (I cannot begin to express how wonderful it is to have someone cook for you when you're dealing with a crisis), and simply letting me know they were there if I needed them.

They may also have prayed, for all I know. But if they did, they did so privately.

That is how you can support anyone, regardless of their beliefs or nonbelief: just be a friend. Mercedes's ultimate failure to do this in the episode -- her inability to support Kurt on anything other than her own terms -- was the show's biggest failure.
This is exactly what I was going to say. I'm an atheist, and it baffles me that people would say, like Mercedes, that they don't know how to talk or act around me. I'm not a space alien, I'm a human being just like anyone else. If you think about me as a human being just like you, it becomes really easy: think of how you'd feel if someone else were trying to force on you a religious ritual from a faith that's not your own.
Oh shoot, I just typed in a comment and it disappeared...lets try this again!

I'm an atheist, and from that point of view I felt that in that episode of Glee, Mercedes was completely disregarding Kurt's feelings. She was preying on him when he was at his weakest. Kurt made it clear that he didn't believe in god, but to make herself feel better, Mercedes pestered Kurt into going to church. I thought it was very insensitive. If I were in the same situation as Kurt I would have been hurt that my friends wouldn't let me deal with it in the way I felt comfortable. If my friends want to pray for me, that's fine, it's a nice sentiment - but if they started pushing their beliefs on me it would just make the situation harder.

I have Christian friends and family members, and if I were going through a tough time I would appreciate it if they were just there for me themselves, rather than them trying to convince me that their god was there with me. If my friends want to convert me (back) to Christianity, they can try, but if I'm downtrodden and they try to leverage that into an opportunity to save my sould I would be very offended. Hopefully that makes sense!

I also blogged about the episode - it's the first result if you Google "glee atheist", if you're curious to see what I said :)

Anyways I thought this was a very thoughtful post, and I'm glad that you're considerate of the feelings of atheists!
I don't see how you can paint Kurt as "militantly atheistic", unless you also refer to Mercedes as "militantly Christian" or Finn as "militantly grilled Cheezus". Kurt expressed his beliefs (or lack thereof) in the same way as the others did. Does saying what he things outloud make him militant? He didn't try to make others lose their faith, he simply stated why he didn't believe.

I refer you to this cartoon:
Penn Jillette, (Penn & Teller) who is a notorious, vocal atheist, made an interesting comment a year ago. After a show a Christian came up to him, complimented him and then gave him a Bible. Penn commented online about that gesture (

Penn “If you believe that there is a heaven and a hell and people could be going to heaven or not getting eternal life and you feel that it’s not really worth telling them because it’s socially awkward, how much do you have to hate someone to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” Then he went on to say in appreciation of thisd witnessing Christian, “he cared enough about me to proselytize.”

Sure, it is socially awkward, sure, feelings could possibly get hurt, (and it is important to be kind, considerate, and sane) but sharing the gospel is what love does. As Penn says, “How much do you have to hate someone” to withold the gospel out of a fear of embarrasment or alienation.

Also we may be reluctant to say “I’ll pray for you” if down deep we don’t really believe our prayers will accomplish anything. Then, of course, its just religious babble that makes the conversation awkward. But if we do believe God answers prayer and loves the person, why not make the offer?
disclaimer: I'm not commenting to be aggressive, I'm just trying to give a point of view that I think would help further dialogue.
That's one way to see it, but in my opinion it comes from the societal pressure to keep your mouth shut and express only gratitude. The way I see it, someone who proselytizes is being either extremely rude, or out of touch with reality. There's just no way that anyone can live in western civilization and not hear about Christianity in a daily basis. It sounds like what a proselityzer is saying is that an atheist person is only atheist because he hasn't hear there was an option. It's condescending and insulting. An example: knitters who knit socks in public will often report strangers telling them "You're knitting socks? Why don't you just buy them, they're cheap!"
Also: there's a difference between evangelizing and proselityzing. Evangelizing is sharing of the good news, it's an invitation, and "No, thank you" is a valid answer to an invitation. If a no isn't acceptable then it's not an invitation. It's harassment.
The fact is, most atheists can't help but know most Christian religions, often most non-Christian religions too, better than we wanted to, because we need to know these things to survive.
Because Christians are majority, they're our families, our neighbors, our teachers, our entertainment producers, our law enforcement, our public policy makers.
In contrast, how much do religious people know about atheism, when saying just "I'm an atheist" is enough to brand someone militant (see comments below)?
A much better alternative to "I'll pray for you", one that works in every single situation (even between believers!) is "What can I do to help?" Sometimes the answer will be something concrete, like "Bring me a coffee", sometimes it will even be "Keep me in your thoughts and pray for me."
Besides, announcing your prayers? "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."


Leave a comment

A login account is required to leave a comment

See the latest in:


promo 1 promo 2
promo 3 promo 4

Donate Now