Sunday, June 07, 2009

Maher: worthy atheist or merely a comedian dabbling into theological inquiry?

I confess--my mind is tied to nesting activities, caring for my children, trying to find a job, and mediocre comfort-food radio. Or, I am too lazy to read the neo-atheists Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris. I declared hope and intent for reading some of this philisophical strain, but it's so much easier to go to my local Hollywood Video and rent Bill Maher's comic religion documentary Religulous.

I have disappointed myself that I am intellectually lazy and procrastinating working with the aforementioned authors. However, at the very least, Maher has made me think more about contemporary agnostics and atheists than I have in a long time. Before anyone takes Maher too seriously, one must remember throughout the film that he is primarily a comedian. Yes, he has some of the best guests in the field of mainstream news commentary--I am continually amazed who he is able to get as a guest on his show, Real Time With Bill Maher. Even if you do not subscribe to HBO, you can get a podcast of his full show, plus extras on iTunes. I listen to the show every week. I can't tell if Maher is disingenuous, but his mix of comedy and serious inquiry falls flat. He calls for atheists (which he claims is 16 percent of the US population) to be more part of the public discourse on religion. Maher has a poor foundation in that he claims he is an athiest, though he also proclaims that he doesn't know about God, that God cannot be proved or disproved. This is an agnostic view. The purpose of this call is that the Earth hangs in the balance--that the good that religion produces is not worth the danger and terror created in the world by religous fundamentalists of all faith traditions. Maher may have been better off if he would have explained his call and his intentions at the beginning of the film, but then again, I have to remember that Maher is a comedian trying to get people to buy and watch his film--he wouldn't have been able to do that if he was authentically trying to do a scientific study of religion and its affect on society. But I will bite on what I believe is his foundational premise (though I don't want to put words in his mouth): agnostics and athiests should be part of public discourse regarding religion and society.

Instead, Maher exposes several fools of many different faiths, skewed more toward Christianity. Only one of Maher's many interviewees seemed to carry on an intelligent conversation with Maher (an astonomer from the Vatican). Maher cherry-picked these numerous conversations so that almost all of his interviewees looked like boobs, and Maher displayed a look of gotcha, followed by some kind of funny clip to highlight the gotcha. My dear wife looked at me and said, "Couldn't he have at least interviewed some intelligent Christians?" Maybe an intelligent Christian wouldn't dare talk to Bill Maher on Maher's terms, because the only result is that an interviewee will look like a boob. Maher even got the lead scientist of the Human Genome Project (a Christian) to look like a boob. I probably would have also looked like a boob if interviewed by Maher. This may be part of Maher's point--that intelligent religious folk really don't amount to enough societal benefit to offset the fools and sometimes dangerous fools that he highlights. It's especially not worth it, when it goes back to Maher's foundational understanding that God cannot be proven or disproven.

My summary response to the film:

1. Remember, Bill Maher is primarily a comedian..
2. The movie has some very funny parts.
3. Bill Maher is an agnostic and uses comedy to provoke people of faith, other agnostics and atheists into public discourse regarding religion--it really can't be seen as a scientific study of religion or even a journalistic venture, and it's hard to say it's a documentary. The closest identification I can make is: Religulous is a non-fiction religious comedy (and definitely in the Rated R category).
4. If Maher was really making a genuine academic or at least journalistic effort, he would have at least had some appropriate advisors checking his facts and pointing out that the last book in the Bible is not "Revelations (a mistake he made at least 3 times.)"

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