Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Not All Dogs Go to Heaven - Family Guy's Atheism Episode

I used to be a big fan of 'Family Guy'. When it first aired I was one of the few people I knew who gave it a look. The next day I was telling all of my school friends about this amazing new show that was a bit like 'The Simpsons' but better now that the quality of that show had considerably dropped. It had a super genius baby who wanted to kill his mother, a wise cracking talking dog, and wacky flashback scenes that meant gags could come through even faster.

Like 'The Simpsons' though, the quality of 'Family Guy' dropped after a few seasons. although it took nowhere near as long. The show became a string of self-references, repeating old jokes, drawing out gags for a lot longer than they were funny, plagiarising obscure musicals and viral videos hoping to pass them off as original, and random insertions of Conway Twitty. It got to a stage where the only decent episodes were the ones where Brian (the dog) and Stewie (the baby) had some crazy adventure together (e.g. Road to the Multiverse).

I recently discovered that the quality of 'The Simpsons' has actually picked up again in the most recent few seasons and was surprised to be enjoying the show again. So, I figured maybe 'Family Guy' might have done the same thing.

Flicking through the options I found an episode with the synopsis "After a day at the Quahog Star Trek convention, Stewie builds a transporter and beams the cast of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' into his room".
I didn't take much notice of the episode title 'Not All Dogs Go to Heaven'. It didn't seem to tie up with the exciting plot summary.

So thinking this crossover episode would be a great place to catch up on an old favourite I settled in.
I was pretty surprised with what I got. BEWARE EPISODE SPOILERS COMING UP.

It started out pretty well, despite Stewie saying he preferred Picard to Kirk, but that's not a big deal. I've always said Kirk is a better captain, but I'd rather be on Picard's crew.

So when Meg catches the mumps, and after some of the tired trope of unnecessarily mistreating her, she watches Kirk Cameron speaking on The Religion Channel and becomes a born again Christian.

Once she feels better, she tells her family that her recovery was God's work. Her mother Lois seems a little sceptical about it while Brian straight away blurts out "It's that damn Religion Channel" as though there's something inherently wrong with religion being discussed on TV in a place specifically made for it, so that it can be avoided by anyone who doesn't want to see it.
Her family - apart from Brian - seem fine with Meg's new-found faith, admitting they are all Christian too, just not quite so vocal about it. When Meg attempts to sit them down to watch Kirk Cameron with her, they decide that they would rather not- Lois says "There's such a thing as moderation" which is perfectly fair. Believing in God doesn't necessarily mean only doing Christian related things all day, every day.
So Meg moves on to ask Brian (the dog).
Meg: "Brian, you're a thoughtful person. Are you willing to open yourself up to God's truth?"
Brian: "Ah, you're barking up the wrong tree Meg, I'm an atheist."
The response earns a gasp of dread from the family. Up until this point, the episode had been doing OK, but it goes ridiculously downhill from here.
Even that two line exchange just comes off as absurd! Meg asks a supposedly 'thoughtful person', if they would be open to listening to some new ideas, and he responds with a 'no'.
Now, if this episode intended to show how ridiculous both extremist Christians and atheists are for some of the things they do and say, it could have worked. But, the episode seems to want to show Brian as the voice of reason through it all.
It's astonishing really as pretty much everything Brian says is absolutely ridiculous, but delivered as though it's the rational thing. Let's go on.

When Brian explains to Peter that 'atheist' means "I don't believe in God", Lois switches from the level headed moderate Christian, to an angry fundamentalist who can't abide the thought of someone under her roof who disagrees with her.
"An atheist? That's just about the worst thing a person can be!"
I'm yet to meet anyone who thinks that. Sure, I find atheism to be an absurd, nonsensical philosophy that can't even explain it's own claims, but I don't think atheists are inherently evil.
So anyway, Peter and Chris are close behind with their own angry responses to Brian's atheism and we see a pretty clear picture being drawn that atheists are somehow meant to be an oppressed minority among overbearing Christians.
Brian's response is "I'm sorry, I just don't see any evidence."

Now I'm sure that the Griffins don't have the knowledge of apologetics that many scholars have, but the claim that there's 'no evidence' is obvious nonsense that actually makes more sense when used as a reason to not be an atheist.
Brian goes on to give his defense of atheism:
"I mean, look at the Hubble telescope. It's discovered untold wonders of a vast unexplored universe, but not one picture of a guy with a beard sitting around on a cloud."

What!? You see what I mean when I say that this works better as a satire of atheism? No one sees God as an old bearded man with a harp on a cloud except people who have a three year old's understanding of theology. How could an omnipresent spirit being be an old man on a cloud!?
Or OK, let's humour him. Maybe God is an old man on a cloud. The universe is a big place. What are the chances that the Hubble telescope would be looking in the right place at the right time to spot him? He could move around wherever he wanted to go and the telescope might never find him. Brian's is a train of thought that's on par with looking at the horizon and concluding with certainty that the world is flat and you'll fall off if you get too close.
It's stupid on several levels. Sadly for atheists, this is the only reason to believe in atheism that Brian gives throughout the whole episode.

What follows is a couple of sequences in which Meg tries to convince Brian about the truth of Christianity against his will. The old 'shoving it down our throats' that Christians are accused of regularly.
Brian eventually gets irritated and tells Meg that he's had enough and that she's not going to convert him. Again, I refer you back to when he was described as 'thoughtful'. Why is this 'thoughtful' person so opposed to hearing what she has to say when she just wants to help?
Meg pushes him again explaining her motives: "The church makes me feel accepted and safe and part of something bigger than myself."
For a lot of atheists, it seems like they see religion in this way. It's just a comfort blanket and nothing more. There's no point getting intellectually involved with a comfort blanket.
Next Brian says one of the stranger things that I suppose is meant to be a conversation stopper for atheists.

"But Meg, you don't need an outside voice to feel those feelings, they're inside you. What you call God is inside you, all of us. And I just hate to see people hating and killing each other over their own interpretation of what they're not smart enough to understand."

I'm not sure what exactly to make of this. We all have voices in our heads?
Perhaps this is talking about the way we all understand things like purpose and morality and stuff without needing to read The Bible, but the Bible actually teaches us that this stuff is written on our hearts, and that God reveals himself inside us through the Holy Spirit, so that's hardly an argument for atheism.
So basically, Brian, having not seen an old man sitting on a cloud has decided that God doesn't exist and therefore the voice in his head that sounds like God can't be him and must just be nothing. He then concludes that anyone who hasn't made the same judgement is 'not smart enough' and is led to be violent and hateful. How I wish this was satire...

So the persecution of non-believers gets dialled up a notch as the local news reporters make it a top story that an atheist lives among them, accompanied by an image of Brian with the caption 'Worse than Hitler'. (Not sure how that works as Hitler was an atheist.)  The news story enrages the people of Quahog, who react violently. Mayor West admits "I'd rather have a terrorist living in our midst. At least they believe in a god."

And was it intentional irony that Brian says "Oh my God, that was a close one," when escaping a pelting?

As Brian tries to go on with his life, he finds that people all over town refuse him service and continue to be violent towards him simply for his atheism. I haven't got a clue where this kind of thing happens in real life outside of extremist groups.

The portrait the episode seems to be trying to paint so far is that atheists are cleverer than believers who can see the world for it really is, while believers are all hateful, bigoted idiots who can't stand to be questioned and will attack anyone who tries. It's doesn't seem to be satire, it's the moral message of the episode.

In an attempt to make peace, Brian tells Meg that he has 'seen the light'. So Meg invites him to help her do some of 'God's work', which he agrees to. Closely followed by a gag about how wine is literally Jesus' blood... oh boy.

As it turns out God's will is that Christians burn books that are harmful to him such as Darwin's 'The Origin of Species', Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time: From The Big Bang to Black Holes', and 'Logic for First Graders'.
Let's ignore that evolution is a non-issue for Christianity, The Big Bang is part of one of the best proofs of God's existence and many of the world's greatest thinkers today and throughout history were believers...

Brian not wanting to be involved in burning important literature admits to Meg that he only lied to her so he could buy booze again, before trying to get her to stop.

Meg: "You are not gonna turn me from my faith Brian!"
Brian: "OK fine, then let me ask you this. If there were a God, would he have put you here on Earth with a flat chest and a fat ass?"
Meg: "I'm made in his image."
Brian: "Really? Would he give you a smokin' hot mom like Lois and then have you grow up looking like Peter?"
Meg: "Well..."
Brian: "And what kind of God would put you in a house where no respects or cares about you, not even enough to get you a damn mumps shot?"
Meg: "Oh no. You're right Brian. You're right."
Brian: "I'm sorry Meg."
Meg: "But what is there to believe in without God? Where do the answers come from?"
Brian: "Well that's all part of the human experience. It's what we're here to find out. And I bet you that the real answer to the nature of our existence is gonna be more unimaginably amazing than we can possibly conceive."
With that and some inspirational music, the camera zooms out through the expansive galaxy and universe showing the enormity of everything and how incredible it all is.

And there wasn't enough Star Trek stuff in the episode.

Anyway. So Brian's final hurrah for atheism is that Meg is ugly and lives with an uncaring family so therefore God doesn't exist. So we have the question of why bad things happen to good people. That's it. The Bible covers that in several places... Book of Job anyone?
He's assuming that the purpose of a god that he doesn't believe in is to make all humans everywhere as comfortable and as happy as possible. That's not what any faiths teach! Christianity is about building a relationship with God and overcoming struggles together with him. The perfect heaven comes later.
A question that Brian clearly hasn't taken any time to find an answer for is apparently the final nail in the coffin for faith. It's ridiculous and that Meg is convinced by it just proves the point that this episode was not intended to be a satire of atheism.

His final quote is pretty curious too. We're here to find out what life is about and we will find out someday. How can an atheist make that claim? Atheism doesn't allow for an objective meaning of life and if death is the end of existence, then there's no guarantee that anyone will find out the full truth. Or is he appealing to some kind of other spiritual meaning that exists without God? What is that? Seems to me the blind faith belongs to Brian here.

I've never called out an individual episode of a show before on how it deals with faith, but this one just needed to be covered. 'Family Guy' is a hugely popular show that reaches millions. There's a good chance many viewers are going to swallow this without thinking and that's a shame when the stupidity is screamingly obvious.
The message we're meant to take away from it is that God is not real, Christians are all violent, hateful bigots, and atheism is the only path to intellectual enlightenment.

It's absolutely shocking. There were so many ways they could have softened it and kind of made the point without flat out saying 'Christians are idiots'. If Lois and the family had stayed level headed and reasonable instead of turning into inquisitors then at least it would have shown that not all Christians are terrible. Or if Brian's atheism was played up as satire as well, so both sides of the argument could have been equally mocked. (I guess they did that, but it doesn't seem to have been on purpose.) Or maybe we can take reassurance in that both God and Jesus are real characters in 'Family Guy', so taking continuity into account within that story universe, Brian is 100% wrong.

Other shows have ribbed religion. 'South Park' and 'The Simpsons' have both managed it without being so outright offensive and keeping a certain respect. Although most of the people behind those shows are Christian and Jewish, so perhaps that helps. Even so, 'The Simpsons' episode where Homer stops going to church brings up some of the big questions but at the end gives a moral message that everyone should be respected whether they are Christian, Jew, or miscellaneous (represented by Apu the Hindu).
With that in mind that shows can play with the topics, while remaining respectful, and still be enjoyed by the people that are the butt of the joke, there's no excuse for this all out attack from 'Family Guy'.

What we had here was a representation of extremist Christians (which I'm sure do exist), but giving the impression that all believers behave that way, while atheists are a persecuted minority who deserve to be treated as superior intellects.
That's just battling one extreme with another extreme and hitting several innocents in the process.

There are countries where atheists get persecuted, but there are also places where Christians, Jews, and Muslims are too. I prefer the message of unity that 'The Simpsons' gives us to the extra hate spreading 'Family Guy' has on offer. If we're all in agreement that peace and education are important, we should stick together to end ignorance and violence, and not start finding other people to demonise.

At the very least, if you're going to spoof something, make sure you understand what it is you are spoofing if you want to sound intelligent about it!