Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head? (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)
Every great once in a while, a must-see movie comes out even for religion specialists. We have to lay aside our Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensias for a while, stare at one of the talkies and scratch our heads. Last year my students asked me what I thought of Bill Maher’s Religulous, but I didn’t have a chance to see it (couldn’t afford it on the big screen, and who has time during the school year anyway?). So I finally got together with a friend to watch it on the small screen.
First off, the film is funny — hey, it was written by a comedian, so it’d better be funny! As Maher ticked off point after point after point where religion falls short of the mark, I felt as though I were watching Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great on the television.Maher scores some big points for having done his homework on mythology and pointing out the mythical elements in mainstream Christian thinking, but I was left with some very basic questions: what about those who hold to religion for good reasons? What about those who don’t strap bombs on in the name of religion? What about those who promote humanitarianism for religious purposes? Can they be classed together with dangerous folk who use religion for nefarious rationales to get back at their enemies (generally anyone they don’t know)? The scenes of religion-inspired violence were extremely disturbing, but I was curious about the benign varieties of religion. Do they do any more harm than taking a toke, as Maher does a time or two in the film?
It occurred to me that religions offer a way out from what can be a very humdrum world. Evolution is certainly fact, but the long, slow process of evolving into something better fit for its environment doesn’t spur on the emotions like the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But isn’t that it in a nutshell? Religions show their flashier colors when they are in conflict, like peacocks competing for the affections of a peahen. Even those interviewed by Maher tended towards the more flamboyant practitioners of their faiths. What should really be on the docket is hatred. Religions may aid and abet those looking for excuses to harm those different from themselves, but religion is often the catalyst, not the cause. As religion goes through the long, tedious, and often painful process of evolution, it is sure to breed virulent strains that are nasty and evil, but once in a while the panda’s thumb emerges and humanity is ready for its next painful step forward.