You’ve probably seen the coverage of Bill Maher’s controversial new movie, Religulous. Looks like a pretty funny, broad-based criticism of religion along the lines of Christopher Hitchens.
From the trailer, it looks like Maher’s movie makes fun of believers of all stripes, makes them look like imbeciles, and generally interviews the least articulate of them.
But a film like this does nothing to advance the dialogue on religion. To change people’s minds and not just appear like an arrogant jerk, you need to have at least a modicum of respect for the people you talk to. Especially if they represent massively popular phenomena.
It also misses the real story. The tragedy is not religion but a certain kind of religious practice. Intellectual traditions in all religions are under attack. Perhaps there was never much room for being a doubter or a mystic in mainstream religions — and of course, in Europe in the past you could have gotten into a lot of trouble for expressing such things. But more and more, they don’t seem like an option (even though they would easily stand up to Maher-style logical debunking, because they claim very little in the way of specifics).
Religiosity, literalism and fanaticism are on the rise all over the world, and the diversity of interpretations is decreasing. I’m thinking specifically of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. You’re either with us or against us, the literalists say. Stuff like Maher’s film only amplifies the restrictions that only give us two choices.
So Mr. Maher, if spiritual life has been an aspect of all human societies since the dawn of time, then we cannot just misanthropically dismiss all the inclinations people have to “oceanic feelings”. (I’m with Jung, not Freud, on this one.) We really need a good criticism of religious fanaticism at this time — it is corrupting our most beautiful instincts — but this film looks like it’s only going to further polarize the debate.
And I wish you could have waited until after the elections to release this! Sarah Palin can have a field day.