//All praise the Fonz

All praise the Fonz

According to the title song of Family Guy, Peter is a champion of family values. But anyone who watches the show knows better. Not only does Peter love the “violence in movies and sex on TV” but his devotion to family values is completely lacking. He tells sexist jokes at work (“Women have breasts so you have something to look at while you’re talking to them.”); is a drunkard; is not religious at all; and is a sexist/bigot, asserting that women aren’t people but objects made for men’s amusement by Jesus Christ.

Peter’s legal father, Francis Griffin—grandson of Willie “Black Eye” Griffin and nephew of Adolph Hitler—is a different matter. Francis is a staunch Catholic and a defender of family values.

Yet no one likes Francis—except perhaps Peter, who is devoted to him because he is his son—and you can see why in his debut episode: his behavior is immoral. Francis posts a “Protestant whore” notice on Peter’s and Lois’s wedding getaway car and calls all of his co-workers sinners. He declares flash photography in church earns you a ticket to hell, and beats up a Fox cameraman who wears a hat in church. Foretelling the end of a Dike Van Dike episode, he prophesies that “Laura burns the roast and God kills her for parading her bum around in those pants!” Finally, assuming that Chris—because he is a teenage boy—masturbates every time he is in the bathroom for more than two minutes, Francis makes Chris go days without a bowel movement.

Francis’s behavior is fueled by the view that his religious beliefs and moral convictions are true, and that anyone who believes differently or has different convictions is mistaken. But this isn’t what makes his behavior immoral. As Alvin Plantinga points out, to hold a belief or conviction is to believe that it is true; and to believe something is true is to believe that its opposite is false; and to believe that its opposite is false is to believe that those who believe its opposite are mistaken. Thus, part of believing something is believing that those who disagree are wrong. But no one can be morally blamed for this, can they? If they can, then no one is morally permitted to believe anything.

So what is morally wrong with what Francis does? Francis lacks adequate justification for his religious beliefs but, nevertheless, tries to shove them down everyone’s throat. His religious condemnation and conversion techniques—what Francis might call his methods of evangelism—are immoral because his religious beliefs lack justification.

In response to this, Francis might insist that he does have sufficient justification for his beliefs. He would probably cite as sources of justification the Bible, the tradition of the Catholic Church, and perhaps even personal religious experiences. But the problem is that these sources don’t provide adequate justification. There are millions of religious people, all with many religious beliefs contrary to Francis’s Catholic beliefs, and all these people have scriptures, traditions, and religious experiences of their own. Additionally, thousands of years of unresolved conflict have shown that there is no definitive way to prove who is right. This is a problem—and not just for Francis.

For example, suppose that Quagmire told me that he didn’t try to seduce my daughter, but then I find out that he told four other fathers the same thing and then openly admitted that he only told one of us the truth. Am I justified in believing that Quagmire didn’t try to seduce my daughter? No. Since Quagmire lied 80% of the time, he is not a reliable source of the truth. The probability that trusting him will lead to a false belief is high, and thus a belief based on his testimony is not justified. None of the fathers—even the one whose daughter he didn’t try to seduce—is justified in believing what Quagmire says in this case.

Similar reasoning applies to religious beliefs. Take the five major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These religions have distinct and mutually exclusive doctrines. That is, no two of these religions could be true at the same time. Still, we have no way of proving which one (if any) is true. Each religion bases its beliefs on Scripture, Historical Tradition, and religious Experience (“SHiTE” for short). But, since only one of these religions can be true, we know that at least 80% of the time SHiTE leads to false beliefs. Just like Quagmire, SHiTE is not a reliable source of truth. No one—even a person who happens to belong to the one true religion (as perhaps Francis does)—has justified religious beliefs.

Is holding any belief without sufficient evidence not just unjustified, but immoral? William Clifford (1845-1879) argued just that. Clifford’s argument runs as follows: Suppose you own a ship on which people are about to take a voyage. You could check the ship to ensure that it is seaworthy, but instead you simply choose to believe, without evidence, that it is seaworthy and send it on its way. It seems clear that you have acted immorally. If a belief-based action could harm someone if the belief were false, then you’d better have good evidence that the belief is true. Clifford suggests that all beliefs influence actions, and thus all beliefs could lead to actions that harm others. Consequently, if we believe anything without evidence, we are doing something immoral. Thus, Clifford suggests, it is a moral imperative to refrain from believing something unless we have sufficient evidence. So Francis Griffin is behaving in an immoral fashion by simply holding his religious beliefs without sufficient evidence.

William James (1842-1910) disagreed, arguing that sometimes refraining from belief is impossible. If there isn’t sufficient evidence either way, belief without evidence is inevitable. James argues that, in such a situation, you have the moral right to choose which way you believe, even though you will believe without evidence. James suggests that most religious beliefs are like this. Since it turns out that neither “side” has sufficient evidence, one has the right to hold (or reject) belief in God even without evidence. James would suggest that Francis is morally permitted to hold his religious beliefs, even though they are unjustified.

I believe we can find what is morally wrong with what Francis does in the middle ground between Clifford and James. One has the right to hold religious beliefs, even without evidence, under the circumstances described by James. But, as Clifford suggests, it is immoral to risk harm to others with actions based on beliefs that lack sufficient evidence. Consequently, one has the right to hold one’s religious beliefs, even though one might lack evidence for them, but one does not have the right to harm, or even risk harm, to others with actions based on those beliefs. If this is right, it is clear why Francis’s actions are morally wrong. Whether it be the physical harm of hitting cameramen, the internal harm of keeping Chris from pooping, or the emotional harm of making Meg afraid to hold hands with boys and condemning Lois to purgatory, Francis’s actions cause harm. They are thus immoral, given that they are rooted in an insufficiently justified religious belief.

But I think Francis’s moral wrongdoing goes even deeper. Francis—in a kind of backhanded way—is also trying to convince others of the truth of his religious beliefs. But again, this is a moral mistake. Although one has the right to choose to believe something without evidence, one does not have the right to try to “correct” others who oppose that belief. Yes, if one has sufficient evidence for a belief, one would be morally justified in trying to convince others of the truth of that belief. We would not have a moral objection if Brian tried to convince Lois that Stewie is trying to kill her, since he would have well-documented, convincing evidence. But without sufficient evidence, such efforts are intrusive and immoral.

This conclusion does not require us to give up our religious beliefs. As James suggests, we still have the right to accept certain religious beliefs even without sufficient evidence. We must, however, also recognize that our religious beliefs are poorly justified. Consequently we must recognize that we do not have the right to try to forcefully convince, convert, or condemn those who do not share our beliefs. If someone comes to us, seeking religious advice or debate, that is a different matter. But unwanted or forceful evangelism—especially if you are trying to switch a person from their religion to yours—is immoral.

The senior Griffin’s intolerable intolerant behavior, however, continues in his second Family Guy appearance, when he makes Lois sit at the kids’ table because she is a Protestant, and he demands that Stewie be baptized—because the baby will burn in hell otherwise. Francis even admits to embracing a “believe what I say or I will hurt you” approach to Christian evangelism. But perhaps most painful of all is Francis’s condemnation of Peter’s new religion: The Church of the Holy Fonz.

As Peter struggles to find a religion, Francis suggests that he look in his heart and turn to the person that has “always been there for him, offering wisdom and truth.” After searching his heart, Peter starts a church that worships Arthur Fonzorelli from Happy Days. Francis, after attending a service, calls it an abomination and declares that it is not a “real religion.” By this Francis is not merely suggesting that the doctrines of Fonzieism are false. Francis is making the more serious charge that—unlike other religions that Francis merely disagrees with—Fonzieism is not a religion at all.

But even though Francis’s assessment is probably correct, it doesn’t look as if it is justified. In fact, the problem may go even deeper. It may be that nothing can justify such an assessment.

Francis suggests that Fonzieism is not a real religion because its worship service consists only of people “singing songs and listening to a bunch of tall tales.” Brian however—based on his knowledge of church services and biblical stories—suggests that this aspect of Fonzieism makes it more like a real religion, not less.

In reply, Francis might say that the stories and doctrines of the Bible are true. So it really is because the tales and doctrines of Fonzieism are fiction that Fonzieism is not a real religion. But, even if we ignore the problem of establishing that the stories and doctrines of the Bible are true, this is still a bad argument. If Francis thinks that true tales and doctrines are what make a religion real, since Francis doesn’t think that any other religion is true, Francis would have to think every other religion is unreal. But, like most people, he does not think this.

It doesn’t look as if having true tales is a good criterion for distinguishing real from unreal religions. So let’s give it another try. One might argue that it is the fact that we know the tales of Happy Days to be fiction that makes it a non-real religion. Even though we can’t prove the truth of the tales of other real religions—Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.—we also don’t know that they are false.

However, even if we ignore the fact that scientific evidence calls into question the legitimacy of many stories from many religions, this is still a bad argument. Many people from many religions do not take all the stories of their scriptures literally. Many Christians consider many biblical stories allegorical or exaggerations. They suggest these stories have “true lessons” but admit that they could not have actually happened—they are “truthful fictions.” Some followers of other religions, Buddhism for example, employ similar reasoning. But, even though Francis might disagree with such people, I doubt he would be willing to dismiss them as non-religious. Even though non-literalists claim that the tales of their religion are truthful fictions—just as Peter would admit that the tales of Happy Days are truthful fictions—they are still religious people. So it doesn’t look as if “a religion must have tales that could be true” is a good criterion for distinguishing between real and unreal religions either.

One might suggest that Fonzieism is not a real religion simply because Peter just made it up. But Peter didn’t just make it up. Rather, he founded The Church of the Holy Fonz because he had a religious experience; he looked into his heart and concluded that founding Fonzieism was the right thing to do. In fact, the way in which Fonzieism was founded is similar to the way Joseph Smith founded Mormonism. Both Peter and Joseph were trying to figure out which religion they should belong to and both had a religious experience that motivated them to start their own. Even though you may not be a Mormon, unless you are willing to dismiss Mormonism as an unreal religion, you cannot dismiss Fonzieism as an unreal religion simply on the basis of the way it was founded.

Lastly, one might suggest that Fonzieism is not a real religion because it doesn’t worship a deity or deities. But, ignoring the inevitable argument that Peter would submit on behalf of Fonzy’s divine status, the fact that Buddhists don’t worship a deity or deities quickly eliminates this as a legitimate response.

The conclusion here is not that Fonzieism is a real religion. The conclusion is actually two-fold. First, if Fonzieism is an unreal religion, identifying what makes it so may be impossible. Second, it may be impossible because there is no objective criterion by which one can establish something is a real religion. Thus there may be no justified way to establish that Fonzieism is not a real religion, and so one who claims it is a real religion may be justified in doing so.

When it comes to religion, we need not be concerned about converting others to our religion, whether other religions are right, or whether other religions are real. What we need to be concerned with is our own attitude toward religion and the religious acceptance of others. It is wonderful to hold and be devoted to your religious beliefs, and it is even all right to think that those who disagree are wrong. But, in the absence of definitive proof, we must tolerate and respect the beliefs of others and their right to hold those beliefs, even if we would describe their religion as “unreal.”

Excerpted and edited from Family Guy and Philosophy, edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski (Blackwell-Wiley)