'Glee' explores what it means not to believe

Religion represents such an obvious hornets’ nest that television — a medium that traditionally sought not to offend — has been generally advised to steer clear of it. Yet as this week demonstrates, some are braving those treacherous waters.

The reasons vary, ranging from intolerance toward Islam to religiously informed opposition to gay rights to a political surge by candidates who translate their evangelical beliefs into public policy.

The Tea Party movement has brought to centerstage senatorial candidates such as Christine O’Donnell — who has denied evolution — and Sharron Angle, whose staunch anti-abortion views are based on her religion.

Until now, the intellectual resistance has resided, not surprisingly, in print, in the form of works by authors Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the last of whom appeared on “The Daily Show” Monday plugging his latest book, “The Moral Landscape.”

But TV is slowly catching up, with those tackling the topic confined largely to a few members of the liberal punditry, magician-skeptics Penn & Teller and Bill Maher, who has the luxury of occupying the rarefied commercial-free confines of HBO’s “Real Time.”

Maher recently hosted Richard Tillman, the brother of the celebrated football player/soldier/victim of friendly fire, Pat Tillman. The program featured a clip of the surviving Tillman tersely rejecting assurances about Pat being in a better place at his brother’s memorial service.

“I found it offensive,” Tillman told Maher, declaring that he — like his brother — isn’t religious. “It’s like, I don’t go to a church and say, ‘This is bullshit,’ so don’t come to my brother’s service and tell me he’s with God.”

Other venues are tentatively probing religion — and in some instances, expressing hostility toward it.

Representing what will surely be the most widely seen of these exercises, the producers of “Glee” explored questions of faith in this week’s episode. The “Glee” team went out of their way to be even-handed, emulating the topical Norman Lear episodes of old; nevertheless, it was bracing to see characters openly declare their atheism.

Gay teen Kurt, for example, called belief in God “kind of Santa Claus for adults,” while irascible cheerleading coach Sue flashed anger in saying, “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn’t a moral thing to do.”

The Syfy series “Caprica,” which returns this week, also parallels real-world religious extremism in provocative ways, as did its predecessor “Battlestar Galactica.” In this case, monotheists — that is, believers in a single God — are the terrorists, lashing out against the ensconced polytheistic culture.

Given the sensitivities associated with religion — and the alacrity with which groups such as the Catholic League pounce on perceived slights — even more staid programming can feel relatively adventuresome.

ABC News, for example, featured an edition of “20/20″ addressing misconceptions about Muslims, along with a “This Week” town hall discussing whether America had cause to fear Islam. During the course of that exchange, one random interviewee dismissed all religion as “superstition,” and a panelist noted that evangelist Franklin Graham — the son of Billy Graham — sounded equally extreme and loony describing his Christian faith to the untrained ear as the practitioners of Islam whom Graham has called “wicked.”

PBS, meanwhile, will air a three-part documentary starting Oct. 11 titled “God in America.” Based on recent history, the service’s ombudsman should expect his email cup to overflow-eth, despite the project’s scholarly tone.

Still unknown is the potential fallout from the “Glee” episode and whether those in the creative community who once would have sat on the sidelines will be emboldened — and perhaps most significantly, allowed — to speak out and engage viewers with similar material.

Because while attracting attention by “making noise” is an obvious priority these days, religion remains a tinderbox — and is still seen by many as a headache of the “Why invite the grief?” variety. Put it this way: It’s been a while since we’ve seen a character rail against God, as Martin Sheen’s U.S. president did (in Latin, no less) in a 2001 episode of “The West Wing.”

In a sense, then, this mini-wave isn’t about TV finding religion but testing its spine — daring to ask questions about faith, while confronted by those so eager to offer public testimony about theirs.

brian.lowry@variety.com

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