Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.

Religion Is Fundamental

One of the books on my shelf growing up was a cheap paperback entitled How to Be a Christian without Being Religious. The idea appealed since having to do all that “religious” stuff seemed kind of like Catholicism or some other formal system of behavior rather than a kind of organic relationship with God. Ironically now, fast forward an indeterminate number of years, and the “spiritual but not religious” demographic is quickly rising. From the secular side. As a sign of this new direction society seems to be turning is the Hart and Crescent Award, designed for Girl and Boy Scouts who are members of a nature religion. Perhaps the most widely recognized religion of this category is Wicca, the modern incarnation of witchcraft, according to some, simple nature religion according to others. The award, according to the website, is open to any young person who completes the requirements to learn about the earth and earth religion.


Also worthy of note is a story in last week’s Time magazine about atheist churches. Ministers from a number of traditions, disenchanted with belief systems that just don’t match what we know of reality are starting to form congregations of unbelievers. This may distress some materialists who find no reason to be spiritual, but the fact is, people naturally are. The article cites, for example, Bill Maher who stands against the idea. There is security in numbers, and in a society where people find themselves increasingly isolated from others, joining together on a Sunday morning for time with likeminded non-believers may not be such a bad thing.

One aspect of Josh Sanburn’s article has me a little puzzled, however. He notes that Richard Dawkins has torn religion apart in his books, and yet, here it is. Dawkins and Maher and other vocal atheists seem to believe that religion has brought us nothing but evil. How quick we are to forget that civilization itself is typically defined as having a formal concept religion, as well as several other components of what it means not to be “savage” or “barbarian.” That religion may not be Christianity. It may be Wicca. It may be the Houston Oasis and its atheistic system. People need common cause. Reason is great, indeed marvelous as far as it goes. People, however, are not entirely rational. They can be spiritual without being religious. And they can be religious without being believers. If you persist in it, your Scout can even earn an award for caring for the earth. And that should be no cause for complaint.

Nothing to Do with Pigs

Pseudepigrapha is not a word that flows mellifluously off the tongue, and the first time reader stops to give pause over its awkward beginning and several syllables. It comes from a couple of words meaning “false” and “letters” and it designates a book, usually ancient, falsely attributed to somebody important. Since most people in our post-modern world don’t even read the regular Bible (many Fundamentalists among them), throwing a false gospel out there and telling everyone what it says is a fairly safe bet for getting some attention. A friend sent me a link to a web story about the “Gospel of Barnabas” based on an allegedly clandestine Turkish manuscript, that has been circulating for a few years now. Let’s face it: how is a non-specialist supposed to find a copy of the Gospel of Barnabas, and how is the public going to know how to weigh one ancient document against another? After all, we as a society have determined that biblical scholars are more than useless, and they should be employed doing odd jobs just above minimum wage, the unbelievers!

Dante making Scripture

Dante making Scripture

The story on the promisingly named Liberaland website makes a Bill Maher of mistakes regarding the ancient document, however. Citing only vague “religious experts and specialists located in Tehram,” (after all, we all know that there are no religious specialists in North America or Europe) the article claims with an unattributed quote, that this 23-million-dollar gospel has been squirreled away for safe keeping because of its scandalous claims about early Christianity. Any biblical scholar knows, however, that truly original scandalous claims are difficult to come by. The Gospel of Barnabas has been known since the seventeenth century and it is likely a document with Muslim sympathies. It doesn’t help that actual ancient documents are sometimes held in secret (I know of one being kept in a Turkish monastery that is being held, literally, for ransom to help finance the place), and the general public is ill-equipped to know who’s telling tales outside of school.

There’s no point in denying that religions have made a plethora of mistakes and missteps over the centuries. New religions are emerging all the time and new mistakes and missteps will be made. Given that people are, according to the best evidence, programmed to believe, it would seem to this insignificant former scholar that keeping a few religion specialists on the payroll might not be such a bad idea. Of course, I am an interested party, and that makes me suspect from the beginning. I spent my early adulthood years learning to read a dozen dead languages and that has landed me in an obscure job that barely covers the rent. One thing it did prevent, however, is being taken in by claims of mysterious gospels that seem to surface several times a year. There will be those who dispute what I write, but then any document these days is liable to be called pseudepigrapha.

Religious Democracy, Media Style

A delightfully witty book review appeared in yesterday’s newspaper introducing Penn Jillette’s book God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. Having just learned of the book I’ve not yet read it, but I am intrigued. Penn Jillette is best known as the talking portion of the magic-debunking duo Penn and Teller. Having forged a career of exposing false claims to the supernatural mystique of stage magic, Penn and Teller delight in bucking the orthodoxy of the guild and showing that anyone clever enough can fool many people into believing what they know can’t be true. They are exploiting, of course, a phenomenon that neuroscientists have been exploring for a number of years: human brains retain belief even in the face of disproving evidence. Many religious believers call it “faith.” According to Hank Gallo, author of the review, Jillette uses his book to endorse atheism as the only real option for a thinking person. The book is generally categorized as humor.

Although Bill Maher’s Religulous makes many good points from a similar perspective, one of the haunting realities poised for religious specialists is almost a chiaroscuro with excessive contrast. It takes no special training to be a religious specialist. That is hard news to hear for those of us who’ve spent over a decade of our lives and thousands of dollars learning the trade. Comedians and others who are famous will impact far more people than this little blog ever will. Rick Perry can call together thousands to pray to pave his way to the White House. Maher and Jillette can poke fun at religious yokels and scholars will sit at their desks ignoring the crude efforts of those who have no training. There is no doubt, however, as to which will reach a wider audience.

Harry Houdini famously debunked spiritualists in his day. Like Penn and Teller, he was a stage magician who recognized that people could be easily fooled. He was able to expose mediums that scientists and academics of his day failed to uncover. It seems that those with access to the most basic of human desires—the will to believe—gain credibility more readily than an erudite yet obtuse specialist with several odd initials after his or her name and several obscure books to his or her credit. Those in the media have direct access to the mind of the public. If the tent is big enough the whole town will show up for the circus. The truth may be out there, but the minds of the public are won over by those who entertain, not those who bury themselves in dusty tomes and seldom see the light of day. The fact is people want to believe. Until a better alternative is offered, we might prepare ourselves for a long round of Texas Hold’em and a Tea Party or two.

Bible Experts All

I seldom write follow-ups to my own blog posts – I’ve always found self-referential academics somewhat distasteful, and besides, what is creativity without some variety? Nevertheless, it seems that yesterday’s post has garnered a bit of interest in the disaffected outlook of a self-professed biblical scholar. (Actually, I have three “higher education” diplomas rolled up neatly in tubes in some untidy closet that show that some universities also accuse me with this charge.) Perhaps I need to clarify.

When reading a blog post, it is very difficult to determine the position of a writer’s tongue in relative proximity to his/her cheek. (Those with eyes to see, let them hear!) The subject might be funny if it weren’t so deadly serious. Despite my reservations with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher, they have all underscored a vital point – biblical literalism is very dangerous. This is even more so the case when, in their own minds, all people are Bible experts. We attend school and learn to read. Some learn to read more deeply than others, yet all “know what the book says.” There is no way to dispute that belief. Belief is belief, requiescant in pacem. Some commenters wondered why the opinion of “Bible experts” should matter at all.

When I’m feeling ill, I would prefer to ascertain the opinion of someone who has actually earned a proficiency in human physiology. When the car breaks down (again), I prefer to have someone who understands machines well as the repairer. When many, many people want to know what God doth require of thee, they turn to individuals who have not been thoroughly trained in Bible. I taught in a seminary for many years, and as an administrator, became quite familiar with the accrediting requirements of the Association of Theological Schools, the nation’s main seminary accrediting agency. I may unequivocally state that few seminarians emerge as full-fledged Bible scholars. Some “denominations” do not require any seminary training at all. So when your spiritual life breaks down, most folks head to an “expert” ill-equipped to handle the Bible, a homeopathic (no slur intended) literary diviner.

Purely from my own perspective, I would prefer to know what the Bible, in its own context, language, and words, is more likely to have meant. Delusions and all. Can’t buy that at your local church, with rare exceptions. That is the role of the humble Bible expert. As with any field of study, it is obvious when you have found a true expert. Such a one will readily admit that she or he has more questions than answers.

The Call of the Apocalypse

In discussing various polemics against religion, such as those by Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, I have frequently stated that they have a point, but they have ignored the good that religion hath wrought. It is like an Anti-Julius Caesar – the good is oft interred with the bones. Then the news goes and validates their polemic. The arrests yesterday of the leadership of the Christian militia calling themselves the Hutaree (I’m sorry, but it sounds like a happy Boy Scout gathering) highlights once more the danger that religion poses to an already unstable society. I’d not heard of the Hutaree before, and chances are I would never have heard of them had they not plotted an apocalyptic war against the United States’ government that landed them on the front page.

Few people are willing to admit just how dangerous apocalyptic thought is, or how deeply rooted it is in American politics. Tracing the roots of this form of belief is not difficult – apocalyptic first appears in the Bible when revelation through prophecy met and mated with Zoroastrianism’s dualism. The offspring of this union was the belief that a new, and better (!), age was about to dawn. God would usher in an era of peace, but it had to be precipitated by an era of war. Presidents drawn from the Religious Right have held this belief. Some have even eagerly begun wars in hopes that this ancient Afghanistanian religion would lead to the Christian apocalypse. At least the Hutaree were up-front about it: they believed that armed conflict with the government would flush out the Antichrist and usher in the end.

Last night in my Prophets class student questions indicated just how much interest there is in apocalyptic. We live in an era when information is all-too-easy to find, and yet many otherwise intelligent people believe that a hidden knowledge about the future is available in the Bible. It is not. For those who have ears to hear, Daniel was written about Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Revelation was written about a Roman emperor (perhaps Nero or Domitian) who threatened nascent Christianity. The apocalyptic battle was already underway. The future they longed for was peace. Modern apocalypticists see all of this as future prediction and believe that they must start the war. All of this makes me feel strangely vindicated. The FBI and other government officials are starting to demonstrate an awareness that to prevent religious extremism you must understand it. Now if only universities would catch on and realize that the study of religion is vital to national security I might end up with a full-time teaching post after all.

The original Antichrist

Religi-Religi-Religi-Religulous, That’s All Folks!

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.

Let's be friends

Let's be friends

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.