It's not like I get rushed with comments whenever I write anything for this blog. I thought I would get in trouble for previous postings that the world greeted with a collective yawn. This one, however, I think could really get me in some hot water, because it deals with The Big "R"--Religion. And at Christmastime yet!
Let me begin by saying that the recent film "Religulous," by Bill Maher and Larry Charles, is often very funny, the work of two expert funnymen who specialize in puncturing inflated egos, revealing the nakedness of self-styled emperors, and exposing the sheer illogic of the banal homilies we live by. In "Religulous," they have a veritable orchard of fruits and nuts to pick off:evangelists who live like royalty off the contributions of the poor (including one who claims to be the direct lineal descendant of Jesus Christ);a dunderheaded Bible theme park in Orlando; an even more cringeworthy "Creationism" museum in Kentucky that shows cavemen and dinosaurs living side-by-side, a' la Fred Flintstone and Dino; the leader of an "ex-gay" ministry who insists sexuality is a choice; and, most tellingly, the egregious Sen. Mark Pryor, R-Ark., who proves his own maxim that you don't need to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.
Maher, the film's host and commentator, skewers his opponents just as deftly here as he does on his HBO program, "Real Time." Yet "Religulous" left me with a bad taste in my mouth, because Maher chose to get serious in the end, and the gist of his serious message was this: Anyone who has any belief whatever in anything beyond the physical world is no different from the chowderheads described above, and is also an "enabler" for all the Jim Joneses, David Koreshes and Osama bin Ladens of the world.
No one likes to hear himself described as a Branch Davidian or a member of the Taliban, particularly when he knows the charge to be blatantly false. To out myself, I am a non-fundamentalist Christian, raised as a Lutheran and still with a nominal attachment to that faith although these days I rarely set foot inside a church. I believe in the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments; I believe that honest Christians can disagree about the exact interpretation of those doctrines, and also that honest people of other faiths or no faith can reject those doctrines and still lead moral and ethical lives. I believe in an eternal afterlife; I do not pretend to know the details of that afterlife, though I have my hopes. (I have had intimations in my life of a world beyond this one, but that's another story.) And I do not see Heaven as an exclusive club, limited strictly to those who hold the correct opinions on school prayer, stem cell research, or gay marriage. I don't even see belief in a deity as a prerequisite for it.
In other words, to Bill Maher, I'm just like the guy who runs the Creationism museum. And, to the guy who runs the Creationism museum, I'm just like Bill Maher.
"Religulous" might have left me less angry if Maher had earned his final "Grow Up or Die" tirade. If he had played fair in his interviews, he might have done so. No one with whom he has an extended conversation could be considered a sophisticated religious thinker (a phrase Maher evidently considers an oxymoron). His conversations with educated Christians--Francis Collins, founder of the Human Genome Project, and Catholic priests in the Vatican and at Georgetown University--are severely, and apparently selectively, edited. We hear the priests agree with Maher (and with me) that a belief in the exact literal truth of the Bible is untenable if you accept the evidence presented by science. What we do not hear are any points on which they might disagree with Maher, such as the divinity of Jesus.
Maher may insist he doesn't know whether God or an afterlife exists, but his other statements and his general attitude in "Religulous" demonstrate that, on the contrary, he is quite certain only the "booboisie" (to borrow a word from another skeptic, H.L. Mencken) subscribe to either. When Maher asks a member of the "Jews for Jesus" movement how belief in Jesus differs from belief in Santa Claus, he obviously believes he has scored a winning goal for his side. Actually, his question does have a salutary effect, in that it shakes reflexive believers out of their mental lethargy and gets them to thinking about what they believe, and why. However, it isn't an "asked and answered" sort of question, as Maher obviously believes it is; to assume that it is shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature of faith. Human beings take many things on faith; different people have faith in different things, and for different reasons. Faith is part of the human emotional makeup, just like joy. A five-year-old feels joy when "Spongebob Squarepants" comes on TV; an adult feels joy when a loved one's biopsy comes back benign. Faith, like joy, becomes more complex with maturity, and faith, like joy, eventually puts away childish things.
I know many people whom I hold dear who find Maher's arguments entirely satisfactory, and whose blood pressure will rise perceptibly if they read what I'm writing now. That's just part of life; people of honesty and good will agree to disagree on many things. I agree with Bill Maher completely on certain subjects, just not this one. He is entitled to his religious beliefs, or lack of same, but I wish he would explain to me why his engaging in sophistry is any different from James Dobson doing the same.