I used to watch almost every episode of Family Guy in the first season or two. I thought it was sometimes a clever show, but as it went on it seemed to devolve into a series of flashbacks and random, drawn-out asides which broke apart the coherence of the story. I recently saw most of an episode of “Family Guy” in which it was revealed that Brian, the family’s dog (who talks and is essentially part of the family), is an atheist. The episode is called “Not All Dogs Go to Heaven.”
My first observation is that despite the apparent intent to make people more aware of the demonization which happens with atheists, the episode does not portray Brian in the best light by any means. For one, Brian’s reasons for remaining an atheist are revealed to be a bit absurd to say the least. When Meg–the daughter who is often the butt of jokes on the show–asked Brian why he doesn’t believe in God given “all the evidence,” he responded with an argument that made my jaw drop. To paraphrase him, he said that Hubble Space Telescope has been taking so many amazing pictures of the wonders of the universe but has never found some old man with a white beard “out there” somewhere. It then cut to an aside with an old man with a beard riding on something with some sweet music in the background [see my comments on the show being a bunch of asides and flashbacks].
Seriously, that is apparently one of Brian’s main reasons for rejecting theism, according to the episode. Really? I don’t know if this is really a reflection of what Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) believes about Christianity; but if it is he needs to perhaps reflect upon his own rejection of it. The notion that God should be found somewhere in the physical universe by something as simplistic as the Hubble Space Telescope (or anything, for that matter) and would be seen as an old man with a beard is… well, obscene. If that were my picture of what Christians believed, I’d be an atheist too. But Christians don’t believe this. Instead, they believe that God is spirit and one cannot artistically make anything which looks like God. The old man with a beard was popularized by some Christian art which, for the sake of depicting deity, chose that image to portray God. That doesn’t mean Christians actually believe God is an old man with a beard cruising through space somewhere.
The worst part about this scene is that it seems like Brian is supposed to get points for his response here somehow. That is, it’s like the viewer can feel a running tally going and apparently they’re supposed to check one off for the atheists. But gross misrepresentation of others’ religion does not mean that one has made a good point. Sure, people can sit around laughing at the notion that God is some old white guy–I’ll join them!–but to think that Brian said anything constructive is absurd. I realize it is a TV show, and a fairly shallow one at that, but I expected more. Mea Culpa, I suppose.
So it seems Brian’s atheism is based upon a farce. But that’s not the only reason I think this episode is actually unfriendly to atheists. In a later conversation with Meg, who has newly found a rather zealous faith, he confronts her belief directly with what is apparently some kind of knock-down argument because it destroys her faith:
Meg: “You are not gonna turn me from my faith, Brian!”
Brian: “Ok, fine. Then let me just ask you this. If there were a God would he put you here on Earth with a flat chest and a fat [butt]?”
Meg: “I’m made in his image…”
Brian: “Really? Would he give you a smoking hot mom like Lois and then have you grow up looking like Peter [her odd looking father]? …And what kind of God would put you in a house where no one respects or cares about you?”
That is essentially the extent of the comments on Brian’s reasoning for atheism. Apparently, for Brian [and perhaps MacFarlane, depending upon if he is actually sharing his view], God’s entire purpose should be to go around making everyone’s life the best possible life ever. God is some kind of cosmic vending machine, and if you don’t win the lottery, you should doubt the existence of that vending machine. What was most horrifying about this sequence, in my opinion, was the fact that the “image of God” was reduced down to having a hot body. Ridiculous! Being made in God’s image does not mean that everyone is going to be physically perfect. Such a notion completely misrepresents what is meant by the “image of God” which historic Christianity has long held refers to the intellect, soul, reason, etc.; not physical perfection or even physical form.
Brian’s last retort seems to seal the deal for Meg. After all, why would God put people in homes in which they aren’t cared for? Well, I don’t know, why would God put Joseph in a home in which his brothers sold him into slavery? Oh… right. You see, anyone who thinks that is an objection to the existence of God presumes they know better than God. That is, they know how to run things; they should be in charge. But I’m sorry to anyone who thinks that: you don’t. Moreover, why assume that we should know the reasons for this, or even that there are reasons? Again, I am stretching the philosophical muscle of the show quite a bit [understatement of the millenium], but the whole episode seems disingenuous.
The episode did do some good things, however, in showing the absurdity of mistreating and abusing atheists due to their lack of shared belief. I agree with this. We should not say atheists are automatically terrible people or that we wouldn’t want to live next to them. Anyone who does endorse mistreatment of atheists is acting in a decidedly un-Christian manner and should repent. Period. My point in this post is simply that this episode of Family Guy doesn’t do atheists any favors. It misrepresents Christianity in order to abuse it, but it also presents atheism in an extremely shallow way. Rather than spurring discussion, the episode merely seems bent upon mutual ridicule. I hope my atheist friends would choose, instead, to engage in dialogue rather than resorting to this kind of nonsense–and the same goes for my Christian friends as well.
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My contention is that Stephen Law’s epistemological approach to his “evil god challenge” to Christianity entails radical skepticism. Because his challenge entails radical skepticism, Law has forced his cohorts to choose between the seeming irrationality of that position or a denial of the power of the “evil God challenge.”
Entailment of Skepticism
Stephen Law’s “evil God challenge” presents the following:
Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. But suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis. (Law, “The Evil God Challenge,” 4, cited below)
Now, the point of this challenge is:
the challenge of explaining why the good-god hypothesis should be considered significantly
more reasonable than the evil-god hypothesis.
Law argues in his paper that any theodicy used for the “good god” can be equally used for the “evil god.” Therefore, the theist has yet to show why one should favor the good god over the evil god, and so cannot rationally hold to belief in the good god over the evil god.
Law’s primary support for this supposition is his symmetry thesis:
I shall call the suggestion that, in terms of reasonableness, there is indeed such a rough symmetry between the good-god and evil-god hypotheses, the symmetry thesis.
Nowhere does Law explain what “rough symmetry” means or how balanced the evidence really is between the good god and evil god. Rather, he just uses the phrase “rough symmetry” and argues as though this is enough to discredit the good god hypothesis.
Now notice that the very heart of Law’s argument is something similar to this:
1) If one has no reason to believe that hypothesis a is “significantly more reasonable” than hypothesis b, one cannot rationally hold a over b
It is exactly at this point that Law’s entire epistemology must collapse into radical skepticism. Why? Simply because I can construct parallel but contradictory accounts for nearly any object of knowledge that is not a necessary truth. Just because Law is able to [unsuccessfully, in my opinion] construct a “parallel” system of explanation to that of the ‘good god’ hypothesis does not mean that his parallel is on the same level or even a challenge to that hypothesis.
To see why constructing parallel explanation of reality does not somehow undermine reality, consider two scenarios I constructed to outline this exact point.
The 5 minutes ago challenge
Scenario 1: Our universe was created 5 minutes ago with all our memories and experiences implanted into us.
Those who are familiar with epistemology and philosophy of mind will recognize this as a very pervasive scenario throughout the literature. But how does one go about solving a problem like this? Consider a defense of what seems to be everyday experience.
a) it does not seem to me as though the universe was created 5 minutes ago. I have vivid memories of ten years ago and can interact with others about some of those memories.
The problem with a), of course, is that it exactly lines up with the notion that the universe was created 5 minutes ago with our memories and experiences implanted inside our heads.
Unless I’m very much mistaken, I think I could construct a similarly parallel account for any possible defense of experience of more than 5 minutes ago.
Therefore, I conclude with Law that because the “5 minutes ago” hypothesis is has “rough symmetry” with the hypothesis that our universe is 16 billion years old and the like, it is unreasonable to embrace either proposition. After all, the 5 minutes ago thesis seems extremely improbable, and it is roughly symmetric to the ‘everyday experience’ hypothesis. Law’s symmetry principle applies and undermines all of our experience.
Scenario 2: A Cartesian Demon (again, those familiar with philosophical literature will likely recognize this one) has us all under some kind of magic Matrix-like spell where we live our whole lives in our minds even though in reality our bodies are being tortured. The demon delights in our blissful ignorance of the horrible state of our souls and so he continues to implant memories as our lives continue on.
Again, I can’t think of any defense of everyday experience I can’t parallel. Therefore, we should not believe that our everyday experience is correct, according to Law.
I could continue with examples. The problem of other minds is another that immediately jumps out: how do we know there are actually minds in those walking people we see around us. They could just as easily be [philosophical, not pop-fiction] zombies walking around mechanically acting as though they have minds inside them. Again, parallels=>skepticism about whether other minds exist.
Ultimately, Law’s “symmetry thesis” leads us into radical skepticism and even solipsism. That seems to me enough to reject it.
Challenge to Christianity?
So how exactly does Law’s evil god challenge present any difficulties for Christianity? Honestly, I’m not sure. Unless one is convinced of the solipsistic scenarios outlined above, one should not be convinced of Law’s evil god challenge. His symmetry thesis is the only way he can press this challenge, and that same thesis undermines all knowledge of experience and induction. It doesn’t seem like much of a challenge to me.
Law’s Odd Conclusion and My Conclusion all at once
Law’s conclusion states that:
The problem facing defenders of classical monotheism is this: until they can provide good grounds for supposing the symmetry thesis is false,
they lack good grounds for supposing that the good-god hypothesis is any more reasonable than the evil-god hypothesis – the latter hypothesis being something that surely even they will admit is very unreasonable indeed.
Now, one again must see exactly where this is leading. Suppose, as a theist, I find the evidence for the existence of a god to be very convincing. Suppose further that I find the theodicies Law parodies to be sound. Suppose that I think that Law’s evil god hypothesis meets these theodicies equally. Now, according to Law, I am in the state of “symmetry”; I have no reason to prefer the good god over the evil. Law maintains that this means not just that I can’t rationally hold to either, but rather that because the evil god hypothesis is “very unreasonable indeed” I should also reject the good god.
But of course the theist we are supposing to exist believes that the good good hypothesis is extraordinarily reasonable. And because Law’s thesis works, according to them, following Law, they have no reason to believe the evil god is any less probable than the good god. Thus, according to this theist, the evil god hypothesis is not improbable but rather extraordinarily probable.
What Law has done is pretty simple. He’s argued that the good and evil gods must be on the same level of rationality. Because he (apparently) and others reject the evil god out-of-hand, he argues that they are on equal footing and so one should reject the good god. But again, what if the theist agrees that these hypotheses must be on equal footing and that it’s not that both are improbable but rather that both are extraordinarily probable?
All Law has said in response to such a person is that the evil god is “very unreasonable indeed” but why? Law has just spent over 20 pages arguing that the evil god is actually reasonable. Suddenly, the evil god is worthy of rejecting a priori? How does that work out? Law hasn’t done anything to dissuade the convinced believer. The only way his argument works is if one thinks that the good god hypothesis is barely rational. If one follows his conclusion and thinks god’s existence is very likely, then they must follow it all the way through: the evil god’s existence is very likely too. Law just imports this unreasonableness from his own a priori denial of the existence of God.
So what, at this point, does the believer do? Well, it seems we’re back to my first point. One can either believe the symmetry thesis and thus devolve into radical skepticism, or one can reject it and thus throw Law’s argument out the window where it belongs.
Finally, it’s worth noting that there are other reasons to reject the “evil god challenge.” First, it doesn’t take into account the whole range of theistic argument. For example, the ontological argument is based upon the notion of God as maximally great. Law would have to argue that an evil being could be maximally great. Good luck.
William Lane Craig and Stephen Law debated some time back. I wrote a review summarizing and analyzing the arguments.
Glenn Andrew Peoples presents Law with a formidable challenge on the Unbelievable? Podcast.
Edward Feser weighs in on the evil God challenge.
Glenn Andrew Peoples’ podcast on the evil God challenge is phenomenal.
Max Andrews weighs in, arguing that even though Law’s argument is much like the Cartesian demon, we should take it seriously.
Luke Nix at Faithful Thinker comments on the same argument from a different angle.
[Cited as directed here:] STEPHEN LAW The evil god challenge. Religious Studies, Available on CJO doi:10.1017/S0034412509990369
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.