2008-09-24

Bill Maher: Apostle of Religulous Fundamentalism


Tonight was an interesting night. A friend of mine snagged some free tickets to the sneak preview of Bill Maher's new movie which lampoons religion in America. The movie is named "Religulous", because in the words of its Lion's Gate Films website it "describes religious ideas, beliefs, or claims that are patently absurd, comical, or ridiculous". While the movie does some creative editing and video splicing to make religion look absurd, comical, and ridiculous, it also makes Bill Maher look like a bully who is ridiculous in his own right, and even worse, tedious and preachy. I will explain by filing my comments under three headings: "Amens", "Not-so-muches", and "Reallys".

AMEN!
Here are some places where Maher was right on target:

Greed, Guns, and God: Maher nailed it on the head in continually pointing out how religion- whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim- is either politicized or turned into a means to get rich quick. Over and over he pointed out the lamentable connection between God and Guns (using the Almighty as a mascot to hate, exclude, murder, and make war on one's opponents), and between God and Greed (using God as a vending machine to acquire wealth or power or both). I think Bill and Jesus are on the same page here. Amen, Bill!

Missing Jesus' Point: Several times in the course of the film, Maher pointed out that what Christianity has grown into- with its wealth, opulence, hierarchy, and power-mongering- radically misses the message that Christ intended. This is ironic, since Bill also says that Jesus "never existed", and thus could not have intended anything. But, despite the logical leap there, Bill is on target. Jesus would not live in a palace or wear a $2000 suit like some folks in the film. Amen, Bill!

Funny Fundamentalists: There are some drop dead, laugh-till-you-wet-yourself moments in the film. His deliciously awkward interview with the "ex-gay" minister is one such moment. Another happens when Bill suggests to a Hispanic would-be Messiah that he might be the second incarnation of Carmen Miranda. And then there is the interview with the prosperity preacher, and another dozen to boot. Amen, Bill!

NOT-SO-MUCH. Here are some places where Maher plays fast and loose with facts, logic, or both:

Signposts to nowhere? Several times in the movie Bill makes the amazingly uneducated statement that Jesus "never existed". This is something that not even a skeptical historian, or jaded Biblical scholar, would claim (as well as something that other historians like NT Wright easily refute). Luckily, Maher doesn't actually deal with historical facts, and instead focuses on funny rhetoric. The outdated strategy he uses several times is listing all of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths that speak of incarnate gods, virgin births, and dead-yet-risen saviors. He implies that since all of these myths were not historically true, then neither is Jesus. That's basically like saying "You see all these signs that point to God intervening in history? They point to nothing!" That is kind of like never going to Dallas, and then seeing hundreds of street signs pointing to Dallas, and saying "See all these signs! That proves it: There is no Dallas!" Nope. The more reasonable and probable explanation is that anytime we see a whole lot of signs pointing in the same direction, then there is likely a real, concrete destination that corresponds to the signs. God has been posting signs throughout history in stories, myths, hopes, and dreams, which point to a concrete, historical destination that is found in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Biblical Genre-bending? Several times Bill tries to dismiss Scripture by treating its non-historical texts as if it was modern history. Basically, while he rails against and debunks a Fundamentalist-six-day-creationist reading of Scripture, he also reads the Bible in the same way, and will not allow any other reading of it. He will not allow the Genesis creation story to be read as a poem, or Jonah to be read as a children's moral fable, or the Gospels to be read as persuasive rhetoric meant to convert people to Christ. Instead, like any Fundamentalist, he insists that they ALL be read and judged as if they were modern works of scientific historiography. This is as ridiculous as insisting that your spouse's love letters be read like a history book. He misses the point, because he misses the genre.

Anti-miraculousity? Maher assumes that our physical universe is a closed system, and that empirical methods of knowledge are the only way of knowing what is really real. He will not even seriously consider the concept of "miracle" or "divine intervention". This is an incredible- yet implicit- claim to human omniscience. The implied idea is that humans know completely that there is only one way to know anything, and that is by empirical methods. Yet, the claim that only empirical knowledge is real knowledge is itself a non-empirical claim (you can't physically test it in a controlled lab setup). Thus, he is self-refuting. Furthermore, he chides religion for selling an invisible product (God), while in the film he himself unabashedly sells his own invisible product (doubt). In fact, his movie is charging $8 a piece to "sell" people his own set of non-empirical, invisible, un-provable ideas. Yet, he has the nerve to criticize religion for selling invisible ideas. Not-so-much, Bill.

Religion = Evil? Not that I expected balance in the movie, but Bill was really lopsided here. He rightfully points out that religion is at the core of a great deal of inhumanity. We should deeply repent- and fix- religious sins such as crusades, inquisitions, jihads, abuse, and hatred in the Name of God. However, Bill paints an outdated picture of Enlightenment optimism when he says we have to "grow up", become rational, and put religion behind us, to survive and thrive as humans. Did he forget that it was the most educated, enlightened, technologically superior nations who killed each other in record numbers in the world wars and colonial conflicts of the last two centuries? Did he forget that it was modern secular rationalists such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot who slaughtered people in numbers undreamed of by even the worst religious despots? Or did he forget that the modern movements for anti-slavery, women's rights, civil rights, children's rights, prison reform, and world peace were led by confessing Christians? Or, perhaps he forgot that- despite all the evil Christianity has caused- it has also caused more hospitals, charities, schools, and universities than any other movement in world history.

REALLY? Here are some places where Maher dips into his own Religulous fundamentalism:

Straw MAN arguments: We all know what a straw man is. A straw man argument is where you set up a cartoon, a caricature, or a "straw man" of your opponent's position, and then knock it down as if it was the real opponent. Furthermore, a "straw MAN" argument is when you do it by interviewing almost entirely men (and often dumb men at that), while excluding women from dialogue. This is where Bill really came off looking like the intellectual equivalent of a schoolyard bully. In order to "knock down" religion, he almost always chose men who represented the most extreme versions of the religions available: The most fundamentalist, most legalistic, easiest-to-mock versions. And, to top it off, he often picked people who were far below his intellectual level. Didn't someone ever tell Bill to "pick on someone your own size"? You don't prove you are tough by stealing lunch money from school kids, and you don't prove that your ideas are right by debating people who are half your IQ. Where are the moderate voices in religion? Excluded. Where are the female voices in the conversation? Excluded. To Bill's credit, he did actually listen to two Catholic priests and give them space to talk. Is that some kind of freudian respect for a father figure? To his detriment, when he actually talked to a thoughtful intellectual Christian (geneticist Francis Collins), he so butchered the tape of the interview that all you really heard was Bill. Really, Bill? Really?

Two-faced Bill: At one point in the film, Maher chides Muslims for being two-faced. He says that many Muslims expect the right of free speech in Western secular societies, while at the same time expecting to silence (or even kill) non-Muslims who disagree with them. He doesn't like it when religious people claim one stance outwardly, but another within their own faith community. And yet, Maher does a similar thing. At several points in the movie, he claims to the people he is interviewing that he is just an agnostic asking questions and seeking truth. However, at other points he proves just the opposite: He is a secular fundamentalist driven to promote his views of anti-religion. Behind the irony, sarcasm, quick-wit, and leading questions, he is every bit as dogmatic as the people he interviews. There is no objectivity. Like any fundamentalist preacher, he is firmly committed to "my way or the highway". Really, Bill? Really?

The Atheist turn-or-burn: Several times in the movie, Bill rightly criticizes the idea that we should believe in God just as fire insurance. Like myself, Bill does not find it persuasive to believe in God simply to avoid hell. He rightly perceives that this makes belief less-than-sincere, and God less-than-good. It's not good enough to believe in God just because you get something out of it. You should believe only for one reason: Because it is true. However, Bill DOES EXACTLY THE SAME THING! In the last 15 minutes of the movie, pictures of death and destruction are constantly interspersed with pictures of religious activity. Over and over he drives home the [false] connection between religion and destruction, and preaches that if we want to avoid destruction we must "grow up" and get beyond religion. He does not say "Accept my ideas because they are true". Instead, he implicitly says repeatedly "You must accept my dogma to avoid hell on Earth!". How is this any different than the religious claim that "You must accept my dogma to avoid hell after death!"? He is preaching the same turn-or-burn that he chides fundamentalists for preaching. Really, Bill? Really?

And, in the end, this is what turned me off to the movie. It could have been a great movie, if Bill had stayed away from the pulpit. But he had to preach. In the end, he came off as a shrill little tedious man who has forgotten his own sense of humor. If Bill could stay away from being a fundamentalist, he might make a heck of a comedian.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.