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.

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.

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.