Agnostupid?

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.

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28 Comments

Filed under Politics, Theology

28 responses to “Agnostupid?

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Good post TT.

  2. The title is a neologism combining “religious” and “credulous,”

    Really? Seems to me it more a play on the word ridiculous. As in, “all religion is ridiculous”.

  3. TT

    Geoff J, you’re right and I’ve corrected the original post.

  4. I guess my problem with the “new atheists” is that I’ve never talked to one who didn’t leave me with the impression that he thinks life is one big pile of monkey-dung, and that I’m an idiot for not realizing it.

  5. Yup.

    Maher seems determined to hold himself up as evidence to reinforce some religious people’s idea that all good things (charity, kindness, compassion, and generally being a good person) all flow from religion and are not possible outside it.

    We can only hope Maher’s little stunt doesn’t impact the elections.

  6. TT

    I just want to add that I am the apparent inventor of the neologism “agnostupid.” I googled it and this post is the only entry. It is not meant to suggest that agnostics and atheists are stupid, but is meant to show that it is easy to make up words to mock people who think about things differently. I hope people find it as obnoxious as “religulous.”

  7. Chris H.

    “Finally, Maher’s rhetoric is unnecessarily divisive and polarizing.”

    He was on Jon Stewart yesterday. People who mock religion do not bother me too much, but his style, particularly when mocking Palin turns into mocking the basics of Christianity turn off people like my wife.

    Like Hitchens, Maher is not a thoughful philosopher, but an advocate of wrath. I do think that we can value from arguments like those of Thomas Paine in the Age of Reason, but this movie is not going to start any such dialogue.

  8. Good post TT. This sums up Maher’s shortcomings nicely. I like an atheist as much as the next guy, but it is weird when atheism starts to look “religious” in all the ways that Maher uses that word (i.e. hateful, thoughtless, etc).

  9. Mark Brown

    Yeah, Maher thinks there is a neat and clear divide between smart people and religious people, and then objects to religious people on the grounds that they have a Manichean worldview. Duh.

    He manages to be funny only when he does it inadvertently.

  10. I don’t pay attention to Maher, but from what I hear his rationalism does not extend into medicine (anti-vaccination, pro-alt-med, etc).

  11. Maher is joining the ranks of the other pop-atheists of our time who are serving up their McUnderstanding of what religion is. He’s out to make a buck, and to look arrogant doing it. Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, etc. are serving up a real unHappy Meal of bigotry.

  12. Great review, TT.

    It irks me to no end when people suggest Christianity is too philosophically unsophisticated for their tastes. Give me strength. If you reject it because you reject its tenets, that’s perfectly appropriate. But let’s not pretend Christianity as a whole is anything other than a tradition of (I believe) peerless affluence when it comes to abstruse philosophical rumination. Read some Thomas Aquinas before you throw the whole religion out the window for fuzzy thinking. By no means do you have to agree with anything Christian thinkers have concluded, but let’s not pretend Christianity, in its 2000 years, has produced no real thinkers.

  13. mellodie

    Of course Christianity has its thinkers, and we all have the right to say, do, and think whatever we want in regards to religion. However, all things being equal, if I had the choice between someone who believed in protective underwear they were (almost) never to remove; a history book that described civilizations that no scholars are able to identify; angels threatening murder if my religion’s founder didn’t take another lover behind his wife’s back; literal descendancy from Adam and Eve, etc.–I’d look askance at deeply religious people too, and seriously question their critical thinking skills. On the other hand, some of the most intelligent people I know were born into religious families and remain “religious” because of tradition or to maintain family unity. I know of very few non-hormonal adult converts who are geniuses.

  14. Velska

    I have seen Maher’s appearances on some shows. He comes off as a sideshow crier. From what I’ve seen of his performance, the feature will do well at parties of like-minded fraternities.

    Extreme opinions tend to be noticed, so he gets noticed. This brand of atheism is a bona fide religion – I wonder how many converts they make with this kind of proselytizing. And what kind of converts.

    I used to be agnostic and thought that too much violence and oppression had taken place in the name of God. I saw all organized religion as fundamentally corrupt. As a Mormon now I cringe when someone takes an “institutional” approach in a council, IOW sees people as servants of the organization, not the other way around as it should. I still see organized religion as easily yielding to abuses if the people who are in charge are corrupt.

  15. Really, mellodie? Everyone who joins the church (or any church) as an adult is either horny or an imbecile? Any intelligent person who stays is doing so out of a debt to tradition or a desire to not rock the family boat?

    Mellodie I suggest that your characterization is overgeneralized and that your credibility is on shaky ground. I don’t find anything that you said common to my experience. I don’t accept that belief in Mormonism requires greater credulity than belief in atheism or any other competing worldview. If you want to talk cognitive dissonance, go someplace else.

  16. ECS

    If you watched The Daily Show interview, Maher claims to be an agnostic, not an atheist. Maher said he believes atheism is the mirror image of religion, i.e., dogmatic, myopic, etc., which seems to also apply to Maher’s particular brand of agnosticism (although he said he doesn’t begrudge the prisoner his belief in Jesus. Thanks, Bill.).

    Anyhoo, to the point the brilliant K makes about the complexity of Christian thought, I agree that a great deal of the Christian philosophical/intellectual tradition is deeply complex and amazingly difficult to unravel into accessible concepts (at least by my own limited intellect). Putting this aside, however, I’m not sure how, well, useful or, dare I say, practical, religious thought has been to the advance of Western Civilization. In fact, religion pretty much has to be dragged kicking and screaming through modernity. Maybe that’s a good thing! I’m just sayin’.

  17. Mellodie: I know of very few non-hormonal adult converts who are geniuses.

    I know all sorts of people who are both converts to Mormonism and geniuses. Maybe we just hang out with different crowds.

    These intelligent people have their eyes wide open as to various “warts” in Mormonism and its history; but they convert because of undeniable mystical/spiritual experiences that lead them to do so. In other words, God told them to join up with the Mormons and they said “okey dokey”. You can join Maher and call them deluded if you want, but beware of becoming the kind of arrogant bigot Maher seems to be.

  18. Mellodie, I’m having difficulty parsing your comment even on the level of syntax: if you had to choose between a Mormon, you’d look askance at religious people?

    (I’m also not sure what a non-hormonal adult is, unless you mean perhaps a corpse?)

    You list aspects of Mormonism you apparently consider absurd. Since it would be a threadjack for me to initiate a debate over the merits of accepting or rejecting these particular issues (as an ex-Mormon, I’m not exactly predisposed to an aversion to concluding they’re absurd), let’s just do a meta-analysis of the situation so as to keep it on topic. As far as I can see, what the issues you raise all apparently have in common is that accepting them puts one outside mainstream thought in the predominant culture (hence the label “absurd.”) But if this is the primary objection–if one dismisses such beliefs on this basis and supplants them with faith in the “scholars” you mention, that person hasn’t gained any epistemological ground whatever. They’ve simply supplanted a religious authority with a scholarly authority.

    Conclusion: there are thoughtful critiques to be made of religion. So let’s make thoughtful, well-reasoned critiques.

  19. TT

    Thanks for the great comments all! Just a quick reply to ESC (thanks for coming by! I’ve enjoyed your thread on this topic at FMH):

    “Putting this aside, however, I’m not sure how, well, useful or, dare I say, practical, religious thought has been to the advance of Western Civilization. In fact, religion pretty much has to be dragged kicking and screaming through modernity. Maybe that’s a good thing! I’m just sayin’.”

    I think that this is a bit of an overstatement, and I cite some particularly important examples in the original post, but I think it comes down to what one means by “religion.” I think that if one defines it as principally its anti-modern component, as Maher does, then of course the criticism holds. If, however, one looks at the progressive strains of religion that incorporate, adapt, and even shape modernity, I think one can tell quite a different story.

    Perhaps one day I’ll do that secularism post I’ve been planning. Just have a get a few other things done first… :)

  20. mellodie

    Sorry, Kiskili. I was typing on a hand-held and was unable to clean up my sentence. I thought most people could read between the lines. Again, in a nutshell, it’s easier to trust/like/believe people who don’t believe in fairies than those who do. Next, “hormonal convert” refers to someone who converts because his/her significant other will only date or marry someone of the same religion. Finally, all kinds of smart people convert orjoin religions. I specically said “genius”, not just “smart”.

  21. mellodie,
    seriously. Aside from Kiskilili, you realize that you are talking to a batch of believers. Is it possible for you to be more offensive? You have two strikes, please do not go for a third.

  22. The line between genius and smart is subjective at best. I mean, many scholars consider Joseph Smith to have been a genius, and he definitely converted from one religion to another. Many consider John Widtsoe a genius and he converted(admittedly at the age of 11). Many Consider R.H. Benson a literary genius and his main subject in writing was his conversion. The same could be said of C.S.Lewis, Francis Collins, or Alister E. McGrath, who are all converts.

    Also, there are all kinds of smart people and genius’s who convert the other way, leaving religion behind.

    So let’s drop this line of reasoning, because it is not “genius”.

    In any case, both the religious and the non-religious need to find and build on common beliefs. I think it is this lack of ecumenism coupled with our extreme activism that causes intellectual myopia and self-deception on both sides, and that this self-deception is what causes violence to be perpetrated by the religious and non-religious alike. In the end, I hope we can all see that this violence is neither good nor wise.

  23. ECS

    Hi, TT – I agree with your examples of Gandhi and MLK, Jr. using religious principles to usher in social change. These “good” aspects of religion employed by individual religious people to effect change, however, are often in direct contravention with the “bad” aspects embodied in sclerotic religious institutions. You know, the ones dragged kicking and screaming through modernity.

    I saw an interview with Tony Blair a few weeks ago about his new faith/religion project at Yale and I think his approach makes a lot of sense. That said, although most (all?) religious persons agree on the general principles of tolerance and charity, the devil (ha!) is in the details of exactly who and what religious people are willing to tolerate.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the movie!

  24. TT- can you email me real quick? I have a few additional questions about the film, since you plan to see it this weekend.

  25. Thanks for clarifying, Mellodie. Yeah, I was giving you a hard time about the syntax. :)

    You write, “It’s easier to trust/like/believe people who don’t believe in fairies than those who do.” I disagree. I would phrase it this way: “It’s easier for people who believe in fairies to trust other people who believe in fairies; it’s easier for people who don’t believe in fairies to trust other people who don’t believe in fairies.” The point is that we’re not even addressing issues of truth or falsity; what we’re addressing is consensus, which isn’t necessarily the best index for truth.

    (And John, by the way, I am a believer–in God, Jesus, even their involvement in the Mormon church specifically. My testimony, such as it is, is undoubtedly wildly heretical. But I apostatized over moral objections, not over existential objections, to Church teaching.)

  26. Sorry for the misrepresentation, Kiskilili. I should not have assumed.

  27. Tom D

    ECS,

    I personally think that Christianity and the various Christian churches have been incredibly important to Western Civilization and to the world as a whole. I have read a lot of history. I have been deeply impressed both intellectually and spiritually by how God has blessed all humankind through true doctrine and through less-than-perfect churches.

    The more true doctrine there is in a religion (and they all have some), the more the people are improved. “Apostate” Christianity has a whole lot of truth in it. I believe that other religions also have truth in them, but not usually as much.

    The Catholic Church did a lot to preserve and encourage learning in the middle ages. To be sure there were wicked priests in it just for the money and power, but there many other priest, monk, and nuns who did much good. The church provided a framework and resources for this. Later on the Protestant churches did likewise. Competition between the them was mostly a good thing. Overall, I think they encouraged more good than they discouraged.

    The involvement of the Catholic Church (and others) in politics did cause some serious problems (I am particularly sensitive to Irish history), but it also solved problems and fostered many useful institutions (“universities” were founded to teach priests).

    True religious freedom with multiple, independent, and (mostly) non-political churches is a pretty recent development. I suspect that it has been rare in world history.

    I don’t think that people or institutions ever really like to change. Much as I wish to be more like Christ, I find it a difficult process.

    I really think that it was no accident that Europe became so dominant politically, scientifically, and culturally. I believe that there is a real, causal relationship between the spread of the Bible and the flowering of the Renaissance and the development of Europe.

    I do not believe that so much of the gospel could have been preserved (and even spread) since Christ’s day without “churches”. To be sure, the books in the Bible could have just been buried up and left to be given to a latter-day prophet, but I think that God was playing a much deeper game (see http://scriptures.lds.org/en/jacob/5).

    The apostate Christian churches preserved a lot of true doctrine (though the Adversary suppressed or distorted it as much as he could) and the Bible. This true doctrine improved people and moved them to contribute more and better to their societies.

    It is interesting to compare the Americas with Europe during the years between Christ and the Restoration.

  28. No worries John–it was a reasonable assumption. I can hardly expect other people to intuit my relationship to Mormonism when I’m at a loss to understand it myself.