An Incomplete Review of Bill Maher's Religulous:
I finally saw the Bill Maher movie Religulous over my winter break. I liked the fact that someone challenged the dominant, dogmatic religious position in America more than I liked the movie in particular. Or, maybe, the dogma was better in the abstract than in the concrete.
The first thing to note about the movie is that it is not a traditional documentary. In the traditional documentary, the subjects are allowed to state their positions with an invisible interviewer, perhaps even representing the audience, who asks questions only enough to bring out their views as fully and fairly as possible but which, when properly done, can make the absurdity of their positions clear to all viewers. For many subjects, no one needs to get in a verbal fight with them to show the viewer how wrong, misguided they are, how obviously they are rationalizing obviously irrational beliefs or wrong actions. This is not that approach.
Here Maher takes center stage. It is a documentary about Maher more than it is a documentary by Maher. He debates the other subjects, interrupts them, does not let them complete their trains of thought, shows them errors in reasoning or problems that they must address. These are worthwhile things to do, and, while Maher is an imperfect representative of reason (who isn't?), it is good for all of us that someone attempted to challenge these orthodoxies in such a public way.
Having written that last sentence, I am tempted to retract it. Is Maher really challenging orthodoxy? Most of the people he talks to are fringe weirdos. He ridicules Biblical literalism, Scientology, and various cult-like Christian-like individuals. The only people who come of well in the documentary are actually mainstream Catholic figures who reject the simple-mindedness of their sheep-like followers. So, how could Maher be challenging a dominant orthodoxy? In two ways. First, it is part of our pluralistic, religiously credulous society that people should not be challenged about their religion no matter how absurd it is. We are supposed to let people believe whatever they want and praise them quietly for their piety and faith. So when Maher challenges these people, he is implicitly urging that everyone, religious and irreligious, submit religions to critical scrutiny. Second, and this relates to the first, Maher (explicitly?) points out that the basic justifications for the more sophisticated religious views are no better justified, are based on no more than, the views of the crazies. The dreadful secret at the heart of mainstream religion, and the secret that protects the most absurdly religious, is that there is fundamentally no better reason to believe in the God of the Episcopalians than there is to believe in the God of the Pentecostals. Once one criticizes the fundamentalists, one must consider the possibility of criticizing others, and it is obvious that the mainstream religions cannot withstand scrutiny either. Ironically, fundamentalists, convinced of their divinely-inspired wisdom rarely miss an opportunity to attack their more pluralistic brethren. The worst, as they might say, are filled with righteous indignation.
(Note, mainstream religions tend not to make the same outlandish empirical claims as the fundamentalists, but they do so primarily by refusing to make empirical statements of any kind. They aren't outright falsified by reality because they say nothing about reality at all. Do religions have some other purpose or cover some other area (Gould's NOMA view)? Possibly, but since religion is not about morality or meaning, it's hard to see what it could be other than a particularly poor form of psychotherapy.)
However, as I said, Maher is a flawed representative of skepticism or the general non-religious movement in America. He makes inappropriate jokes (e.g. jokes about Jewish stinginess), lacks ready answers for obviously flawed arguments, relies on standard problems (that may perhaps not be appropriate for that particular interviewee), and he tends to pursue his own agenda or seek only to justify his own prejudices in interviews that could otherwise be interesting and informative. Several of the interviewees are brought up short by Maher's somewhat inappropriate, potentially racist humor. At any rate, some of the humor is jarring.
One scene is his odd dialogue with the guy playing Jesus in a Biblical Literalist theme park. Why is this person being interviewed? What special insight or knowledge does the Jesus-actor have? I don't know, but I suspect the reason he is in the movie is more that he (1) played well on film and (2) he was willing to talk to Maher. At any rate, one of "Jesus'" odd claims is his resolution of the problem with the holy trinity. He says that God/Jesus/Holy spirit are like three phases of matter: solid, liquid, gas (who knows what the analogue to plasma is?). Maher later says that this is transparently bullshit, which it is, but he does not explain why and he admits to being befuddled in the debate itself. So, why is it bullshit? Traditional Christian doctrine is that these are three separate, distinct beings which are nonetheless also one being. The analogy to phases of the same matter obviously fails because that involves one thing in three different states. Maybe the best thing is to ditch the crazy idea that God/Jesus/Holy spirit are both 1 distinct thing and three distinct things, but this analogy doesn't help elucidate such an idea. It would have been better if Maher had been able to call "Jesus" on this bullshit, but we don't get to see what would have been the response.
The biggest single flaw with the movie was Maher's interview with the neuroscientist who studied neural correlates of religious belief. Here Maher's prejudices are most obviously on view. He insists that religious belief is a kind of mental illness, and no matter how his interlocutor attempts to qualify such a claim or actually provide new or useful information, Maher refuses to be derailed and takes the neuroscientist to be confirming his view.
Is religious belief a mental illness? I don't know. It's not at all clear what it is for something to be a mental illness. But even so, we learn little about the nature of religious belief or its neural concomitants. (I think this is the subject for another post.)
This raises the final question. What is the purpose of the movie? Maher hints at it at one point. He says that non-believers are an enormous potential market (or constituency) that no one properly represents. And while I think Maher is perfectly sincere in his skepticism about religion, the purpose of this movie is not to convince his fundamentalist opponents (who clearly will not be moved by whatever evidence he presents) or to convince mainstream believers to question their own beliefs (since, to some extent, he lets them off the hook--by portraying them more sympathetically). He may want to get the moderates to note the bedfellows they have found in the fundamentalist kooks who benefit from our lack of a critical attitude. However, the target audience is non-believers. Maher wants us to see him do battle with the foolish fundamentalists and reinforce our own feelings of superiority over them. It's probably both a sincere belief and a savvy pose for Maher. The only people who are likely to enjoy this movie are the people who are predisposed to ridicule the fundamentalist cretins and whatever mainstream enablers they find. It's not necessary a bad thing to do. Showing the opposition as clearly as you can, and showing how they fail to meet one's reasonable standards of belief is worthwhile. But it's also not the best thing one could do either.