Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I like a good debate as much as the next person--probably more, but I'm working on that. There was once a time when I identified my faith with my ability to reason and defend it. I went looking for debates so I could win them--not, of course, for my own glory, but to show that God was right. For many years, I pursued academic training with the primary goal of enhancing my ability to reason. Ironically, it led me to more questions than answers, and even to the point of practical agnosticism. Actually, it's only ironic from the perspective I had before--now I would say that it was the only logical place my striving could take me.

I've largely recounted my journey back to faith on my earlier blog, so I won't go through it again here. My point is simply that a lot has changed in my approach to faith and reason. I no longer have a burning desire to defend what I believe--certainly not to pick fights over it. If others have questions, I'm happy to discuss. But there's generally not much point going head-to-head with someone who has opposite convictions. No one really learns from it. That's why I'm no longer particularly interested in watching everything that appears in popular media about the roots of Christianity, or the Bible as history, or science and the Bible, etc. For one thing, I've seen most of the arguments before, and what you generally get in an hour or two for mass consumption can't possibly move the discussion forward. For another, I find it tiresome to perform my own analysis of such presentations, which is not likely to interest anyone else anyway.

But, as I say, I'm happy to answer questions when they come. That's why I spent some time this afternoon watching Bill Maher's Religulous, and why I'm sharing thoughts on it here. The friend who brought it up knows who he is. It won't be a blow-by-blow. Far from it, I'm going to try to keep my remarks as brief as possible by highlighting one overriding problem--that Maher cannot disguise his own religious conviction. For anyone who sees this about the film, it comes off as petty and hypocritical.

If you don't get the intensity of Maher's faith, just skip to the sermon he preaches in the last five minutes or so. He gives the most rabid fire-and-brimstone preachers a run for their money, as he warns of the dire consequences if we don't act now to eradicate religion. He shamelessly appeals to emotion and raw chemical response by bombarding the viewer with montages of image and sound. All this, as he declares how humble he is for doubting when those "religious" people (who are somehow different from him) are so certain of themselves. Now, I'm all for doubt as an important component of humility. But his argument is self-defeating, because he feels the need to pooh-pooh their apparent humility. Doubting human reason and submitting to revealed truth is false humility; doubting revelation and submitting to human reason is the real thing!

Of course, Maher has no trouble finding people who are overly certain about far too many things. And for every trucker or televangelist who can speak with utmost confidence, he's got a Catholic priest ready to tear down the faith he's supposedly dedicated his life to preaching, with equal certainty that all those old-fashioned ideas are just silly. I suppose we're meant to come away with a dim view of the believers; personally, I just have to scratch my head at those priests, whose credibility must be based on their position as clergy. Oh, wait--that's not where he's going with this, is he? No, but a two-second clip of someone who claims to have discovered both a "God gene" and a "gay gene" does seem to come ex cathedra. Maher never really comes out and says that he thinks anyone who can claim scholarly credentials--at least, if that results in them speaking against faith--must be believed infallibly, but he often acts like it.

He repeatedly asserts without question that the Gospels are not eye-witness accounts, presumably on the basis of some scholarly opinions. I'm not interested in arguing whether they are or aren't, but I bring up this particular example, because it highlights the contradiction that plagues this film. So, since the Gospels must not be verifiable history, the only logical conclusion is that it was all made up. But when he turns to the virgin birth, he insists that if it really happened, surely all four of the Gospels would have recorded it, not just two. Well, if all four of the Gospels were just recording oral tradition or legends or whatever you want to call them, we might suppose that they all would have repeated some widely-circulated tale of the virgin birth. But if they were in fact eye-witnesses (just supposing for the moment), what would we expect? If four men who met Jesus when he was an adult were writing about his life for the very purpose that they wanted to set down an accurate and reliable account before all the witnesses were gone, how would they tell us about his birth? They weren't there themselves. Would they just repeat rumors? Or would they base their remarks on what they had the opportunity to hear directly from someone who was there--the Virgin herself, for instance? Aren't the odds against all of them having a surviving eye-witness to interview? He can't have it both ways. One argument or the other might get some mileage on its own, but they can't both work.

Not that I expect Maher to be an expert in historical or literary analysis. But by claiming the intellectual high ground, he's set himself up for criticism when his own arguments are so shallow. Who's really promoting blind faith? In the segment on God and country, he never really gets to a point. It's scatter-shot, starting with his assertion that Jesus can't possibly have anything to do with nationalism, then a brief discussion about how the founding fathers of America weren't all Christians (no, really?), then an interview with one apparently clueless senator about the religious faith of Americans and the importance of the Ten Commandments. I suppose we're meant to think of all this that a lot of evil or deluded people are trying to connect God with America, and somehow that's bad, but nailing down anything more specific than that doesn't seem to be on the agenda. I came away feeling like he'd insulted my intelligence as a viewer, not my faith as a believer.

The film did have its bright spots. The discussion in the trucker chapel ended with some heartfelt, honest prayer and the closest thing to a compliment that Maher had to give. In his discussion with the Jesus actor at the Holy Land theme park, he actually asked some substantive questions about how God handles evil in the world and why God is so jealous. A lot more could have been said in response than we see (though Maher should have been impressed with how much the guy admitted ignorance rather than try to explain what lies beyond our understanding), and perhaps a lot more was said. There were several times when I had to question the editing. How many of the awkward pauses were fabricated by splicing in silence where a reply was actually given? (Ken Ham at a loss for words? Now that's implausible!) It's his show--I suppose it's his right to send whatever message he wants (not like he makes any claim to hard-hitting journalism). But for someone who claims to be advocating truth and reason over blind faith and manipulation, it still seems hypocritical to me.

I don't suppose there's much cause for surprise here. An agnostic who cares enough to produce a show about religion can hardly be very agnostic. One might expect that he's just as religious--just as evangelistic--as anyone he sets out to mock. But by sending such a contradictory message, he loses any opportunity he might have had to raise substantive questions for intelligent discussion. In other words, he's preaching to the choir--to his own people, who already agree with him. They get some good laughs, and then they get a rousing challenge at the end to go out there and storm the gates of heaven. Just what we need--one more religious leader shouting antagonism to his followers, and in the name of fixing what's wrong with those people. That's religulous.


  1. Great post! I've seen some clips of Religulous and your comments seem dead-on.

  2. Not that it contributes much to my critique of the film, but in case anyone's wondering, the only references to EO that I noticed were a passing remark about the Byzantine Empire as one of several forces to assert authority over the Holy Land, and a very brief flash of Orthodox clergy in a montage after he made some remark about how entertainers and spiritual leaders both wear eye-catching outfits.