We’ll get to our regularly scheduled installment of the Seinen Alphabet tomorrow, interrupted by me ranting about all of the things I didn’t like about last night’s episode of Glee, “Grilled Cheesus,” which you can watch on Hulu for the next month or so. In it, young, gay, atheist Kurt is faced with a major life crisis, and his Glee Club comrades try and help him through it, but many of them do more harm than good, or at least show creator Ryan Murphy did. Episode spoilers after the jump.
Here’s how Kurt’s friends tried to help: by persistently disrespecting his atheism and trying to impose their spiritual responses to grief and distress onto him. Kurt is no prince in the episode, and his dismissal of spirituality is inconsiderate and tactless, but he clearly establishes his boundaries, and that should have been that. One of my closest friends in high school was a born-again Christian, very devout, but absolutely able to respect people’s religious boundaries. She was always able to comfort and advise people during difficult periods while still respecting their religious and spiritual boundaries. Nobody in New Directions manages that, and their advisor and instructor doesn’t insist they back off and find ways to support Kurt that respect his position. Nobody is shown as inviting Kurt, a 16-year-old with no parent at home, to stay with them. They just want to drag him into their prayer circles. (Well, idiot cheerleader Brittany does do something at least theoretically helpful when she offers Kurt a book report she wrote on heart attacks. Brittany is my hero. And thuggish Puck at least manages to offer Kurt and his father his prayers without dragging Kurt into it. Puck is hot.)
In fact, the only person to take up for Kurt is the show’s ostensible villain, Sue, whose atheism is ascribed to unanswered prayers. It’s the “bad breakup” school of atheism, which also applies somewhat to Kurt. Religious institutions, he notes, not unreasonably, generally reject him on the basis of his sexual orientation, so why shouldn’t he reject their doctrine? Of course, it would be nice if one of the characters was an atheist for the simple reason that they find the idea of a supreme being implausible rather than driven by anger or disappointment, but that’s not a part of this episode’s specific cosmology.
But, alas, all of the glee clubbers seem to view Kurt’s lack of spirituality as just not having found the right god yet. The only means of comfort they seem willing or able to offer is prayer, which is the one strategy Kurt has said offers him no comfort at all. Kurt is the bad guy for his close-mindedness, and he eventually is driven to the position of humoring his friends, because their intentions are good. He attends church with Mercedes, who never reassures him that her church is inclusive or gay-friendly, in spite of Kurt’s very reasonable reluctance on that front. Nobody needs to humor Kurt, the one in crisis, because his non-belief can’t possibly be as sincere as their faith.
The glee clubbers aren’t obliged to respect the non-religious Kurt or help him on his terms, in spite of the fact that the group is routinely portrayed as offering each other support through song, which never occurs to anyone. Understanding only really needs to go in one direction in this episode’s construction. It’s infuriating and, in my opinion, awful. Kurt is still an atheist at the episode’s end, and that’s apparently fine with his club mates, as long as he doesn’t make a big deal out of it or bring it up with the same confidence with which they discuss their religious beliefs. To be sympathetic, he has to keep his mouth shut.
Today, the United States Supreme Court will likely support the rights of religious people to say the most horrible things in public, and I believe in freedom of speech, I really do, even if it’s speech I find profoundly offensive and hurtful. But it has to extend in both directions. Atheists don’t need to pass or apologize for their lack of a religious component to their lives, and it offends me that this is the takeaway message from last night’s episode of Glee. And looking at the recent rash of suicides by gay or perceived-to-be-gay kids bullied to conform with the values of the majority, it’s even more offensive.