This weekend Bill Maher’s movie Religulous will be released. I plan to see it. The title is a neologism combining “religious” and “ridiculous,” and gives you some sense of the tone the film will take. The trailer’s soundtrack is “Crazy” by Knarles Barkley. Of course, I haven’t seen it yet since no one has, but I’ve seen him appear on the talk show circuit promoting the movie. I have also seen the trailer, as well as years of Bill Maher on HBO and his appearances on other talk shows. (His website disbeliefnet.com features the South Park episode about Mormons, incorrectly labeled “John Smith.”)
Maher has been a voice with the New Atheists long before they were new, and his fiery brand of anti-religious sentiment literally is the fulfillment of the concerns of right-leaning and moderate people about the indignant anti-religiousness of certain aspects of the Left. He is the worst nightmare of the Right as Sarah Palin is the worst nightmare of the Left. The film’s agenda is not really that subtle, and with the clips that I have seen I feel comfortable making some preliminary assessments of the quality of the work. I am unimpressed.
First, Maher’s method for learning about religion is in line with his attempt to depict religion as something that only the stupid and delirious would believe. He interviews truckers about the deep details of religion. He interviews actors in a theme park. He poses as a street preacher. I have seen some clips where he appears to be interviewing clerics, but the clips I have seen are when he is interviewing radicals marching on the street. He features conservative evangelicals and radical muslims prominantly as evidence of what religion is all about. This unnuanced characterization, even if completely true for the slice of religion he features, is necessarily one-sided. This is hardly a fair attempt at understanding, and in my view ends up confirming his actual unwillingness to want to understand. The connection between politics and religion, for instance, is much more complex than he thinks. In fact, he really doesn’t think that Barak Obama is really religious at all (at 3:50), as he said on the Daily Show last night. This is further evidence of his unwillingness to actually understand religion.
Second, Maher sees himself as asking questions about religion that “no one dares to ask”, such as the problem of evil, the problem of God’s hiddeness, the problem of miracles, the delay of Christ’s coming, the problem of petitionary prayer, etc. I must say, Maher’s profound ignorance and arrogance are evident here since he sees these questions as only external to religion. If he knew anything about religion, he would know that these problems are fundamental to religious thought, not just since the Enlightenment, but long before. These are in many ways the very problems that the sacred texts of the world are grappling with. If he disagrees with the answers to these questions given by the great thinkers in theology, that is fine, but I am not sure that he even knows what those answers are, and he certainly isn’t going to get at them by self-selecting edits of clips from interviewing people on the street.
Third, Maher sees religion as reducible to its most violent and ridiculous aspects. He relies on the assertions that all wars all caused by religion (um, ever heard of those atheists Mao and Stalin who killed between 50-100 million people?). He ignores the fact that things like the founding of the United States, the Civil Rights movement, the end of British colonialism in India, the resistance to totalitarianism in Burma, etc, have all been led by religious people. For these “good” aspects of religion, he attempts to eliminate religion as an actual motive. Instead of seeing religion as a complex problem of both good and bad, just like anything else, his characterization strikes anyone who actually knows something about religion as grossly uninformed. He sees religious “myths” as pseudo-science, though they have only been understood this way by a select few in the last few centuries. Instead of investigating what theological or moral problems these “myths” are actually addressing, he decontextualizes them to make them seem silly.
Fourth, Maher sees religion as by definition pre-modern, and therefor anti-modern. He asserts that science, modern knowledge, etc, answer the questions that religion poses definitively in a way that religion simply wasn’t able to before we were blessed by modernity. Rather than see both religion and modernity as intertwined, in the same way that religion and pre-modernity were, he sets up a dichotomy that to be modern is to be without religion. This version of the secularization hypothesis, that as society “progresses” with more knowledge that it will become more secular, is clung to by Maher as a matter of faith. Despite the fact that the world entered the 21st century far more religious than it entered the 20th century, Maher’s faith in this hypothesis is undeterred by the evidence. In actuality, what one sees as both religion and modernity continue to inform one another is a change and adaptation of both.
Finally, Maher’s rhetoric is unnecessarily divisive and polarizing. I have always been struck by the indignation of atheists at the fact that polls show most Americans would not vote for an atheist for political office. If Maher is an example of atheists, then atheists just look like arrogant jerks. In my view, it is this attitude and public persona of contemporary atheism that is a major liability for reforming Americans’ views of atheism. As long as Maher, Dawkins, Hitchens, and others are the public face of atheism, their credibility is shot. Fortunately, there are good reformers out there like the prominent humanist Greg Epstein who has taken a cooperative approach to atheism and religion, building on common ground rather than relying on caricatures, condescension, and combativeness. Unfortunately, the utter ridiculousness of the extreme atheists gets them more airtime. While it has been noted that in religion, like a public pool, all the noise is coming from the shallow end, the same can certainly be said about atheism. My condolences to the good atheists out there who’s good name is tarnished by Maher’s public voice.