And it’s not showing anywhere near me. In fact, I will be very surprised if it opens anywhere in this rural, religious area…I’ll probably have to wait for it to come out on DVD. Religulous is the new movie by Bill Maher, an agnostic who thinks religion is a “load of nonsense”, which by all reports is going to mock religion mercilessly — if this hysterical review by a devout fundamentalist is any indication, it’s going to be great. Maher, though, isn’t exactly an unblemished source with a deep dedication to reason, since he’s fallen for some embarrassingly silly altie medicine nonsense before. I’ll have to wait to see it before I can judge, which may be a while.
Any of you out there who get a chance will have to leave a comment. Go ahead, you can gloat that you live in a civilized part of the world burgeoning with readily available material goodies that are obtainable with a snap of the fingers (…and an agonizing ride through heavy traffic to park on a monstrous sheet of asphalt and pay exorbitant sums for admission…)
Still, I can have the fun of criticizing the critics. Andrew O’Hehir interviews Maher, and although it’s largely a sympathetic review, there’s a big chunk in the middle that is the usual aggravating deference to religion that everyone makes without thinking about it.
But as I gently tried to suggest to Maher during our recent phone call, his scattershot and ad hominem attacks against many different forms of religious hypocrisy don’t add up to a coherent critique, and he’s not qualified to provide one.
“Scattershot” is grossly unfair, since he is attacking religion. Go ahead, stack up Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Scientology, Hinduism, etc. next to each other: it seems to me that the fact that there is no possible rubric for judging the validity of any of them, that they typically contradict each other, and that religious belief is so diverse and so inescapably weird means that it is ridiculous to demand a simple, coherent narrative that addresses the flaws in all of them. There they are, the existence of multiple god-beliefs is sufficient in itself to refute them, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expose their various absurdities in brief snippets.
Any serious theologian from the mainstream Christian or Jewish traditions would have eaten his lunch for him, and that’s why we don’t see anybody like that in this film for more than a second or two.
No, I think it more likely that it is because serious theologians are a) dead boring, b) irrelevant to an extreme degree to most varieties of religious beliefs, and c) are just as silly when their ideas are examined. Except for all those serious theologians who have ended up as atheists, of course.
During their brief appearances, for instance, Vatican Latinist Reginald Foster and astronomer George Coyne, who are both Roman Catholic priests, make it clear that contemporary Catholic theology resists literal readings of Scripture and is not in the least antiscientific. You can find liberal Christians who will argue that the resurrection of Jesus was somewhere between a con game and a dream sequence, and numerous Jews who treat the Torah as legendary material and God as a distant hypothesis.
Yes? And this refutes the contention that religion is absurd how? The only way most religious beliefs can be rationally justified is by running away from them very fast, and then making a delicate and distant wave of appreciation, acknowledging their past role in the intellectual tradition, while denying the substance of their arguments. Fine with me, probably fine with Maher.
It’s perfectly legitimate to argue that all such people are putting lipstick on a pig, to coin a phrase — that they’re apologizing for a ruinous and ridiculous body of mythological literature whose influence on human history has been overwhelmingly negative. But Maher’s idiots-of-all-nations anthology in “Religulous” doesn’t even try to make that case; it’s as if he doesn’t even know that religion has centuries’ worth of high-powered intellection on its side, whether you buy any of it or not.
Now there’s a valid criticism of the movie, and until I’ve seen it, I won’t know if the show makes a poor case or not. O’Hehir may be right, but I’m immediately rendered dubious by this justification that “religion has centuries’ worth of high-powered intellection on its side”. I don’t see that at all. I mainly see that religion has had centuries of cultural monopoly, where intellectuals had no choice (and no alternative) but to work within the framework of religion. All the intellectual circle-jerking over religion? Pfft. Nothing useful came of it. Progress came only when smart people started breaking free of the straitjacket.
Maher and Charles’ film also doesn’t engage the value of religious narrative in moral or existential terms, nor does it even try to address the ubiquitous nature of supernatural and spiritual experience in human life.
I do wish people would knock it off with the automatic bestowal of moral authority on religion. It was the only game in town for millennia, and it didn’t make people better — deeply religious cultures have always been as nasty and brutish, if not more so, than more secular cultures, and religious individuals had as much capacity for evil as atheists. Religion gets no edge here.
But OK, I suspect the movie doesn’t ask the question of why so many people are religious. So what? It’s a comedy-documentary. It’s not supposed to answer all questions, especially not tragic-serious ones about the universal human affliction of faith.
But of course this is actually an interview with Maher, and he does answer those questions — so read the whole thing.