Why Religion is Bad: A Strawman

Family Guy is one of those TV shows I watch with guilty glee. I still giggle when I think of Stewie’s Tab commercial (“Just gettin’ my bronze on, baby”). However, I do admit that the show is an effective communicator of bad values.

This is no less true than last week’s episode entitled “I’m Joyce Kinney” where Lois reveals that she was in a pornography film in college. We’ll leave aside the rather explicit scenes of said film and focus on the bigger problem in the show: the church’s reaction when they find out.

Lois, an active member of what appears to be her mainline Protestant church, is reviled and ridiculed when she walks in on the Sunday following the revelation that she had been in a dirty film. Parishioners whisper as she walks by, culminating in the pastor looking down at her menacingly, declaring, “Lois Griffin, you are no no longer welcome in this church.”

As might be expected, Lois heroically overcomes the church’s reaction. She marches in next Sunday and states vehemently, “Who did Jesus hung around with? Mary Magdalene, who was a prostitute. If video cameras had been around then, she probably would have done a porno too! And if she did, I know Jesus would have forgiven her. Are you all better than Jesus? You all need to admit that I made a simple mistake. And here it is.” Everybody gasps and Lois shows her film to the entire congregation.

Those already biased against the religious will watch this and say this is exactly what is wrong with religion. Churches are filled with hypocrites, casting judgment on sinners while ignoring their own sin. But this is a strawman. In reality, few religious communities, even the most conservative and sectarian, would condemn Lois as the show depicts. Her repentance is clear, and her sin is far in the past. In many ways, she is not the [cartoon] person now as she was when she made the film. And practically every church in this country would recognize that.

Priests in their homilies constantly bring up the common complaint, “I don’t go to church because I can’t bear to sit with all those hypocrites.” The complaint is half-right. We are hypocrites, unworthy of bearing the name of Christ. But we are hypocrites who rest in the assurance that God is a merciful God, slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Family Guy wants to reveal Christians as hypocrites, but they do so in such an over-the-top way that it ceases to be realistic. But there is a lesson to be learned for Christians even in this relatively offensive show, a lesson Dominican Timothy Radcliffe makes better than I can. In What is the Point of Being a Christian, Radcliffe writes,

Even when Christian teaching seems clear and unambiguous, we must still be prepared to enter into the complexity of people’s lives as they struggle to discover what is right. . . . the truth is simple, but unless it is the simplicity that has passed through the complexity of human experience then it is a childish simplicity that we dimly glimpse in God. Those who feel that the truth of our teaching must be protected with denigration and violent attacks on others may well be insecure in their convictions, frightened to hear the other side in case they begin to doubt. It is precisely when we are most confident in the teaching of the Church that we should be most fee to listen and to learn, and to open our minds and hearts to those who have arrived at conclusions with which we agree (38-39).

Radcliffe goes on to quote the great Thomist Josef Pieper: “‘A friend, and a prudent friend, can help to share a friend’s decision. He does so by virtue of that love which makes the friend’s problem his own, the friend’s ego his own (so that it in not entirely ‘from outside’)’ (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 29). We have to become that other person, enter their imagination and share their dilemmas, before we share our teaching.”

It is a good lesson to be learned from a very bad episode of a show that, like us, has a lot of evil mixed in with the good.


4 comments so far

  1. Nik on

    Battle of the Strawmen-

    by calling the charge of hypocrisy towards a fictional congregation in a cartoon a strawman for the real and valid criticism of religion you are yourself creating a strawman.
    Real-life religion is not bad simply because an undisclosed number of its followers are bigoted, but because it clouds the mind, muddles thinking and creates compartmentalization of the mind. It relegates logical thinking away from the fundamentals, around the corner, out of sight, like the Bush administration created “free speech zones” where the cameras and the prez could not see them. Religion is bad because it calls for the submission to unfounded claims of supernatural authority, and in the process allows the “believers” to justify just about any behavior, so long as it can be warped somehow to happen in the name of “god”- an easy task as the bible contains everything between “love them” and “kill them”(e.g. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death [Ex31:15]). Religion is bad because it wastes the power of society to build churches instead of schools or curing cancer. I mean that both financially and intellectually. Religion is bad because it opposes every technological advance that may relieve human suffering and capitalizes on fear and pain (go to a church and note how many prayers are about health issues). Religion is bad because it sells as truth an assumption based on wishful thinking. In the case of the three desert dogmas (Abrahamic religions), these are based on erroneous and self-refuting scripts, which are touted as the word of “god”. Religion is bad because of many reasons, no strawman required. Now whether or not “Family Guy” is a good show, you can’t argue about taste.

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for reading and responding. I can see you are passionate about this issue, and you express yourself in a similar way to Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything.

      You, like Hitchens, have a very reductionist view of “religion” (which I put in quotes because I am not quite sure how you would define “religion,” though I assume you mean the sociological category of those who posit the existence of God and worship that God collectively). You say, for example, that religion demands that its followers build churches rather than schools or hospitals, and I have to wonder what you are thinking about. The Roman Catholic Church owns and manages a significant network of hospitals and schools around the globe, and in some countries, is the largest single provider of education and healthcare. You seem to think that if one builds churches, one must also be against building schools and hospitals, but Roman Catholicism and other Christian denominations live as if this is a both/and issue, rather than an either/or one as you would seem to have it.

      You say that religion muddles the mind, but this seems not a problem with religion, but rather with the mind. Quack psychology muddles the mind, as does bad pop music, many species of literature, cable news, and reductionist science. You say that religion allows any action, no matter how egregious, to be justified in “the name of God.” But this seems not a problem with religion, but rather with human nature which always tries to justify the evil deeds that accomplishes, whether that is by appealing to “the name of God,” or to “the greater good” (as the utilitarians do), or to “duty” (as the deontologists do), or to sentiment (as the Romantics do).

      You say that religion encourages wishful thinking. I say it encourages hope, hope not only for a life beyond this one, but also hope for a better world now. Religion encourages the hope that motivates people to give up their lives for their people, as Oscar Romero did, or to endure prison, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, or to love the poor and dwell among them as Jon Sobrino did. All of these, and many more, were motivated by their faith, their hope, and yes, their love of God.

      But religious people also do horrible things too. I think we need a better definition of religion to work with if we are going to move this forward. As a sociological category, you have to admit, it’s a mixed bag. Like Family Guy (which I will still keep watching).

    • everydaythomist on

      Nik Kristof gives a really good response to your question, Nik.

      In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

      Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

      This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

      This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.

      So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

      It’s high time for the Vatican to take inspiration from that sublime — even divine — side of the Catholic Church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness. They’re enough to make the Virgin Mary smile.

      You guys have the same name. Maybe you can come to some agreement?

  2. Scott on


    Someone also might say:

    Science is bad not because it denies God but because it instead posits a series of “truths” that it claims are proven but that actually reflect the values of the scientists who wishfully think they are grounding their values in something real rather than their own biases. I’m no expert, but I’m told that at various times science has claimed to prove that African races are inferior to white races, and it has claimed to prove that parents should not show affection to their children.

    Science has spent countless billions of dollars (which also could have built schools and hospitals) on developing things like gunpowder, atomic bombs, chemical weapons, and the ability to quickly transform huge amounts of fossil fuels into greenhouse gases.

    Do this mean science is bad? I would say absolutely not. You seem intent on letting the worst representatives of religion represent why religion is bad. But this argument can only work if we tacitly assume that all those religious people you don’t like would have been out helping the poor and using science to rid themselves of their bigotry if only religion hadn’t intervened.

    In the world I see, some religious people and some non-religious people want to help others and do what’s right, while the vast majority of both religious and non-religious people go with the flow and generally participate in social structures that hurt other people, whether in the name of religion or not.

    Glancing over history, most people are religious, yet anti-religious groups still account for some of the great atrocities, like the French Revolution, or the Soviet Union’s exterminations, along with the human rights abuses, e.g., in atheist China. And of course religous people and groups have done many of the things you rightly criticize in your post as well.

    All of this points, from a reasonable perspective, to most people being pretty bad most of the time. Powerful unjust people will use whatever they can to control people––often relgion, often other things. The critique of science I opened with is true if it intends to show that science is not always good, just like your post is true if it intends to show that religion isn’t always good. But if you intend to show that religion is bad in and of itself, I think you’re still keeping on with the straw men.

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