Friday, October 3, 2008
Bill Maher finds religion ridiculous
Here's where I stand: I don't think it's possible to be too extreme when it comes to separation of church and state. I'll give you an example: If the government stayed open on Christmas and all Christians who wanted the day off had to take it as a religious holiday, pretty much the way Jews deal with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I wouldn't bat an eye. I don't need to hear invocations at government-related events, and I don't believe that someone necessarily will tell the truth because of an oath taken on a Bible.
The more distance that's put between church and state, the better off we all are, including those of for whom religion is the most important part of life. Further, I've been deeply troubled by the increased intrusion of "faith" into public life, and alarmed by what appears to be rise in worldwide fundamentalism.
OK, that's where I stand. So why didn't I admire Bill Maher's "Religulous," a pseudo-documentary that takes on fundamentalist views, often with humor that wavers between biting and sophomoric? The reasons are at least threefold:
First, and of minor importance, "Religulous" isn't especially well made. Its comic use of footage from religious epics is ham-handed and obvious, and much of the time, the movie seems to be chasing after cheap laughs with cheap shots. I understand that Maher wants to offer a corrective, to call a halt to belief-prompted tyranny. And, yes, there's nothing wrong with those who stand up for their lack of belief: Witness Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" or Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" or Sam Harris' "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason." Maher's rambling movie, directed by Larry Charles of "Borat" fame, arrives in the midst of an already-established trend and may, in fact, be bringing up the rear.
Second, looking at extreme examples and interviewing people who don't, on the whole, seem especially thoughtful produces a predictable result. It's like launching a critique of journalism by interviewing only the editors of supermarket tabloids. You'd probably want to find more worthy opponents. And it's not good enough to toss in a clip of the disgraced Ted Haggard or interview someone who believes that gays can be converted to heterosexuality. What does that tell us? That religion has led some toward wrong-headed conclusions or to expose themselves as hypocrites? What human activity hasn't?
But the third reason I couldn't get with Maher's program may be the strongest of all. He seems to take religion as literally as those with whom he differs. You mean someone really believes a man actually spent time in the belly of a whale? Crazy, no? It doesn't seem to have occurred to Maher that these stories can be viewed metaphorically and that the fact that they may not be literally true might make them even more instructive. I'm not saying that all religious people regard the great spiritual stories as metaphors, but some find truth in stories that can't be reduced to a single point.
For the record, I don't believe it's possible for a man to live for three days in the belly of a big fish or that Moses raised his staff and parted the Red Sea, a la Cecil B. DeMille. But I do think it's worth wondering why such stories have endured and what they may have to tell us about the human condition.
Did I laugh during the film? Several times. Did I marvel at some of the stranger bits? Yes. I'd never heard of Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a man who believes that he's the Second Coming of Christ. Miranda thinks Jesus married and had children, and that he's one of Christ's heirs. I chuckled at the intricate efforts of a Jewish man who runs a company that specializes in devices that allow Orthodox Jews to carry out certain activities (talking on the phone) without violating Sabbath prohibitions.
I also shudder when I hear people talking seriously about the End of Days -- not because I'm fearful, but because they seem to yearn for it. Maher, by the way, also fears the End of Days. He warns us that conflicting religious ideologies could lead us to nuclear Armageddon if we don't come to our senses.
It should be clear by now that "Religulous" is both screed and provocation. Maher doesn't really interview people: He badgers them. He asks questions. but doesn't give anyone time to answer. He makes fun of people -- although he's definitely gutsy; he often mocks them to their faces. In that sense, the film becomes an act of defiance that might have been prompted by a question: Aren't you tired of watching the culture get pushed around by people who think like the folks we see in the film? And if you share Maher's views, you'll probably think most of the people in "Religulous" do enough to make themselves appear ridiculous without any help from Maher.
But here's a question: Is there anything anyone could have said to Maher that would have slowed his anti-religious roll. He's out to point out the ways in which religion is ludicrous, and he's certainly entitled to make the effort. But for the amount of effort and travel "Religulous" involves -- Maher visits Rome, Israel, Florida, Missouri, Utah and London -- the movie comes up short on thought-provoking substance. Some of its specifics are fresh, but there's not much that "Religulous" has to say that I haven't heard before -- and often said better.
Also for the record: I enjoy Maher's "Real Time," often find it stimulating and take no pleasure in disliking his movie.