Religulous Gives Religion Too Much Credit

This picture doesn’t have much to do with the post, but it struck me as a funny reference to the lolobama from back during the campaign.

I finally got around to watching Religulous, Bill Maher’s feature length polemic against religion in all forms. I enjoyed the first 90 minutes or so in the way you enjoy any documentary that argues what you already believe. It was clear in a lot of the interviews that Maher’s interlocutors didn’t know what they were getting into, and the interviews were fairly heavily edited. The film spent a lot of time on kooky characters who were plainly not up to mounting an intellectually rigorous apology for religion. There were a lot of cheap shots, but they were funny and I was enjoying them in private and saw no harm in it.

The last ten minutes were filled with flashing images of megachurches, terrorists and nuclear explosions (lots of nuclear explosions), mixed with Maher’s closing argument and all layered over music that is probably marketed with slogans like “if you loved Orff’s O Fortuna, then you’re going to love….”

Maher’s point:

Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, ‘I’m willing Lord, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas. … The plain fact is religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people – by irrationalists – by those who would steer the ship of state, not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken.

It was kind of jarring — Maher’s conclusions just don’t follow from the premises he established throughout the film. He never even tries to demonstrate that, if it weren’t for religion, the misguided people he interviewed or discussed wouldn’t have fallen prey to some other form of nonsense. It was a bit like watching a 90-minute special on the life and death of someone with HIV/AIDS only to have the narrator conclude that we should focus public health funding to the prevention of pneumonia (which is often deadly for those with compromised immune systems). But is there any reason to think that the outcome would have been different in a world without pneumonia?*

People don’t become susceptible to magical thinking and faith in nonsense because of religion. People are susceptible to religion because of their magical thinking and faith in nonsense. In the dark, in the behavior of others and in the order of the natural world, we see things that aren’t there. That is the kind of ape that we are. All the Bible burning in the world won’t change that.

A world without religion would be different, but not necessarily better. I find it very hard to believe that the specific acts of violence that result directly from religious belief wouldn’t be replaced by other violent acts arising from nationalism or racism (which, let’s face it, would no longer have to compete with religion for the attention of the disenfranchised and mentally ill).

Anyway, religion is fairly well established. ( ← understatement ) And a lot of people draw a lot of comfort from the idea that there is a person out there who loves them and who has a plan for them. Research shows that we quickly begin to react to recurring television characters and talk radio hosts as though they were our personal friends. But what kind of jerk would pursue Twin Peaks fans, reminding them that there is no Agt. Cooper, and that even if there were he wouldn’t give a shit about them? Millions haven’t been slaughtered in the name of Laura Palmer. But if I’m right — if similar millions would have been slaughtered for something else even in a world without religion — then then there are plenty of costs and no benefit to bullying the religion out of people.

I suppose that I view religious folk kind of the way I view Republicans. It tickles my baser nature to make fun of them amongst like-minded friends, but I don’t actually think the world would be any better without them. (I actually think the U.S. would be a better place with two healthy parties, which is why I heartily wish the GOP a speedy recovery from its case of crazyitis.) If I had the chance, I would respond to Bill Maher’s rationalist fundamentalism the same way I would have responded to the left-wing conspiracy theorists who said that George Bush was getting instructions through an earpiece during the 2004 debates:

Dude, you’re making us all look like assholes.

* This analogy only goes so far in a world where drugs have been developed to let people with HIV live long lives. There’s no counterpart to this in the world of religion. Although I have to think there would be money — and maybe a Nobel — in developing a cocktail of drugs that would allow carriers of religion to lead normal lives without becoming symptomatic.

I’ll take this a step farther. If you, gentle reader, are anything like me, the religious folk you know are the sort who put in an hour or two on Saturday or Sunday, turn to God when things get rough and are sympathetic to charities branded with the religion of their choice, but who don’t otherwise spend much time contemplating the divine. They sure aren’t going to pick up an AK-47 to defend their prophet. Even if Bill Maher is right that we’d be better off in a world with no religion, starting with these people doesn’t make any sense. You can only make their lives more difficult than they need to be without doing much to put an end to the horrors Maher is worried about.

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