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Atheist Meets Angels in TV Land: Guess Who Wins?

By Patrick Inniss

Once again Christianity has provided us with a reason to proclaim, "Thank God I'm an atheist!" 

If you follow the Christian subculture and big businesses' exploitation of that lucrative market segment, you are no doubt familiar with a television program called "Touched By An Angel." Fans abbreviate the show's name as TBAA, but I will simply call it "Touched."

This show is kind of like that other famous angel show, "Charlie's Angels," except that instead of Charlie you have God. Charlie's Angels don't have anything on the "Touched" angels in the hair department. Although the angels of God don't blow anybody away with pistols, one of them is the Angel of Death, who, in the upbeat spirit of the show, approaches his deadly assignments with an amount of cheer that only the most blissed-out Christian could appreciate. While Charlie's Angels were fighting evil and promoting justice, the angels in "Touched" are usually satisfied to convince a person or two every week that angels exist and that God loves them, no matter what terrible events they may encounter. World trouble spots are not normally on these angels' itinerary. Overall, the series actually has much more in common with "The Twilight Zone," but instead of aliens or time travelers who interfere with the course of human history, we are presented with angels who kibitz while ordinary folks struggle with life's travails.

In the episode aired on Sunday, March 12th, the angels are assigned to intervene in the life of an atheist and his family. To make things interesting, this atheist left his Hebrew faith as a boy and never looked back. Until, that is, his religious son, on his deathbed, begs his non-believing dad to don traditional prayer togs and give it another whirl. The portrayal of the atheist as a smart but abrasive, financially successful Jew echoed so many stereotypes that the script is a testament to the insensitivity of the writers and producers. 

To stack the deck a little more, the atheist is played by a spry but barely intelligible post-stroke Kirk Douglas. Douglas' portrayal is only slightly more sympathetic than the archetypal "town atheist," having most of the ego and crassness, but thankfully omitting the outright hostility. After all, this character has to be rehabilitated in less than 50 minutes. But I admit there were a couple of times during the show that I found myself wishing that Douglas would revert to his Spartacus character and use his sword to lop off angel Della Reese's head. Is she really a selling point for Heaven? Her character somehow manages to make Fred Sanford's old bete noire Aunt Esther seem charming by comparison.

The most insulting part of this waste of radio waves was delivered by the atheist's son, a philosophy professor. During a lecture, he discusses Pascal's Wager. In the "Touched" version of this famous justification for belief in God, Pascal's main concern is morality, which is tied to a belief in God. The son puts a new spin on Pascal, saying, "If you behave morally, as if God exists, and he does, then you win everything. If you behave immorally, as if God does not exist, and you're right, you win nothing." The option of "not believing in God and behaving morally" is not presented. Once again Christians have equated belief with morality. To do this they had to make a considerable stretch, since Pascal's Wager makes no statement regarding ethical behavior. It is merely an attempt to determine whether or not one should believe in God: "wagering for God." 

Pascal assumes that, regardless of one's ethical conduct, if one fails to believe in a God that turns out to in fact exist, then the penalty will be eternal suffering. Pascal never asserted that moral behavior was necessarily tied to belief. Furthermore, the presentation of Pascal's Wager in a program with a Judeo/Christian theme is about as out of place as the Pope showing up on the "Howard Stern" show. Although Pascal is considered a Christian apologist, Pascal's Wager has as its premise an admission that the existence of God cannot be known. Such an assertion flies in the face of Christian dogma, which contends that God's existence is evident in his creations. The "leap of faith" Pascal suggests is done only as a calculated strategy to maximize self-interest by avoiding all possibility of punishment by a God, that above all, demands that we believe in Him. I always suspected selfish motives for Christian beliefs, and embracing Pascal's Wager confirms it. So much for agapé.

Of course the outcome of all of this is inevitable: the lifelong atheist returns to his religious heritage and has himself bar mitzvahed. I was left feeling a little bit better about this outcome, however, since the writers had the good sense to realize that a deus ex machina would be required to obtain the expected conversion: one of the angels reveals herself to the atheist. The special effects were less than dazzling, but I had to admit that if I had such an experience I might hustle myself off to temple, too-either that or the closest loony bin.

So there we have it-yet another atheist bites the dust in the face of the irresistible appeal of belief, at least when presented by a beautiful, glowing angel. This is apparently the sort of pabulum the entertainment lords feel will sell to the Christian masses. In another era the story would have likely focused upon swaying the Jews to Christianity. Now the only safe targets are we atheists.


Pascal assumes that, regardless of one's ethical conduct, if one fails to believe in a God that turns out to in fact exist, then the penalty will be eternal suffering.

Patrick Inniss is a columnist with The Secular Humanist Press, the newsletter of the Humanists of Washington. The following is reprinted from the Spring 2000 issue of the newsletter, with special permission of the author.

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