atheism, Critical Thinking, Debate, Film, Movies, Religulous, Reliion, Rhetoric, Sarcasm
So I finally watched Religulous. I found it a truly underwhelming experience. Honestly, I think I must be over the joys of poking holes in religious thinking. In other news, boxing with Girl Scouts no longer brings me quite the same thrills that it used to.
…at least on Thursdays and Saturdays. It is entirely possible that I may relapse on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Okay, it’s not always that easy, I know; sometimes I meet a religious person with genuinely challenging thoughts, but perhaps that is my point. One can find a pretty broad range of qualities fitting under the heading of ‘religion’, and it can be just a little too easy to look for the easy pickings. Some people treat debunking religion as a sport, and those people rarely seek out the challenging thinkers. No, they hunt the naive in remote and highly uneducated corners of the globe; they sniff out the cooks and the crankcases. I should point out that the sport-debunker isn’t always an atheist, but of course, this time it is.
Religulous is the intellectual equivalent of a canned hunt. In this movie, Bill Maher seeks out and makes a fool of one believer after another and I cannot help but think most of those interviewed have been selected for their capacity to appear nutty to the rest of us. Maher does little to explore the intellectual lives of any of those interviewed in Religulous. His discussions bear a strong-resemblance to a cross-examination in a courtroom (or at least a courtroom drama). Maher’s questions rarely veer far from the effort to produce a contradiction or an implausible claim, and he doesn’t hesitate to interrupt, argue, or insult his subjects at any point in the movie. Not wanting his subjects to go-off half-mocked, Maher includes several segments in which he trashes those already interviewed while driving about, presumably on the way to the next ambush interview. When he does interview intelligent believers, Maher’s sole interest seems to be getting them to help debunk their brethren. The most interesting and complex thinkers in this movie would easily include a number of Priests but they are of interest to Maher only insofar as they help us to dismiss the beliefs of others.
I have to admit, there was a time when I would have been into this. Now, I just find it rather predictable.
…and pointlessly rude.
Ironically, I think Maher’s snide disrespect for his quarry in this film actually blunts the force of his criticism and lets them off the hook. In interviewing John Westcott, an ex-gay minister, for example, Maher makes a point to suggest the sexuality of the man’s children remains in question. In the commentary track, he further laughs at the irony of a man denying his homosexuality when Maher can tell by his behavior that the man is gay. Personally, I think this underscores the irony of a man proporting to call a believer to task for mistreatment of homosexuality while exhibiting all the insight and sensitivity one might expect to find in the boys locker room of a high school football game. Maher’s games do absolutely nothing to reveal the intellectual dishonesty and outright harmfulness of ex-gay therapies and related ministries. While Maher plays to the cheap seats by making fun of the man and his children, the interview goes nowhere. Maher learns nothing about the minister’s actual point of view, and he does nothing to show us just how harmful these organizations can actually be.
And I wonder if I am supposed to be pleased with this?
Maher is casting religion in a bad light, and in this movie (as in other contexts), he does sometimes score a hit, or even a home-run. I should be able to enjoy this, and I would, if I thought Maher was doing a consistently good job of it, but what bothers me most about this movie is a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t an exercise in healthy skepticism, that in fact Maher is selling a message that doesn’t quite fit the label on the packaging. Shallow as it is, Maher’s engagement with the proponent’s of God-talk is not merely intended to show us how foolish they are. He is building a narrative with assumptions going well beyond the foibles of his hapless quarry.
One particularly telling moment occurs during an interview with a Muslim cleric. the man’s cell phone goes off, and the ringtone is Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Maher suggests that this is odd. The prospect that a song called ‘Kashmir’ might strike a cord with a Muslim seems to have completely escaped him. More to the point, he doesn’t ask why the Cleric uses that ringtone or what it means to him. To Maher it seems to be self-evident that the Cleric’s choice of music reveals an inconsistency. He drives this point home further in the commentary track, suggesting that people steeped in outdated beliefs should not get to use modern conveniences.
The mode of engagement used here is consistently that of polemics. Maher wants to poke holes in religion; he doesn’t want to understand anything else about the people he is talking to, or at least he doesn’t want to show us anything else in the final cut of the movie. To describe the end result as superficial would be giving superficial a bad name. But of course there is something a little more insidious at work here. It arises in the notion that religion is simply outdated, that the cleric’s interest in a cell phone is simply incommensurate with religious beliefs. This is old fashioned unilineal evolution, the belief that human history follows a set course. To Maher (and evidently his producer) it goes without saying that religious beliefs are chatter out of place, so to speak, and that history is incomplete so long as these throwbacks remain with us. This is the key to his polemic approach. He wants to show us that religion is stupid, urge us all to leave it all behind, and thereby advance one further step in human history.
In taking this approach, Maher is unfortunately (and ironically) doing a good deal more than debunking the beliefs of his interview subjects; he is advancing a faith of his own, a faith in Progress with a capital ‘P’, and a specific vision of that Progress. The film ends with an emphasis on growing conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and a recurrent expression of fear that these faiths will lead us to nuclear disaster. Maher addresses the claim that these conflicts are really political, and of course it is easy enough for Maher to assert that they are also religious, but of course this is a unique marriage of the fallacies of straw man false alternatives. The question is not which category various conflicts fall into, but rather how politics and religion intersect in actual human history. That is a question Maher is completely unprepared to answer, or even ask. He relies on a stock vision of humanity’s course throughout the film, and herein lies the value of his deceptively simple interview agenda. So long as we are focused on the foibles of the faithful we may not take the time to think critically about Maher’s own millenarian vision of the future.
This is bait & switch.
Maher quite rightly calls some of his interview subjects to task for glossing over the role of faith in political violence, but his refusal to address the politics is itself a telling source of ignorance. He is telling as simple story in which the source of modern evil is found in beliefs and beliefs alone. If only we can deal with the bad beliefs once and for all in the fashion of lunch-room debate tactics, then the world will be a better place.
In advancing this simple message Maher shows us that he has a lot more in common with believers than he would suppose.
When I see or hear the word Progress….the insides cringe or sometimes outright snark. Progress toward or away from WHAT!?!? How did anyone decide that one thing or that thing had more or less value for the individual, enough to make it sell….OH…SELL, that is important, I know because someone told me so. 😛
Perfect BloggersTech said:
Reblogged this on Blog of an e-marketer by Main Uddin.
Love the title of this post.
As for the movie? Some parts i liked – others i didn’t. He’s a shit-stirrer… it’s what he does. How goes the northiest dude i know?
Painting Pundit said:
Nice analysis! Excellent points! I must admit I am over Bill Maher’s snideness. He just comes across as mean-spirited to me so therefore not worth paying attention to. I appreciate your description of the movie. It saves me from having to look at it.
There are sections of the movie that were hilarious. I agree with your analysis but I think the people interviewed by Maher represents a bigger section of the believer on the street and in a sense I think these are the ones he is addressing.
I had mixed feelings about the movie … there were parts I thought very funny, and parts that (as you said) I thought Maher was so snide that the point was lost, and that he stooped to insult rather than logic.
I had occasion to watch it a second time, with someone else, and, the second viewing was better. I’d already been disappointed by the movie, so it couldn’t get worse. And, as I watched it the second time, I still thought the movie could have been better, but, I realized that perhaps I was not the target audience — as an atheist already, I didn’t need convincing.
Well said, Daniel. Several thoughts came to mind. The movie sounds rather like a lengthy version of “Jay Walking,” set up as a way to put down religion (or the stupidity of the some badly educated Americans when Jay Leno does his “Jay Walking” segment), but not really seriously taking on what might or might not be “wrong” with religion. Then there is the conflict between entertainment and information, one which we see played out on TV newscasts everyday, and one in which the entertainment value of the “news” often trumps “facts” or the amount of time it would take to actually tell you those facts in some detail. Finally, I see the religious problem you describe as less about religion than technology. At least since the idea that comes from antiquity (that is is OK to have multiple gods), got set aside in favor of various views of monotheism, we’ve had tons of religious wars. What is different now is that our technology allows the same kind of religious fanatic to potentially destroy the world. Reminds me of the old joke Mort Sahl told about politics. It went something like this. “Back in the old days we had leaders like Washington and Jefferson and Ben Franklin. Now we have Nixon, and George W. Bush, and Dick Chaney. What does this mean?—–Darwin was wrong!”
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This was a very insightful post, Northier! I’ve seen the movie a couple of times, and did find myself laughing at the folks who made it so easy. I tend to take Bill Maher with a grain of salt because he is so misanthropic that his humor is sometimes just too harsh, including his commentary on religion. So thank you for making me think about this movie in another way. I am (as you know) an atheist, but I have a great deal of respect for those who still find comfort in their religion. But I agree with Maher on one point; I believe we are beyond needing a magic man in the sky to make things possible. I also agree that religion makes people hate people who don’t share their faith, and we now have more deadly weapons to use on each other than they did in the Dark Ages. So I must accede that point to Maher as well.
Hate comes from blame, if I subscribe to the idea that if only this or that would be this way or that way, then there will not be hate, I also continue the lie that there is a justified reason for hate which lies outside of the self. Outside of control.
No matter how I personally feel about religion, Religion does not cause hate, it can give humans a reason to be hateful, because they are and they need a place to put it because they cannot understand that it is an issue about controlling and understanding the self.
dysfunctional unit said:
Yer post is very well written and well thought out. And while I understand how easy it is to mock religion and make fun of the faithful, I also can see that this is a separate issue of whether or not there is a God (and saying that I understand you do not adhere to that possibility).
I would be very interested in having a fun dialouge regarding this issue if as you say above you are :).
Also being a separate argument is the importance of a value driven sacrifice based faith to a culture.
Anyway, still thoughtful and fun post. I look forward to reading more.
Debunking religion is picking low-hanging fruit. The issue is faith, not intellect. Sure, religion fails when the scientific method is applied. The point is the health of the soul. Personally, I think organized religion is a crock. But can I deny the presence of a soul in my life? That is a much sticker wicket. Dogma is about control. Loving the Universe is about freedom. Dichotomy? Yew betcha! May we all keep seeking answers and not forget that the little window we peer through to see the world is only a starting place.
walt walker said:
I clicked on your site because the title was interesting and clever. Your writing is interesting and clever too, and I’m glad to see an atheist pointing out the mean-spirited shallowness of Bill Maher, who seems seems to pander to the same level of intellect as that which he mocks.
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