Saturday, April 18, 2009

An Atheist Among Us

Okay, it has been around 10 days on no posts and no real explanation other than I couldn't write anything, didn't want to write anything, was perpetually dizzy, and had the house to myself - which never happens. So, I bought a car and watched Made of Honor 3 times. One of those things is a good and the other is a really, really big bad. I'll leave it up to you to decide which is which; but if you fail to discern between the two, there's obviously a problem. I also took a couple of days off from the interweb to do things vitally important, like cut myself off from almost all of my friends and inch a little to the left of the grid. Meaning, I slept a lot. The other thing was that Rebekah suggested an episode of Family Guy for a posting topic, and I had to wait for it to come up on Hulu to really look at it. This is that post.

First things first, though. I'm at best apathetic toward Family Guy, and at worst I really dislike it. At the same time, though, I love Brian and Stewie. I think they are awesome, and if the two of them ever had a television show dedicated solely to them, I would watch every episode with awe. However, the rest of the Griffin clan, along with the rest of the show's characters, are particularly loathsome and I don't really like any of them. When I tell people this, they generally think it is because of one of two reasons: (a) the show has too many pointless segments that lead to no greater understanding of the episode on an individual level or for the show as a whole (a former coworker thought that might be it, which confused me as that never even entered my mind), or (b) it is sexist and racist and a whole lot of other -ists, and as a feminist it would drive me insane. To that I say, "Hey, I watch romantic-comedies and some mainstream television!" Well, I don't really say that, but it would be a good rebuttal. No, the reason I don't like Family Guy is because it contains opposing family dynamics of The Simpsons. Peter doesn't give a damn about any other member of his family, and they don't really seem to give any damns about each other either. If Lois ever left Peter, he probably wouldn't notice until he ran out of socks - or food. Even episodes dedicated to showing how Lois and Peter care about one another (I'm thinking specifically of the one with Jennifer Love Hewitt), what is demonstrated is a weirdly possessive but in no way loving relationship. Contrary to the name, Family Guy mostly centers around a bunch of people who share DNA also living together, but having no common cause or theme or concern for the other members of their household.  Standing in contrast is The Simpsons, which manages to truly be about a cohesive, if dysfunctional, family. And we get plenty of episodes demonstrating that fact (like Bart and Lisa being on different hockey teams *sniffle*). As someone who becomes enamored with television shows precisely because they're about family, biological or otherwise (Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The West Wing, Sports Night, etc.), Family Guy was never going to make the short list.

That doesn't mean I don't enjoy some individual episodes of Family Guy, and "Not All Dogs Go To Heaven" is one of those. Though, strangely, not for the atheist-Brian moments. The end scene where Stewie deals with the cast of Star Trek: Next Generation is classic, as is when he explains how Picard's choice to embrace the baldness made him a better captain than Kirk. I also almost died at the scene where Peter put on LaVar Burton's visor.

At the same time, there were aspects of the Brian-atheist storyline I truly enjoyed. I loved the town's reaction; I love the Griffins' reaction. Well, 'love' may be the wrong word, but I was particularly gratified by the contrast between Meg's newfound religiosity and Brian's atheism. Meg's religious faith actually imposed upon the Griffin family (even if it was just in the form of a television sermon), but Brian just existing in the same space was what caused the biggest uproar. I also thought it was telling that when Brian was being harassed and assaulted and ostracized for his atheism, Lois responded to it not by wishing others would learn to be tolerant but by hoping "he finds faith of some kind". That same sentiment has been expressed several times to me throughout my life. During a particularly surreal two weeks in 9th grade, when almost everyone I knew stopped talking to me, one of the girls I had previously considered my friend told me that she would be happy to start talking to me again once I found "my path". I was stunned, because I was already on "my path". It was just an entirely different one from her own. I also found it particularly telling that Brian's admission caused not only an uproar but seemed to offend the Griffins, as if Brian had been deceiving them simply by not believing in a god. I also know that feeling well. 

I think that feeling of being deceived is what caused most of the people in my high school to stop talking to me for those two weeks; because I hadn't "come clean" sooner, because their idea of me was built upon a false belief that I was a believer when I wasn't, it seemed to them that I had lied to them. The truth was (and is) somewhat more complicated. In high school, I didn't lie; I just didn't come out and proclaim my atheism, because it honestly has never been a huge part of my own personal identity. In college, I did frequently proclaim my atheism, partially due to the odd reaction that discovery had provoked in high school. Now, though, I'm back to not articulating it, because I work in a very religious office where a majority of my coworkers are practicing Catholics (and conservatives) and because I don't want to be a Brian. It is just easier for me to allow them to believe I'm a Catholic, rather than to deny it or to assert my atheism. And until they ask me outright what I am, I don't really feel like I'm lying; at the same time, I'm sure they would be about as thrilled as the rest of the Griffins were with Brian's pronouncement. I don't want to be pelted with Priuses, and I do have to be able to make my car payments so I'm tacitly accepting that being perceived as religious is sometimes a necessity - kind of like Brian did.

At the same time, I disagree fundamentally with some of Brian's proclaimed reasons for being an atheist, along with his arguments at the end to Meg about why she shouldn't believe in God. I felt Brian hit the nail on the head when he told 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.
He lost me when he said:
I just hate to see people hating and killing each other over their own interpretations of what they're not smart enough to understand.
That isn't my atheism. My atheism recognizes that religion is not the reason for violence, but the excuse. My atheism recognizes that the world would still be a place of atrocity and hate and hatred and marginalization even if the thought of a supernatural being had never entered the minds of men. My atheism recognizes that if the reason a person doesn't believe in God is because of the horrors committed in his name, then that same person should also not believe in political parties, in countries, in culture, in race, or in gender. My atheism recognizes that hating and killing isn't a product of religion, but that people who hate and who kill often express that through religion. Human beings are the problem; the institutions we make and the ideologies we follow are flawed because they flow from us, but to become a Bill Maher and declare that the religious are idiots is to miss a huge chunk of the picture. Yes, the guy who truly believes the world was created in six days scares me; but it isn't his belief that scares me. It is what else he comes to understand he can do and should do because of that belief. If a guy (or girl) wants to believe that the world was created in six days and s/he also leaves me the hell alone and accepts that I do not, then I am more than fine with that belief.

Brian is wrong because his argument against God rests firmly on the ills of mankind. It decrees that religion and God is the problem, but that argument can be readily combated by the many times religion and God are part of the solution. For every Pat Robertson, there is a soup kitchen being run by a church. For every incident of violence, there is a commitment to nonviolence. For every cretin who hides behind his or her book while spewing hate, there is another person who uses that same book to promote tolerance, love, and peace. Religion has brought us some incredible things. I happen to be extraordinarily fond of church architecture, and gospel music. But that doesn't mean that there is a God, any more than death and disease and hate is an argument for why there isn't a God.

I'm not an atheist because religion and God are fairy tales; I majored in literature. I know the power of a good story. A fairy tale can still be used to impart some truth; in fact, I am of the belief that stories are one of the best ways to spread truth. Stories are how we frame our world; stories are how I became a politically minded person. Stories are how my personal philosophy was born and how it started to take shape. Belief in God and in a religion and a particular story can be an awesome force for good, just as nonbelief can be channelled into a force of badness.

I'm an atheist; I'm an atheist not because I hate humanity but because I love it. I am an atheist because I believe in people. I am atheist because I am whole without god. I am an atheist because I believe mankind is a powerful force, an inventive force, and I don't believe in granting any credit for humanity's triumphs or shortcomings to a supernatural body. I'm not an atheist out of hate, but out of love. That is what was missing from Brian's atheism.

And yet, I understand his frustration. It is hard to continue to love humanity and to believe in its goodness when you feel demeaned and diminished and bullied, to see some spark of light present in the organizations most directly responsible for that bullying and inhumane treatment. I think Brian's anger stems from a real place of marginalization, and his assertion that being an atheist is smarter than being a believer comes from that same place. In a way, "Not All Dogs Go To Heaven" demonstrates a coping device I see a lot; it is the "well, I may not be cool but at least I'm not dumb enough to want to be" syndrome. But while I understand it, that doesn't mean I endorse it. It could hardly be a Family Guy episode if it wasn't lampooning everything in sight, but I can't help but feel as if Meg's reason for finding religion is a great deal more sympathetic than Brian's reason for rejecting it. After all, I continue to be a proponent for that old adage:


Tabatha Atwood said...

That was a great article. I, myself, am a believer. I hope to be attending Seminary this fall. I do not have faith in humanity- I believe that there is a force for good in the universe that we as individuals or groups can be part if we choose. God is that Inner Light that brings us there. Human beings really are a problem- we our killing our world, ourselves. I need something greater.

Rebekah said...

Wow- a post reply to my suggestion that includes a John Lennon song- couldn't be more perfect! Great way to start the day.

"I don't believe in granting any credit for humanity's a supernatural body."

Exactly! My family is all still very much fundamentalist Christian and this is one of the things that actually comes out in conversations that annoys me most. For example, my sister needed to raise money to go on a mission trip overseas (OK, many things about that annoy me too but I can deal) and she got generous donations from many friends. While I'm sure she said thanks to them at some point, rather than talking about how generous her friends were, she kept saying that "God provided" that support. Christians do this all the time- a generous anonymous donation in time of need accredited to God, ignoring the generous soul who actually did the thing. It drives me totally nuts.

mikhailbakunin said...

What do you mean when you say that you're an "atheist"?

Does that mean that, in the absence of proof, you deny the existence of god? Or would you go further than that?

Do you think there can be anything "supernatural"?

petpluto said...

Hi, Tabatha! Glad you liked the article. I'm sure you're better versed in this sort of thing than I am, given that I was raised by hippies and you hope to attend Seminary, but I do have to say that I think an absence of faith in humanity and believing in God because of that just seems to be a reversal of Brian's reasons for atheism. For me, neither hold up very well.

I'm not against believing in God, but I do hope that belief in God stems from something other than a disillusionment with humanity, if for no other reason than because if one does believe in the Christian God then one also believes that God created humanity and all of its abilities to both be transcendently good and transcendently evil. One of the problems I have with faith of all kinds is that it seeks to make humanities ills our own, but deny us the ownership of our triumphs.

Does that mean that, in the absence of proof, you deny the existence of god? Or would you go further than that?A couple of things to note:

At most, I'm an ambivalent atheist. I'm an atheist for the reasons I stated (and a couple of others), but I'm also more of an apatheist. I don't think there's anything supernatural; but more than that, I don't care.

That being said, I see no proof that there is any sort of supernatural beings or occurances in the world. I go further than any disbelief in a god or gods. I don't believe in fairies. I don't believe in devils. I don't believe in past lives or in Nisse or leprocauns. At the same time, I really don't see the harm in believing in gods or leprocauns or Nisse or fairies or anything else.

Wow- a post reply to my suggestion that includes a John Lennon song- couldn't be more perfect! Great way to start the day.Glad I could do that for you!

Christians do this all the time- a generous anonymous donation in time of need accredited to God, ignoring the generous soul who actually did the thing. It drives me totally nuts.It doesn't drive me nuts, but it does make me kind of sad. Like, by attributing all the good in the world to a god, you deny the very humans in front of you.

Tabatha Atwood said...

Well, I was raised in a very very liberal church in a liberal time so the stories of the Bible have always been metaphors for me and so I sense truth in the stories but not fact.

As far as humanity- I do not think I am disillusioned- I just think I am a realist- humans are what they are. We are the powerful species because of our ability to overcome our physical limitations by working cooperatively and yet we often turn cooperation into subjugation because we do have Free Will - our choice of good or evil- cooperation or subjugation- consolation or destruction. I trust a good/God we all can find - so my God is more star wars force.

But, I agree there is a lot of narcissism and class chauvinism disguised as "giving God the glory." It would be very refreshing to have some glory shown on the people that do the heavy lifting work, the tedious work, the make the miracles happen work.

John said...

While I haven't seen the episode, I find it amusing that the Griffins take so unkindly to Brian's atheism. It reminds me a bit of a quote from Guy Ritchie's Revolver,"Eventually, when [a confidence game's] opponent is challenged or questioned, it means the victim’s investment and thus his intelligence is questioned, no one can accept that. Not even to themselves." Given that less-than-moral leaders of nearly every religion (and a good number of politicians and other organizational leaders) at one time or another have used this property to enthrall Believers, an atheist's expressions of non-belief end up kicking the followers' rationalization mechanism into overdrive and strengthening their belief. At least, that's how it often seems to me. But what do I know? Being an agnostic, I'd say not very much at all.

@Tabatha - I was under the impression that "a God that is more Star Wars Force" is the idea behind Pantheism (and Biblical Pantheism may be right up your alley.) Are you familiar with it at all?

petpluto said...

I do not think I am disillusioned- I just think I am a realist- humans are what they are.I think I misinterpreted your remark; I thought that you meant humanity's faults were our own, but our glories were really God's. Sorry about that!

my God is more star wars force.I love the reference, understand what you mean, and respect where you're coming from.

an atheist's expressions of non-belief end up kicking the followers' rationalization mechanism into overdrive and strengthening their belief.True, but I think it also works the other way as well. The times I've been my most ardently atheistic have been the times someone has tried to shove religion at me. Normally I'm much more hakuna matata about the whole thing.