Tag Archives: Religion

Religulous, or “Bill Maher’s Excellent Adventure.”

Today I want to look at Bill Maher’s aggressive atheistic (or agnostic, I am not sure which) manifesto Religulous. In it, Maher starts and ends standing upon the prophesied site of apocalypse: Megiddo, in Israel. He, standing at the end of the world, informs the audience that religion is a dangerous force. Maher urges the under-represented minority of atheists and agnostics to make themselves heard, to “grow up or die.”

As I watched Maher’s trek across the world and his odd (but common) method of arguing with devout theists, I couldn’t help but think, “There is something else going on in this film. Something strange.”

Is this film Bill Maher’s soapbox? Of course it is—ever since ABC canceled Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher has used most of his media pull to exercise his first amendment rights. This movie, however, does something special. It turns Bill Maher into the object of debate. In Religulous, William Maher Jr. is not presented as the tenacious, impenetrable, and witty television icon we all know and love (or, perhaps, love to hate). Instead we are confronted with a Bill Maher who out-talks his opponents, never relents, and receives flack for obvious reasons.

Andrew O’hehir explains: …I gently tried to suggest to Maher [that] his scattershot and ad hominem attacks against many different forms of religious hypocrisy don’t add up to a coherent critique, and he’s not qualified to provide one. Any serious theologian from the mainstream Christian or Jewish traditions would have eaten his lunch for him, and that’s why we don’t see anybody like that in this film for more than a second or two. It would seem Maher used the Religulous project as an opportunity to reduce the religious world into a sideshow attraction and poke fun at them.

It is odd that most of the interviewees were left pleading “no, no, no” and trying to get a word in. In Religulous, the interviewer sees the most airtime—his subjects often take a back seat. If Religulous is a documentary, then what is it a documentary of? As Roger Ebert explains, This review is going to depend on one of my own deeply held beliefs: It’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it’s about it. This movie is about Bill Maher’s opinion of religion. Often the film looks as if it were lifted directly from Maher’s brain—thoughts of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments included.

The camera work often grabs Bill Maher in a documentary fashion for short periods of time only to cut to a shot that includes the boom and another camera. This self-aware style only draws more attention to the true subject of the documentary: it documents Bill Maher’s documentary, if that makes sense. It is as if someone were to film a full-length behind the scenes documentary of Spinal Tap. Religulous is a meta-documentary, to word it in the most ridiculous way possible.

To look at the reactions, Bill Maher “plays to his base” of non-believers, pisses off the religious, and irks anyone with formal training in the Philosophy of Religion. The film, then, documents just how he has pleased us, his manner of pissing us off, and the process of irking us. I enjoyed it for these reasons, but if I were to take Maher’s arguments seriously (as seriously as the phrase “Grow up or die” implies) I would have hated it.

A Market For Philosophy?

Now that school is over, I have been attached to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. As many students have warned in the past, it is a difficult read and confusing at times. I have never come across an “easy philosopher” (the phrase sounds a bit naughty to begin with), so the difficulty isn’t a problem. I enjoy a challenge, and I know a few kind professors willing to defend old Ludwig if I so desired. In the end, an understanding of representation in language is worth the sweat-droplets that are sure to accumulate on each page.

What, however, is the pay-off for the average joe—or what W.V.O. Quine calls “the man in the street?” Enlightenment? An understanding of dead Greece, Rome, Germany? A sense of what sort of life they should live? Strength of character? I cannot commit to any number of these answers. One pattern to found in philosophy is in the saying, “nothing is sacred.” Other students would strike pre-emptively in philosophy class, sinking their teeth into the current philosopher of note and looking to draw blood. I tend to sit back and wait for Kant to do the dirty-work for me—his tooth is still sharper than mine, especially against David Hume.

After watching each philosopher dig into the next (last), I wonder what point there would be to pressing onward with Philosophy. Better yet, I wonder what would be the gain from approaching Philosophy while outside of the classroom. Imagine that. A friend—named James for convenience’s sake—turns to me for advice, “I’ve lost my faith in God, love, myself. It’s hard to get out of bed, and I think of dying every morning. It is as if God wants me to suffer. Why does God want me to feel this way?” It might sound absurd to reply, “Let us turn to the defense of God’s existence put forth by Alvin Plantinga, so that you can be assured that evil and God are consistent with one another.” In fact, I think it would be absolutely absurd. How can you comfort someone with a proof? It just doesn’t seem to fit.

Every now and again I see an article in the New York Times or two discussing Philosophy and it’s prospects. Popularizing Philosophy in the United States seems, on the face of it, a tall order. What would you rather watch: American Idol or Plato’s Greatest Hits? I doubt Plato’s Meno on Broadway will draw the crowds that Radiohead’s last tour has.

Philosophy doesn’t appear to have relevance, but it I know it to have more actual relevance than it ever has before. Moral dilemmas crop up every day as our brand of technology becomes more viable and more real. We live in what is called an “Information Age.” It may be useful for the average person to be familiar with how justified beliefs might work.

There must be a way and, hopefully, we can figure it out together.

Can God Be Spoken For?

When Christian evangelicals try to spread the word of God, they are often turned away or given dirty looks. “Why?” I asked myself, “they’re only trying to help people the way they know best.” Even if their help isn’t the right kind for me, it doesn’t hurt to talk things through—right? Two weeks ago, I was approached by a Christian couple, hard at work recruiting members to God’s flock. Instead of turning them away, I decided to see how a pair of intrepid young shepherds would respond to the ramblings of an incoherent crazy person.

They asked the usual questions (I paraphrase): do you know that Jesus Christ died for your sins? What is your relationship to God? What are you doing this Sunday? My answer to the first two questions began: to believe that God is some greater being who judges, loves, and thinks seems odd. Who does God worship at night, I asked. Himself? Someone greater? Us?

A person might take my question one of two ways (this is not exhaustive, however). They might think that I was hinting at some sort of recursive problem in place. If God is just a “thing” that knows everything and can do everything, then he is just a human being with special powers. Thinking of God in this way sounds a bit offensive, and it should be.

A second way one might take my question is to say there’s something wrong with a God that is an authority figure. To disagree with God, perhaps, is treason against the sovereignty of the universe and is worthy of punishment. In human affairs, totalitarian rulers all have opponents—in such a description, I’ll call Lucifer the condemned revolutionary in God’s kingdom. Could it be that God has no more grounds for punishment than Stalin?

Both readings of the problem with God share a common theme: anthropomorphism. There is something fishy about likening God to humanity. Genesis describes the moment God created Mankind in his image, but images are odd things. In all images, we could say, Man places himself into them. God’s grace, the evil of Lucifer, and the beauty of their eternal struggle—mankind sees itself in these images. Is it that God created us in his own image or that God is merelyunderstood in light of our own image? A little bit of both.

To make paint matters of divinity as Human matters on the scale of infinity seems short-sighted. In other words, we make God seem like “less” than what a God can be. I feel that God is so much more, if such a thing exists at all. Does God “love” in the conventional sense of love? Teach in the conventional sense of teach? Does God rule all of existence—what would it mean for something greater than us (in the the more “transcendental” sense of “great”) to do any of these things?

At this point, my new-found Christian friends seemed confused. Like a broken vinyl record, they reminded me that God looks over us, teaches us valuable lessons, and makes the impossible possible. And like a bad DJ, I would respond, “doesn’t make sense for God to ‘look over us’ or ‘teach us lessons'”—at least not in a conventional sense. The image of God is more than just a pretty picture that accords well with the human psyche. My words seemed to confuse them—to be honest, they were confusing me at that point as well.

What is God then? What could “it” be? I am sure our questions were, at that point, one in the same. I’ll save my preliminary conclusions for the next time. The punch-line is coming soon.