Political Culture: Preaching to the (Un)converted

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Bill Maher’s aversion to religion is well documented, thanks to his regular, tangential diatribes on Real Time and the occasional scripted bit in his “New Rules” segments. This weekend, however, he debuted the first Real Time movie spinoff, and wouldn’t you know he felt the need to celebrate not his penchant for pot smoking or his confirmed bachelorhood, but his vehement rejection of organized religions and the various gods they worship.

The result, Religulous, is a curious blend of rants, eye rolls and “interviews” with a variety of religious folk chosen mostly for their guaranteed silliness. We get an atheist’s guide to the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando and the Creation Museum in Kentucky, as well as field trips to the Vatican, the Temple Mount and the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. We meet a Puerto Rican preacher who bills himself as Jesus’ second coming, and we get a series of set pieces of a type familiar from Borat (which makes sense, given that the two films share director Larry Charles). The funniest of these features Maher visiting Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where he appears in bum’s garb and rants incoherently (yet accurately) about the tenets of Scientology.

Mixing in snippets of old Hollywood swords-and-sandals Bible epics, Catholic instructional films and archival religious-war explosion footage, all timed for maximum comic effect, Maher wields his humor as a ridiculing and dismissive bludgeon. He goes after easy targets, for the most part – funny hats, “magic underwear,” speaking in tongues and such – and through much of the film his mission seems just as pedestrian: to get laughs from fellow atheists and agnostics, and to let believers of every stripe know he thinks they’re, well, “religulous.”

Much of this works as pure humor, if you’re down with this sort of thing. But for the first hour and a half of this film whose running time is 1:35, Maher’s ridicule seems untethered to any real outrage, or even any real purpose other than to flaunt atheism’s (apparent) intellectual superiority over belief. It’s only in those last five minutes that Maher brings home his real message: that the pomp and circumstance of organized religion is the glitzy front for a dangerous ideology of separatism and mutual hatreds that threatens to destroy mankind one way (weapons of mass destruction) or another (failure to address climate change because it is, as Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin described it the other night, “just a natural part of the end of days”).

This late-arriving theme of Religulous is certainly worth expressing, but one needn’t be an atheist to express it; all evidence suggests that the vast majority of the world’s believers, from Afghanistan to Alabama, wish that their more militant brethren would Take It Down a Notch. And once a viewer remembers that simple fact, the only conclusion left is that Maher is proselytizing atheism through ridicule as a complement to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens’ attempts to un-convert the converted through appeals to logic and intellect.

As I have noted before, I consider myself an agnostic; yes, I’m one of the wishy-washy millions who refuses to take a side, to either completely rule out the existence of a god or throw in my chips with a particular deity and his/her/its attendant set of beliefs and rituals. One thing I know for damn sure, however, is that I hate being proselytized at, or to, or whatever word will allow me to avoid ending this sentence with a preposition. That low tolerance level has led me to slam doors in the faces of innumerable Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to openly mock street-corner Jews for Jesus pamphleteers on college campuses (“It’s Jews or Jesus, you moron!”), and to spew torrents of venom at a fundamentalist who dared approach me during an outdoor blues concert in Memphis.

I regret my reactions in each and every one of those incidents, for the moment at least, though I’m not foolish enough to promise that I won’t pitch similar fits in the future. But after seeing Religulous – and after reading The God Delusion – at least I sleep well at night knowing that I’m not a hypocrite on this subject, because I don’t appreciate having atheism thrown in my face any more than Hare Krishna, Scientology or Latter-Day Sainthood. I’ll make up my own mind, thank you very much … or, in my case, I’ll not make it up. And as Yogi Berra might have said, if I don’t wanna make up my mind, there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

Fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens salutes Bill Maher's studio audience during a 2006 broadcastI share Maher’s distaste for the my-God-is-the-only-real-god divisiveness inherent in almost all organized religions, and I certainly share his anger at the tendency for religious differences and squabbles to escalate into bloodshed, warfare, “ethnic cleansing” and even genocide. (I also wish religion weren’t such a reliable tool for separating people from their money.) However, as much as I reject attempts to impose any single concept of “morality” or set of religious beliefs via politics, government or violence, I also find the abject ridicule of religious people offensive, and generally have no interest in separating believers from their beliefs.

I’m all for attempting to curb the impulses toward extremism and violence that organized religion engenders, but universal atheism is not (or, at least, is not necessarily) the answer. In an age of ever-expanding technologies allowing worldwide communication, it’s got to be possible that education, exchange, and ecumenicalism can someday blur the differences and soften the hostilities. I look forward to the day when someone, somewhere will organize an ecumenical effort powerful enough to overcome the “no god but God” simplicity of most religious belief.

On that day, perhaps all the funny hats, the huge and expensive buildings, the speechifying and gesticulating, and all those other rituals Maher ridicules will come to represent only the comfort, community and charity that most people find in their faiths — and will no longer symbolize a destructive and potentially catastrophic force. And then a film like Religulous will be rendered decidedly less relevant, if not entirely moot.

Well, that’s it. I’m gonna give up this columnizing gig for a career as a Unitarian minister. Or maybe not — I’ll let you know after Tuesday’s debate. In the meantime, live and let live, willya?