What’s more shocking: that Brian came out as an atheist on Family Guy this week, or that Family Guy added a even more subversive humor in amongst its typical irreverence? The list of non believers on television is moderate, but they do exist. The issue is that atheism is never really endorsed. South Park is an equal opportunity offender and never really comes down definitively on either side of the issue. Lisa Simpson was an early TV non-believer, but when challenged she came to accept that she may not understand everything. Even a modern day non-believer like Dr. Gregory House is not really an atheist. He’s a non-believer, a term that is far easier for the mass market to swallow.
But the truth is that around 16% of our nation identifies itself as non-religious. That’s a sizable chunk of the population, and I’m interested in how people will react to Sunday night’s Family Guy episode. It should also be noted that the episode was touted as the reuniting of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast, and that turned out to be a “B” story with only a brief moment or two of chuckles.
Fans may want to defend Family Guy, but the show has never really delved deep into a hot topic such as atheism. Any push button moments are offset by a cut to Conway Twitty or Peter holding his scraped knee for two minutes. What was interesting about the Brian as atheist story is that while played up for the humor, there's a level of truth in his plight. Sure Brian fakes loving god in order to get booze, and that's very Family Guy moment, but much of the episode that felt more like South Park mixed with Bill Maher. The notion that an atheist is "Worse Than Hitler" did not originate with Seth McFarlane
It will be interesting to see how people perceive the episode. Often the vocal hardened Christians immediately exclaim that it’s Christians who are the most derided, especially by atheists. But that’s like saying more white kids made the football team in my hometown in Western New York. Of course that’s true, there are far more of them. There are more Christians in the world than atheists, and Christianity is not a taboo. When feeling subversive any creative artist can take pot shots at Christians to add some shock value. Even atheists prefer that when Christians are made fun of it be done with some intelligence.
I’m not sure what I expected out of Brian’s story, but what I didn’t expect is that he would still be an atheist by the end of the episode. It’s a ballsy move to out a character so explicitly, and then keep them in the same frame of mind at the end. Most of the time, as was the case with Lisa Simpson, there’s a nice middle ground that all can agree on. Then everyone agrees and the non-believers and Christians hug in an embrace of tolerance.
But Family Guy has cut right to the heart of something important., and it's upsetting that as a society we so ready to accept atheists as evil, and then act accordingly. But when called on this there’s usually a rise that turns the argument into the tried and true, “but atheists are far meaner to Christians.” That doesn’t explain why the 16% of people who would identify themselves as non-religious never check the “other” box and fill in “atheist” on a job application. You might as well write that you’re a serial rapist.
Sure the episode was funny, but I have to wonder what the mob reaction to Family Guy’s out and atheist tale will be.