St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Bill Maher’s Movie Religulous

In the movie RELIGULOUS, the comedian Bill Maher gives us a tour of religion from his perspective, which is entirely negative.  He critiques mostly Christianity, Judaism, and Islam by interviewing people and he skewers them on the irrationality of their positions.  Some interviewees stonewall him when he questions their faith.  Some certainly appear to live by “blind faith.”  The last half-hour of the movie, in particular, shows rabid and toxic and just plain bad religion from which all reasonable people would distance themselves.  It has funny moments but overall it is a very serious movie.  It is, however, flawed.  Here’s how.

At the end of the movie, Mr Maher asks us several times to choose between reason and religion, split from each other as if separated by a wall.  He clearly equates the choice between reason and religion with the choice between sanity and craziness.  Choose religion and you belong with the crazies.  Choose reason and you go with the sane.

Logic says there must be other possibilities than these extremes.  His alternatives are illogical because he does not pose a real choice.  It’s as if I were to say, “If a dish is not white, it must be red.”  Couldn’t the dish be blue?  Or yellow?  Couldn’t there be religion that is well thought out, where the participants’ faith develops over the course of time from simplicity to complexity without loss of conviction?  What about the many people who, having walked away from religion as teenagers, find their way back as adults with deepened understanding?

Look once more at these false alternatives.  Reason is not the opposite of religion.  The opposite of reason is irrationality, accompanied or not by craziness.  By interviewing many people whose religious views do seem to be irrational (for example, the man who claims to be Jesus Christ back for the second coming), Mr Maher manages to identify religion and irrationality.  That’s his right, but surely I’m not the only one who sees that this is generalization based on a limited sample.

Mr Maher doesn’t seem to recognize that you can deny, say, the six-day creation and still be a faithful Christian or Jew.  Since the earliest days, Christians, following the lead of Jewish scholars, have understood that their scriptures can be read on several levels, only one of which is literalist.  When he interviews a Catholic monk-astronomer who flatly says that his faith is not bound up with issues of creation versus evolution, Mr Maher doesn’t quite know how to react to him.

Religion responds to questions hard-wired into human being and its answers aim at the creation of meaning in a chaotic and meaningless world.  To step outside my own frame of reference, Buddhism is a classic example of a world religion that gives a plausible explanation to the source of human misery and how to escape it.  All religions resort to stories and rituals to convey their insights on another level of consciousness – including Buddhism.  The stories – call them myths – are not untrue because they are stories, they are another way to state the truth.  The rituals are a way to test out the truth by enactment.  Because of his assumptions, Mr Maher never seems to grasp that religion addresses basic issues that confront us – Why am I alive?  Why do people screw up their lives?  What am I supposed to do between now and nothing?  Why is there evil? – and for that reason religion will not disappear.

OK, if religion’s not going to disappear, what then?   Mr Maher claims that faith is easy.  I don’t think so.  I think it is hard won, constantly in revision, often difficult, rarely settled.  Doubt is as essential a part of religious faith as it is of any other reasonable enterprise.  What can it mean, say, to assert that you accept the resurrection of Christ?  You have to interpret this in some reasonable manner, even if the initial point doesn’t fit your normal idea of reason.  You can grapple with all the issues and emerge, having matured, with a revised and renewed faith that is not toxic or stupid but rather nurturing and intelligent.

I recommend seeing RELIGULOUS – with caution.  We who are members of churches, mosques, synagogues and other organizations should welcome these challenges and questions.  I worry, however, that RELIGULOUS may only encourage those who want to ridicule people of faith, which would surely not assist in public dialogue.  I’m interested in bridging the gaps, not widening them.