Sunday, January 11, 2009

Religulous and Discontentment

Around Christmastime, I visited my in laws, who mentioned that they had seen Bill Maher's Religulous and asked if I'd seen it. I hadn't but I expected that my reaction to it would be either
  1. A great deal of laughter since I find Maher very amusing and often insightful or
  2. A great deal of discomfort, since the promoted message of the movie (starting with the title) would be one that alternately pokes fun at believers and decries their beliefs as invalid, thereby building yet another wall of miscommunication between those with faith and those without.
I had both reactions.

(spoiler alert below)
The movie runs for about 100 minutes, and for the first 90+ minutes, it does essentially this: conflate religious faith and supernaturalism. It ignores the human need to search for truth and meaning in life, implying that those who find solace in existing belief systems are either fools or charlatans (or in the case of Muslims, potential assassins). It provides little insight into why we approach the "large questions" in the manners that we do, and only seeks to demonstrate to us, the "knowing, educated audience", that these "believers" are hopeless rubes being taken for all they're worth by man-made organizations.

In the last 5 minutes or so, Maher decides to make his statement: religions are not simply cute personal and organizational anachronisms made for our (the scientifically educated) amusement. They're dangerous. And for the most part, his statement is accurate, provided you accept his definition of religion as blind faith in supernatural powers, with an implied rejection of scientific methods and conclusions. I do not accept his definition.

Maher defines religion and religious concepts in the most divisive and simplistic manner -- almost in a "you're with us or with the extremists" way. He chooses the narrowest possible interpretation for broad concepts like God, faith and scripture, and his movie does little to encourage a viewer to examine his own relationship with the world beyond a general consumption of goods and services.

To me, Religulous rings like a well-done Michael Moore-type documentary. And as someone who likes Moore's documentaries, this is a good thing. The movie's very amusing (yes, I laughed a lot), reasonably accurately reported (though the Horus/Jesus piece may be fast and loose with the truth) , and (even without the closing monologue), about as subtle as an elbow that gets jabbed in the ribs, over and over. It's full of quick editing cuts to ensure that we get the point that Maher wants us to get, and it will replaces any meaningful discussion of the meaning of religious thought in human society with snarky commentary and ridicule. It preaches to the choir.

There's no attempt to understand the history of the beliefs, little interaction with religious scholars, and no attempt to talk about the deep personal faiths that have allowed some of our greatest people to make their differences in our lives. By treating the subject of faith in this crude and unsophisticated manner, the movie ends up being an example of the intolerance it so decries. The only difference is that unlike the religious extremists he mocks, Bill Maher's message won't cause us humans to destroy the world.

Unfortunately it won't cause us humans to seek ways to find meaning in the world either.

Now I don't want to say that I didn't enjoy the movie. I did, and, like brother and sister in law, I have a general agreement with Maher's message about extremism, even if I understand that his characterization of these faiths (and the nature of faith itself) was woefully incomplete. It's just that, as I watched this movie, a not so subtle voice inside my head kept saying this:

Just because you agree with him doesn't make him right.


soccer mom in denial said...

I just struggle with both extremism (and how it limits people's - usually women and girls' - lives) and, for lack of a better expression, holier than thou (my/our religion is better).

Believe what you need or want to be don't inflict it on others or use it as an excuse to limit/harm others.

suzihussein22 said...

I feel sad for Maher that we shouldn't have faith in our lives. How does that explain why I am prompted to pray for a particular person just before they ask? I was thanked for being a positive witness by an atheist just a couple of weeks ago because I didn't agree with a sidewalk preacher.