A Conversation About Religion… Kind of… on ‘How I Met Your Mother’

Discussions about raising children with or without faith don’t appear often on popular sitcoms, so we’re grateful when it does. On last night’s episode of How I Met Your Mother, Lily and Marshall had an interesting conversation regarding the book “Enigmas of the Mystical” and how they would raise their child. They might as well have been talking about religion. The clip begins at the 5:19 mark:

Lily: Yeah, those enigmas always seemed a bit thin to me…

Marshall: Thin! Lily, this is 200 pages of detailed accounts about Bigfoot, ghosts, aliens abducting people from their beds and probing them. I’m gonna read it to Baby Eriksen at night night.

Lily: You really want to read our kid bedtime stories about monsters?!

Marshall: First of all, I wouldn’t use the “M” word. Only they can call themselves that. And secondly, are you really saying you don’t want to raise our child as a believer?

Lily: I don’t want to brainwash our child to believe in something with no proof.

Marshall: It’s not about proof! It’s about faith! Faith is what gives life shape and meaning. I mean, if there aren’t Yetis and Leprechauns, what’s the point of even getting up in the morning?

Lily: I don’t know… Wife? Unborn child? Drop a deuce?

Marshall: Lily, don’t you think it’s a bit narcissistic not to allow for something bigger than us out there? Something whose beauty and power and majesty humbles us?

Lily: … God?

Marshall: Werewolves.

(Thanks to Thomas for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Rosel1

    There was also a discussion about this on a recent episode of “The Middle;” the youngest child, Brick, decided to question the bible’s accuracy, which his older sister didn’t much like. She tried to convince him, but in the end decided to allow him to believe what he wanted. He chose to believe that the bible wasn’t true, but commented that “it was a nice story anyway,” or something.

    • Spencer

      I saw that, but it wasn’t nearly enough for cynical old me. Oh, how nice — he thought  ‘it was a gripping read’, and a ‘nice story’, and all he had was nitpicks about the Ark and some of the other Old Testament stories. I’ve only seen a couple other episodes, but isn’t he supposed to be a genius or something? He doesn’t question how there’s no proof for any of it and it doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense?

      I also don’t remember him saying he doesn’t believe it — they kind of just left it as ambiguous.

      • Rosel1

        Yeah, I agree that it was definitely not enough, but it was something at least. That show annoys me with its constant references to church and such, especially that preacher guy who seems to be able to fix everything, and I guess it was nice to see someone slightly skeptical on the show for once.

        Marshall’s werewolves line was better though :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000358671643 Peter Mullaney

        Fitzgerald defined genius as the capacity to hold opposing ideas at the same time and still be able to function.

        Guess where that leaves you?

  • Anonymous

    Marshall’s line about “something bigger out there” is trite and annoying. It’s only a sitcom, but I really hate that kind of argument.

    The Werewolves response was funny, though.

    • melitta

      Also giving the “believer” part to Marshall seemed to be an odd decision at first (since he is usually shown to be well-educated), but in any case: a big hooray for (sort of) raising the topic of a fundamental problem with religion – believing in something mystical and indoctrinating one’s children – on a popular American television show.
      I shall like this show even more now.

      • Anonymous

        ” giving the ‘believer’ part to Marshall seemed to be an odd decision at first (since he is usually shown to be well-educated)”

        Have you ever seen the show? Much has been made over the course of the show about Marshal’s status as a “believer”. There have always been jokes about how he believes in ghosts, yetis (sp?), aliens, and the Loch Ness monster. Lily has always been the more grounded of the pair.

        It also goes to show that well-educated, highly-intelligent people can partition different portions of their psyches and be very grounded when wearing one hat and hold completely unfounded beliefs in other contexts.

        It’s just like real life!

        • Deepthot42

          They spent their honeymoon at Loch Ness. (on Marshall’s insistence)

          • Stogoe

            Beautiful country.  No monsters.  I’d love to go back.

        • Caravelle

          And there was also the Cockamouse episode which was devoted to that, and now that I think of it wasn’t it also a believer vs atheist allegory ?

      • Joe

        There was am episode as well when Marshall tried to convince the rest of the gang of the existence of miracles

      • kodiacarrest

        “giving the ‘believer’ part ot Marshell seemed to be an odd decision at first first (since he is usually shown to be well-educated)”…I’m not a ‘believer’ … but this is one of my biggest problems with conversations I have seen between believers and nonbelievers of god and/or religion.  I hate this so much.  There is no conversation.  Marshall, despite throughout the entire series being shown as someone who believes in such myths and legends as Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster, now, when it parodies religion directly, it is odd that Marshall takes that stance, since he is “well-educated.”  True stereotype or not, I hate that fact that seemingly all atheists are as closed-minded as the radical religious groups.  

        What?  Since Marshall is well-educated, he’s not allowed to believe in the existence of God?  I’ve never met an atheist who didn’t believe that a person who believes in God is inherently stupid.  It seems the idea of faith, which I guess this makes sense, gets lost on atheists.  Being intelligent or well educated doesn’t mean giving up a sense of faith.

        Why does believing in something beyond our own existence make you stupid?  Science is all about the pursuit of truth and fact.  And as much as you’re going to hate this, none of us will know the “truth” behind the existence of a God or afterlife until we die.  For those normal, everyday human beings, why does it offend you if they believe there is a God?  If you are right, then they will never know anyway.

        Sorry for the rant.  This belief that people who believe are stupid bugs me.

        • atheright

          they are stupid.
          they ignore the facts and have no reasoning or logic skills

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000358671643 Peter Mullaney

        It doesn’t sound as if you fully understand what the expression “well educated” means.

    • starskeptic

      the “something bigger out there” line was used exactly to set up the ‘werewolves’ response – so I don’t think you found it as annoying as you’re letting on…

      • Anonymous

        I found it exactly as annoying as I said I did. I have no reason to exaggerate.

        • starskeptic

          …you found it annoying enough to think the joke was funny   – sounds pretty annoyed to me=not!

    • Anonymous

       I thought it was completely hilarious. I also think it was supposed to be a dig at people who use these same arguments for the existence of god. They always get really angry when people compare god to things like bigfoot, leprechauns, etc; this exchange did exactly that using the exact arguments that so often come out of their mouths as arguments directly for things that aren’t god. It also did this without being direct and so it doesn’t immediately put them on the defensive (oh shit…I’m not really an accomodationist, really I’m not)

      I think the whole thing is subversive and all the more funny for it.

      Although maybe I’m reading far more into it than I should…but I don’t think so. I think that’s exactly what the writers had in mind (ok maybe hope is a better word to use here than think).

    • Dmacabre

      Whoosh.

      Right over your head.

      • Anonymous

        I get the set-up, dude, I just thought it was kind of weak.

        Also, as someone else mentioned, the non-believer, i.e. Lily, is painted as the cynical non-believer because of the poor relationship she has with her dad. This is a ridiculously overused stereotype. Why praise writers who reinforce it?

  • http://www.bricewgilbert.blogspot.com Brice Gilbert

    Do you think we’ll ever see a character who not only dismisses religion/faith as untrue or useless, but isn’t either A. An ass hole or B. Wasn’t raised in a loving home (This episode uses this idea)?

    • Mmata10

      Glee has an openly atheist character who is one of the most loved characters. Raise by loving father too. It’s a cheesy show, but I doer it :)

      • http://www.bricewgilbert.blogspot.com Brice Gilbert

        How could I forget about Kurt!? One could possibly argue since he’s gay they made him hate religion, but I think that episode did a good job showing him justify his non-belief with logic as well.

      • monyNH

        I LOVE Kurt, and I thought Glee did an awesome job “outing” its atheist characters…but didn’t Kurt’s atheism stem originally from his mother’s death? Just as Coach Sue’s atheism stemmed from her sister’s Down Syndrome? It’s as if writers don’t believe (or don’t think their audiences will buy) an atheist character who came to their decision via a rational, thoughtful, pain-free process.

    • http://twitter.com/apsalartoll apsalartoll

      Alisha on the Good Wife is not religious and gets a little irritated with her teenage daughter when she wants to start going to church. I don’t know if she’s an atheist but she definitely thinks religion is useless.

      • http://www.bricewgilbert.blogspot.com Brice Gilbert

        That’s one of those ones i’ve been “keeping an eye on.” They drop little hints everywhere that she’s at least not a Christian, but i’m curious if they’ll when they’ll dive into it and really explain what she believes. I’m hoping it’s a non-issue. Like an episode will build us up to believe she was harmed by religion in the past when in reality she just doesn’t accept the claims.

    • Rhea

      I thought this parodied the idea that a lack of belief arises from bitterness or trauma:Marshall’s happy childhood enabled him to believe in werewolves?!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000358671643 Peter Mullaney

      Not before we see an actual atheist who isn’t either of those. Oh yes I did.

  • starskeptic

    Funny – and very well done; writers walking a tightrope between directly making fun of religion and not giving the audience the rope to hang them with; in America – this is progress…

    • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

      I agree. The writers are clearly satirizing religion by comparing it with other fairy tales.

      • starskeptic

        it’s quite a step down from “All in the Family”, but I’ll take it…

        • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

          Oh yeah, “All in the Family” is in a category all of its own.

          • Brian Macker

            But the atheist in that was a leftist buffoon who actually deserved the moniker meathead.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000358671643 Peter Mullaney

        Considering that one of the show’s creators is the son of a minister, and is himself religious, it’s probably not satire. Perhaps you mean dramatic irony.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    I’m happy that Lily is the reasonable one in the duo. I’ve been a fan of Alyson Hannigan (Lily) ever since she played Willow (a lesbian witch) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  (I’m looking forward to the Avengers movie this summer by director Joss Whedon who is an atheist).

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1019365643 John J. Ronald

      I need to get around to watching that; But I’ve always loved Hannigan since that “…one summer, at band camp…” (i.e. American Pie)… ;-)

      • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

        She was perfect in that role.

  • Caravelle

    I enjoyed that storyline… Until it came down to Lily not believing in werewolves because her father had neglected her growing up, so while Marshall was learning all about Roswell aliens from his father, she learned to believe in nothing but herself.

    It’s good that she’s such a strong person, and the coda is sweet, but I can’t help but come away from that with the lesson that rationalism is a sad, sad way to live that only people who had a terrible childhood would adopt, either because they weren’t exposed to anything better or as a self-defense mechanism.

    It’s not even subtle: Lily pretty much says exactly that. You can still handwave that they weren’t talking about rationality or atheism, this is just about Lily and Marshall and their issues, but. Well.

    • The Other Weirdo

      There’s a difference though, isn’t there? I don’t watch the show, but why does rationalism automatically imply an inability to enjoy vampire, werewolf or even Godzilla stories?

      • Caravelle

        It doesn’t. Lily and Marshall’s discussion isn’t about enjoying vampire, werewolf or Godzilla stories. It’s about believing them.
        Marshall literally believes that Bigfoot and Nessie and (it now appears) werewolves exist.

        I would think that was pretty clear from the original post, my comment and all the other comments, so I’m not sure what you mean here.

        • The Other Weirdo

          My deepest apologies. I failed to read enough into the inbetweenies of a dozen or so lines of context-empty dialogue from a show I don’t watch. Nowhere there does it say that he *literally* believes in vampires or werewolves, I thought the whole thing was meant as a joke. You know, the way people(OK, maybe it’s just me) tell a neighbour not to go the end of dark hallway during a power outage because there might be vampires(or did I tell her zombies? I can’t remember) hiding in all that dark. I will no go bash my brains out against a wall to atone for my gross sin.

          • Caravelle

            Wow, dramatic much ? I didn’t quite understand how your comment related to mine but it was obviously a response to me, so I corrected a misconception it seemed to contain and wondered aloud what you meant. Re-reading the original post I still think it’s pretty clear from it that Marshall believes in werewolves  but for Heaven’s sake you don’t need to beat yourself up over such a small misunderstanding. Or guilt me for having had the gall to point it out. (now who’s being dramatic…)

            Misunderstandings aside I’d love to discuss the relationship between rationalism and werewolves with you.

  • Anonymous

    I can think of little more that’s more narcissistic than thinking that the universe was created for you and that its creator has a plan just for you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marcie-Miller-Spence/1322445534 Marcie ‘Miller’ Spence

    I caught that episode and thought it was great!  


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