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Spoiler Alert Thursday: House, just shut up about religion already

This week’s post will discuss The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, and House.

The Simpsons: I enjoyed the mild tweaks to the opening theme in this, the first HD episode ever.

Family Guy: Stewie’s music video was amazing — much better than the parody of the music video genre from the Simpsons nineties episode.

American Dad: Yeah, sorry, the responses to the cartoons are pretty half-hearted this week. But what is there to say, really? This episode was pretty decent, but nothing to write home about — which is essentially the groove American Dad has settled into after its horrifyingly bad first season.

House: House is a great example of how useless dogmatic rationalists are when they talk about religion. His constant accusations of “hypocrisy” on Cuddy’s part reflect a common gambit on the part of these people: if you don’t want to do “all” of a religion, you are a hypocrite for doing some. Who defines what “all” of a religion is, though? Obviously that doesn’t fall within the rationalist’s own job description, so he’ll usually defer to whoever purports to be the most “true” or “literal” or whatever representative of the given religion. Thus the options are fundamentalism or rationalism — anyone who tries to do otherwise is an equivocating coward. (This is the dynamic that leads to us only hearing from religious wackos as the representatives of the “religious” position in media debates.)

But the majority of religious people then become equivocating cowards in this view, because even in fundamentalist sects, there is usually only a small core of “true believers” who try to do everything. Back here in reality, the majority of “religious” practices are essentially “cultural” practices, or to put it better: the line between “religious” and “cultural” practices isn’t very clear. It’s really only Protestantism and religions influenced by it (like latter-day Catholicism) that really thematize something like “belief.” (Note that I’m not saying non-Protestant-ish people don’t “believe” in their religion — just that it doesn’t become a major issue. They take it for granted, rather than treating it as some big existential test.) Cuddy’s baby-naming thing was obviously “religious” in some way, but since she’s not a believer, she was treating is as more “cultural” — and House should’ve done so, too.

I do think there’s a sense in which House is hostile toward any arbitrary-seeming cultural practice, but it shouldn’t be intensified just because there’s this gross “religion” stuff sticking to a given practice.

I realize that whenever I make arguments like this, some people get really pissed off and others want to spend a lot of time in comments trying to come up with some really firm definition of religion that reflects their intuition that my blurring of the boundaries between cultural and religious practices is missing something. I’ll save you a little time: that “something” is going to turn out to be belief. But if you go down that road, you’re just going to wind up defining religion as Protestantism or things like Protestantism, and not all religions are like that. In fact, not all religious practices that find their origin in the Protestant Reformation have turned out to be like that — I’m pretty sure you’ll find a lot of Episcopalians who just enjoy the liturgy and fellowship, for instance, and don’t really beat themselves up about whether they “believe” hard enough. Nor should they! It’s a free country, after all. Or you could define religion as a quest for meaning, but then how do you exclude secular philosophy? Etc., etc. Just give up, please. Criticizing fundamentalism is awesome. I do it all the time. Criticizing religious people for not being fundamentalists is stupid.


February 19, 2009 - Posted by | Spoiler Alert Thursdays


  1. This post kind of starts out intending to present a recipe for cheesecake, mentions a crumb crust before bringing up the Afghan war, and finishes up with a brief lecture on the Unocal pipeline.

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | February 19, 2009

  2. but it shouldn’t be intensified just because there’s this gross “religion” stuff sticking to a given practice.

    Maybe it shouldn’t, but it is because there are so many emotional triggers for people in the idea of religion. People get defensive about “religion” and the simplest way to cope with that is to knock down the straw man of fundamentalism — “I don’t need to feel all spiritually inadequate, because fundamentalism is crap!” That is, I agree with your argument entirely, but find House’s approach psychologically authentic. Or at least convincing.

    Comment by Di Kotimy | February 19, 2009

  3. Yeah, far be it from me to advise House to act more normal — I’ll admit that his behavior is actually consistent with his character. The more interesting point might be that he was so into the atheist priest, even though that would seem to be a much more serious form of hypocrisy than Cuddy’s.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 19, 2009

  4. Which, of course, would be precisely the type of hypocrisy he would likely recognize in himself — and cope with by projecting all his loathing of religious hypocrisy onto Cuddy. Which simultaneously serves to interject additional emotional distance, which helps him cope with his confused feelings for her.

    They’re not actually real people though. I’ll stop.

    Comment by Di Kotimy | February 19, 2009

  5. Flight of the Conchords – good. “Too many dicks on the dancefloor” is their best song in quite a while. I like that Dave is participating in the songs this year.

    Fringe – average. But who didn’t see it coming that Walter Bishop was somehow (albeit unbeknownst to himself) involved in the conspiracy?

    BSG – good, but too much information for a single episode.

    Dollhouse – ultra terrible (i.e., worse than My Own Worst Enemy). I’m surprised they didn’t cancel the show after the first commercial break. Or earlier. I have no idea how they are going to pretend to pull off the show given that Faith has one character: Faith. While “scanning” on the radio last week, I heard Joss Whedon on CBC. He’s a douche.

    Terminator – average. The season long arc is being drawn out far too long.

    Bones – terrible. Don’t know if it was a new episode because I haven’t kept up with it since its move to Thursdays and for some reason it was on last night. But having Alan Shore’s former debt-ridden assistant as a new FBI agent is just terrible. She was horrible in Boston Legal and even worse in Bones.

    Comment by Craig | February 19, 2009

  6. I’m not sure I agree that a jaded priest is more hypocritical than agnostic layman setting up those quasi-religious show-ceremonies.

    I’m ready to be convinced, but my first reaction is that priest is a professional, it’s merely a job, which is what the priest says in the show. To be a decent priest you don’t have to be religious, I don’t think you do.

    Bogus show-off ceremonies is a whole different thing altogether.

    Comment by abb1 | February 19, 2009

  7. Adam,

    Of course I get your point about the fallacy of “holding” religious people “accountable” by throwing the book of Leviticus at them: “You don’t plant your grains the way it says in Chapter 31, so…” etc. I’m also at a nearly terminal disadvantage because I didn’t see the episode.

    Nonetheless, I suspect that a lot of the momentum behind lectures like House’s comes from a total willingness, on the part of some religious people, to both pick and choose (whether they do this personally, or their cultural group does) and to stand upon a rock of religious authority. In other words, when I make a moral pronouncement, I am necessarily shaken by serious doubts about my own rightness, particularly if I think other people have to follow a moral rule just because it makes sense to me.

    Now, of course, this sort of doubt isn’t “unreligious” or “un-Christian” at all — it’s an important part of the emphasis in many different religions on personal humility. But it is also true that a broader group than just fundamentalists have looked to religious texts and leaders for certainty, and in some cases — as with homophobia in the United States — the society at large has paid a price.

    Comment by Joseph Kugelmass | February 19, 2009

  8. Also, it sounds like House is really stepping on the toes of Dostoevsky and Graham Greene. And I’m not going to pat it on its head for bringing depth to the people — it’s just plain old plagiarism.

    Comment by Joseph Kugelmass | February 19, 2009

  9. I’m pretty sure Cuddy wasn’t using religion as a weapon against anyone.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 19, 2009

  10. See?

    Comment by Di Kotimy | February 20, 2009

  11. Was it called Burnout Case or something? What a boring novel; for Greene, that is. And it’s hardly such an original and brilliant idea that it could be plagiarized.

    Comment by abb1 | February 20, 2009

  12. With Cuddy you can never be sure. She’ll probably have octuplets on next week’s episode. It was The Power and the Glory.

    Comment by Joseph Kugelmass | February 20, 2009

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