Animadversions.

The weblog of Joshua Drescher

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Bill Maher is Not Helping.

October 6th, 2008 · No Comments · Movies, Politics, Rants, Science

Here’s a one line review of Bill Maher’s new film, Religulous:

Too long, too mean, not nearly funny enough.

That being said, I agree with the core tenet of Maher’s argument that religion is irrational, abusive and dangerous. It’s tempting to view this film as a main stream entry into the “New Atheist” movement, but the fact is that it’s redundant at best and, quite likely, a counter-productive effort.

The film is clearly a “gotcha” production intended to catch people off guard and make Maher look clever. The vast majority of the film is spent ambushing unsuspecting religious folk (as is evidenced by the frequent intrusion of handlers, PR people and security when Maher’s presence is detected) and then trying to get them to illustrate their ignorance when “challenged” by the kind of dull-witted antagonism that high schoolers tend to display (”Oh yeah, well what if YOU’RE wrong?”). Maher’s delivery is severely unpalatable. He routinely references his own intellectual prowess and is constantly smarmy with his targets.

When Maher DOES encounter engaging, reasonable subjects, he tends not to linger on them for long. His conversation with the head of the Human Genome Project - a noted, if rare, religious scientist - is much shorter than Maher’s visit a “trucker chapel” in a converted semi-trailer at a truck stop, where Maher mocks and harasses a group of men who are clearly unfamiliar with him. His discussions with a pair of very reasonable priests at the Vatican - both of whom expressed affection for science and logical inquiry - hints at legitimately interesting conversations that must have taken place, but is not explored to any serious degree. We get PLENTY of time with the anti-Zionist Rabbi, though.

If you were undecided about religion versus reason, Maher’s mean-spirited displays probably didn’t do much to woo you to his side of the fence. Maher falls prey to the ever-present temptation that faces all non-believers, which is to use logic like a blunt weapon and to relentlessly disrespect and belittle people of faith in an effort to illustrate the folly of their beliefs. We already have sufficient attack dogs in our little “movement” of non-believers - with Richard Dawkins weighing in as a methodical, unflinching defender of skepticism and scientific rigor and Christopher Hitchens acting as a relentless and belligerent raconteur. We’ve got the entire “illustrating religion’s failings” thing covered and Maher’s ham-handed efforts aren’t adding anything useful to the process.

What we DO need is something that Maher actually (if accidentally) touches on briefly at the end of his time in the trucker chapel. Maher admits that disbelief is a “luxury” and that it’s often hard to ask people who have very little to give up on the comfort that religion has offered them. No amount of evidence or logical argument can hope to unseat religion from its position of influence around the world if that same display of reason cannot provide the kind of satisfaction and hope that metaphysical beliefs currently offer. What is needed - more than angry, pedantic displays like Maher’s - is an effort to communicate an ethical and moral philosophy grounded in reason and offering the kind of guidance, comfort and purpose that religion currently provides.

Which is, of course, no small request.

But, in the meantime, films like Religulous only serve to drive a deeper wedge between people of faith and the pronounced minority of non-believers, making it that much harder to eventually reach them with a message of rational ethics and purpose.

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