Religulous

I just got back from an advance screening of Bill Maher’s new film,
Religulous,
(via the
Beltway Atheists, who
get a shout-out for it).

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what to expect: Bill Maher
travels around the world, interviewing people about religion, and
basically letting them show how ridiculous their beliefs are. And
that’s basically it, plus some film clips thrown in for comic effect,
and some lines that you’d expect to hear on Real Time or
in his stand-up routine, rather than in a serious documentary.

The film does slow down in the last third, but not enough (IMHO) to
drag, and ends on a down note. In the meantime, it does manage to
raise some important questions about religion, though probably not the
ones one might expect.

Spoilers and ranting below the fold.

It’s been said that Michael Moore doesn’t make documentaries, but
rather advocacy films: nonfiction movies intended to promote an agenda
or point of view. Similarly, Religulous doesn’t pretend
to be fair or balanced, and probably belongs in a subcategory of
advocacy: movies designed to take the piss out of something. The point
is not to document religion, but to take it down a notch.

The important questions I mentioned earlier are not of the “How can
believers and non-believers coexist peacefully?” variety. They’re much
more blunt: “You’re a grown-up: how can you possibly believe a book
with talking snakes?” “How is believing in Jesus more reasonable than
believing in Santa Claus?” “Have you even read your holy
book?” “How can you claim to be in favor of free speech when you won’t
repudiate the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?”

If Religulous is the cinematic equivalent of drawing
moustaches on church posters, it also advocates the view that it’s
okay to treat religion like any other topic.

One comment that was raised during the discussion afterwards, and
which is sure to be raised elsewhere, is “Why can’t Bill be more
respectful people he disagrees with? By tarring moderate theists with
the same brush as the extremists and wackaloons, isn’t he making
enemies of people who could be our allies?”

My personal answer is that we’ve tried to be polite and conciliatory,
to just nod and smile and not say anything for the sake of not ruining
Thanksgiving dinner. And see where it’s gotten us. I, for one, am
tired of it. I’m going to call bullshit when I see it. Women’s
suffrage was not won by polite quiet housewives writing letters to the
editor, but by suffragettes going out and getting all up in people’s
grilles. Segregation was brought down thanks to “uppity niggers”.
Without those who are here, queer, and who we should get used to, we
wouldn’t currently be debating the desirability of gay marriage.

As for whether Maher’s approach makes enemies of moderates, well,
maybe they need a wake-up call themselves. Fred Phelps and Tom Hanks
both call themselves Christians. Osama bin Laden and the taxi driver
who tracked you down to return your wallet both call themselves
Muslims. Tom Cruise and… actually, I can’t think of any non-crazy
Scientologists, so forget about them. The point is, if sane moderates
want to distance themselves from the crazy wackaloons, they need to
speak up, especially since in most cases, it seems that the crazies
are the ones who take their religion most seriously.

So yeah, I’m tired of making excuses for the moderates. Let them speak
up for themselves, and tell the Dobsons and Robertsons and ayatollahs
that they’re full of shit and don’t speak for them.

Can I get an amen?

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16 Responses to Religulous

  1. Eamon Knight says:

    AMEN!

    (From this former moderate-Christian, who realized c. 1985 that he and Jerry Falwell were not practising the same religion, and spent most of the 1990s on Usenet telling fundies where they got off, before ditching the religion thing altogether).

    Like

  2. Amen!!! Even when I was practicing, priestessing religious, I recognized that religion is silly.

    Like

  3. david says:

    I just came from watching the movie. Very pleased to see the crowded cinema and receptive audience. Bill Maher does a great

    job of allowing his subjects to reveal the contradictions and insanity of their beliefs without harrassing them. It makes you

    concerned for the country and the planet when 80% of the population believe various versions of these irrirrational

    superstitions .

    Like

  4. David Ball says:

    Wow! Some good thinking!

    What ever happened to live and let live?

    You lot must be a bunch of maniacs if you think its right to condemn someone for their beliefs and their faith. Why do you even bother or care what other people think? If someone’s belief is not causing harm to anyone else then leave them alone! I will promote Christianity where ever I can, but if someone doesn’t want to know about it then I leave them alone, anything wrong in that?

    Bill Maher is condemning religion; okay well let me have a crack at his beliefs then:

    If he is an atheist then there is a good chance he believes he came from a rock biiiiillions of years ago, most religious people believe they were created by God, which idea sounds more outrageously stupid?

    Oh wait, firstly he will believe he was created from a tiny dot that made a big bang, the dot came from nothingness, wow how very clever, I really admire his faith in his beliefs.

    Anyway, enough said, have a good day people!

    Like

  5. Troublesome Frog says:

    You lot must be a bunch of maniacs if you think its right to condemn someone for their beliefs and their faith.

    1) Why does everybody assume that you’re conedemning them when in reality, you’re just condemning their beliefs?
    2) Does this reasoning hold for other beliefs? Political beliefs? Let’s say I’m an ardent communist. Do I get to go nuts and get really angry and indignant if you say that communism is a stupid belief? Why does religion get special treatment in the marketplace of ideas?

    If he is an atheist then there is a good chance he believes he came from a rock biiiiillions of years ago, most religious people believe they were created by God, which idea sounds more outrageously stupid?

    I suppose it all depends on how much data you have.

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  6. David Ball says:

    1) Why does everybody assume that you’re conedemning them when in reality, you’re just condemning their beliefs?

    My bad, you are right, it is just condemning their beliefs.

    2) Does this reasoning hold for other beliefs? Political beliefs? Let’s say I’m an ardent communist. Do I get to go nuts and get really angry and indignant if you say that communism is a stupid belief? Why does religion get special treatment in the marketplace of ideas?

    I think it applies to any belief, if Hitler was still around(I know Hitler wasn’t communist, just an example =]) I would condem what he was doing, I couldn’t care less what he believed in, he has the right to believe what he likes, and if his actions start to harm people because of his beliefs then his actions need to be condemned not his beliefs. Its basic common courtesy that society seems to have lost, we all know santa clause doesn’t exist (to my knowledge) but would you condemn a child for believing in him? Of course not, it’s a silly idea but it’s not doing anyone any harm.

    I suppose it all depends on how much data you have.

    Bill Maher can believe in whatever he likes, who am I to say his belief is stupid, that’s all I expect in return from him and you guys when it comes to religion.

    Like

  7. arensb says:

    David:
    You forgot to respond to Troublesome Frog’s second question:

    Why does religion get special treatment in the marketplace of ideas?

    I’m curious myself.

    Like

  8. David Ball says:

    I’m assuming the question means why do you have to tip toe around Christianity when new ideas are formed?

    You shouldn’t, say what you like believe what you like, is it effecting how I live and practise my religion? If yes then that’s the only time I will say something. Taking the mick out of what I believe in is wrong; I don’t mock Muslims for their belief so why should anyone mock mine?

    I basically did answer the question in my previous post anyway; you shouldn’t condemn anyone’s belief for any reason other than if it’s causing harm to someone else.

    By the way I tried posting a reply on the other post about Kent Hovind but I have been alerted for spam lol I’m not even posting links

    Like

  9. Troublesome Frog says:

    I think it applies to any belief, if Hitler was still around(I know Hitler wasn’t communist, just an example =]) I would condem what he was doing, I couldn’t care less what he believed in, he has the right to believe what he likes, and if his actions start to harm people because of his beliefs then his actions need to be condemned not his beliefs.

    So if somebody says, “I think that 2+2 = 5,” it’s just wrong of me to say, “No, it’s four.” I can certainly get on board with the idea that I shouldn’t call you an idiot and smear dog poop on your car door handles for it, but at what point did we decide that one shouldn’t publicly stand up and say, “I don’t agree with the ideas that guy is promoting, and here’s why,” especially when those ideas affect how we interact with one another and how we run our society?

    Its basic common courtesy that society seems to have lost, we all know santa clause doesn’t exist (to my knowledge) but would you condemn a child for believing in him? Of course not, it’s a silly idea but it’s not doing anyone any harm.

    This seems very much to depend on the situation. Children should be allowed to have their fantasies as long as they grow out of them eventually. If a person says that there’s an invisible unicorn that gives him orders, my first instinct would be to suggest that he needs to get some help from a mental health professional. Barring that concern for him, I suppose that it only starts to matter to me when the unicorn suggests that he should slash my tires or poison my pets.

    But there’s the rub. I think you’d be hard pressed to make the case that religious ideas stay sequestered away in the back of a person’s mind and never affect others. I’m fine if you believe that it’s morally wrong to loan money, but once you start taking that belief to the ballot box to vote to make money lending illegal, you’re going to hear from me. Like it or not, the most prominent religions have both private and public components, and those public components affect society as a whole. Given that, it seems pretty reasonable to want to expose those ideas to the same scrutiny we would any other idea that affects public policy.

    Frankly, I think it’s a lot easier to nip bad ideas in the bud through discussion while they’re still just bad ideas rather than being forced to take action against them once they become bad actions.

    Like

  10. BillyWarhol says:

    Can’t wait to see it!! Hopefully on DVD by Christmas for Family Viewing!!

    ;)) Peace*

    Like

  11. ‘You lot must be a bunch of maniacs if you think its right to condemn someone for their beliefs and their faith’. David Ball: We are not condeming anyone. What we are doing is condeming their bullshit belief, and by the way this religious belief have and still costing young children and elder people their lives.

    Epsilon Clue: You do need an Amen.
    You are right we do need to call bullshit when we see it, and religion is just that, bullshit.

    Like

  12. Open-Minded says:

    Amen.

    Like

  13. Calli Arcale says:

    What always bugs me is when people get miffed at the moderate religious folks for not doing something, because it dismisses the many of us who are. Like me. I’m not an aggressive person by any stretch of the imagination, so you won’t find me at any protest marches, but I do try to “spread the word”, online and in real life. Call it critical thinking evangelism. 😉 It’s a start, anyway.

    But even though that bugs me, I do have to acknowledge that you have a point. Most of us don’t do anything about the whackos. First off, there’s a fundamental problem — moderate religious folks are, generally, inclined to live and let live and thus not likely to make a lot of noise. So you won’t see us much. This is why we are moderates. It’s not entirely a bad thing; we tend to respect other points of view, just as you did when holding your tongue at Thanksgiving dinner when some nutty relative started going off on a rant. But it also means that many of us are “shruggies”. (Visit Dr Val’s post at ScienceBasedMedicine for the genesis of this term.) As religious shruggies, we tend to write off the extremists of our faith as harmless crazies. They’re nuts, so why waste time worrying about them? The “shruggie” attitude in a nutshell. (Really, do visit the link I just gave. It’s about alternative medicine, but I think the term “shruggie” is perfect.)

    Still, I don’t think I’ll be watching the movie. Bill Maher has dropped very low in my estimation in recent year, in large part because he has become a dyed-in-the-wool antivaccination wingnut. His views on medicine and biology are so unscientific that I really don’t think he has any grounds whatsoever for criticizing anyone’s religious beliefs.

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  14. Fez says:

    Calli Arcale sez:

    As religious shruggies, we tend to write off the extremists of our faith as harmless crazies. They’re nuts, so why waste time worrying about them? The “shruggie” attitude in a nutshell.

    And now the price of that silent acceptance comes due; an increasingly large number of what could be considered religious moderates are viewed with the same suspicion and derision as your ideological cousins on the fringes. I realize you cannot speak for anyone but yourself but do you consider it worthwhile to speak louder and more frequently against the excesses of the fringe?

    Like

  15. arensb says:

    Calli Arcale:

    It’s easy to conflate “moderate” with “apathetic”, simply because I think a lot of people who don’t care strongly about a given position to gravitate toward the moderate middle position. But there’s also a place, I think, for passionate or outspoken moderates, e.g., people who feels that both free-market capitalists and full-on socialists are crazy, and will stand up and loudly proclaim that “we need this much regulation, and no more.”

    What do we want?
    Reasonable informed discussion of the issues!
    When do we want it?
    As soon as is convenient for all parties!

    we tend to write off the extremists of our faith as harmless crazies. They’re nuts, so why waste time worrying about them?

    And as Fez points out, the nuts are taking over. Young-earth creationists are, terrifyingly, not an ignorable fringe belief. Nor are rapture-believers, who think the end of the world is a Good Thing (I don’t know whether you’re old enough to remember James Watt, secretary of the interior under Ronald Reagan, who famously believed that it didn’t matter if we trashed the environment, because Jesus was going to return any minute now).

    So anyway, if you’re one of the moderates speaking out against the extremist nuts, kudos to you. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, your message isn’t getting out. For instance, during the recent Crackergate incident, when Bill Donohue was shouting his fool head off to anyone who would listen that Webster Cook and PZ Myers had desecrated the body of Jesus, who in the religious community stood up to say “Oh, come on, Bill! It’s not the actual body of Christ, it’s just a symbol”? (Caveat: it may very well be that some people did do this, and I’m simply unaware of it.)

    Bill Maher has dropped very low in my estimation in recent year, in large part because he has become a dyed-in-the-wool antivaccination wingnut.

    I haven’t heard Maher say anything about vaccines, but I’ve heard from several reliable sources that he’s an antivax nut, and am happy to tell him he’s a fucktard in that respect. He’s right in some areas, wrong in others. Such is the rich tapestry of life.

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  16. Calli Arcale says:

    And now the price of that silent acceptance comes due; an increasingly large number of what could be considered religious moderates are viewed with the same suspicion and derision as your ideological cousins on the fringes. I realize you cannot speak for anyone but yourself but do you consider it worthwhile to speak louder and more frequently against the excesses of the fringe?

    Absolutely! Passionately! In fact, I feel called to do so. I think it is my responsibility both as a skeptic and as a person of faith to stand up for what I believe. I think the religious extremists are a far greater threat to the faith than they are to the community at large. They annoy atheists and they screw around with textbooks. That’s irritating, but our government system is built in such a way to deny them much real power. Oh, they can get into positions of authority, but as long as our Constitution remains strong, and the separation of church and state is respected, they can’t do much more than that. (They have their strongest influence at the local level for this very reason; the Constitution has less direct influence at the local level, especially the school board level.) But the damage they can do to the faith (be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or whatever) is far greater.

    I believe they have the ability to screw around with our country and seriously delay us, but that given time, they’ll be seen for the frauds they are and tossed out of office. Religion doesn’t have the same corrective systems that our government does. On the contrary, organized religion specifically opposes any kind of reform. Thus, if these frauds come to power within the religion, they can do an extreme amount of damage, mostly by reinstituting the sort of vicious judgmentalism that Jesus opposed, but also by teaching people not to question. They can suck the heart right out of the Church. I think if more religious “shruggies” realized this, they would be a lot less apathetic towards fanatics.

    So anyway, if you’re one of the moderates speaking out against the extremist nuts, kudos to you. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, your message isn’t getting out. For instance, during the recent Crackergate incident, when Bill Donohue was shouting his fool head off to anyone who would listen that Webster Cook and PZ Myers had desecrated the body of Jesus, who in the religious community stood up to say “Oh, come on, Bill! It’s not the actual body of Christ, it’s just a symbol”? (Caveat: it may very well be that some people did do this, and I’m simply unaware of it.)

    PZ was being rude, I have to say. I got the impression he was deliberately trying to annoy people. Some people feel very strongly that one should treat the host (bread and/or wine and/or non-alcoholic substitute) as if it is the actual body of Christ, whether they believe in transubstantiation or not. (Note: transubstantiation is largely, though not exclusively, a Catholic doctrine.) I’m a Lutheran. The Lutheran doctrine is that Christ is in, under, and within the host, not that the host actually turns into His body. Even so, many Lutherans, especially those in the Wisconsin or Missouri Synods, would shudder at what PZ did. It’s not that they think he defiled the body of Christ; it’s that they think that once the host has been blessed, it must be used for Communion or destroyed, because it now has this huge symbolic importance. To make a non-religious analogy for what PZ did, it’d be like using the urn containing somebody’s grandmother’s ashes as a footstool. Yeah, the lady’s dead, and doesn’t care what you do with her remains. But her grandchildren care. Rational? Probably not. But people get emotional about things they care about, which is not entirely a bad thing as long as they can retain some perspective.

    Personally, I regard the host as a metaphor; saying that Christ is in the host is redundant if He’s supposed to be everywhere anyway, and the whole point of Communion is to be a symbol of the new covenant, not some magic “get out of Hell free” card. There is a magic “get out of Hell free” card, but it’s not Holy Communion. Communion is a symbol of it, performed to remind us of what Christ did for us. Personally, I think those who see it as literally the body of Christ are missing the point. But I’m digressing, and probably boring everybody. 😉

    Should religious moderates speak up? YES!!!!! There’s one here in Minnesota (maybe PZ knows of him, maybe not) who was covered in the Star Tribune about a year or so ago, specifically speaking against the likes of Pat Robertson, and promoting his new book. I wish I could remember the guy’s name. I tried searching the Strib’s archives, but no luck. My pastor is another. The guy is awesome. He was raised in a real holy-roller church, and consequently fell out of faith in his late teens when he started to realize that the world just didn’t match up to what people were telling him. He came back to the faith on his own through study of the New Testament. He began to realize that people had been misreading it all along. He went to seminary, learned Greek and Hebrew so he could read it properly (things always get lost in translation) and now speaks out against organized religion quite often. This may have something to do with why our church has declining attendance; telling people that they are special but still need the Church is a good way to fill pews; telling them that they can decide their own destiny and that the religious establishment is nothing more than a human construct is not quite so effective. But it’s a heck of a lot more honest.

    There’s also CS Lewis. Okay, so he’s dead, but he wrote some very interesting things on the subject of faith. One of the things that really ticks off a lot of fundamentalists is that he said there are many paths to salvation. In his opinion, Christ was the clearest. But you can get there other ways. What he was saying was that you don’t actually have to call yourself a Christian to be following the right path and to be saved. Not many fundamentalists will agree with that. But I do. My single biggest problem with fundamentalists is the notion that if you do not believe as they do, live as they do, and worship as they do, you are going to Hell. That contradicts everything I believe about God. I think they’ve gotten the message seriously wrong.

    I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. So I believe that evangelism (spreading the word) is important. But unlike many evangelicals, I don’t limit that to “Jesus was born of a virgin, did a bunch of miracles, died, then was raised from the dead, which means God’s cool with all of us now.” I am evangelical about everything I believe in, which includes the importance of the separation of church and state, and the importance of critical thinking, and the importance of a good science education.

    Maybe it’s futile. Maybe my voice is too quiet. But there are others like me, and if we all speak up, like the Whos in Whoville, our combined voices will be heard. We may even drown out the extremists, and make them realize that they do NOT speak for us. That is my hope. So I’ll keep talking. I’ll keep spreading the word. With luck, it will even do some good someday. 😉

    BTW, for what it’s worth, I know a couple of Arabs (one Sunni, one raised Shi’ite but now considering himself nonspecific) who do the same thing within Saudi Arabia. It is vastly more dangerous for them than it is for me. The worst I face is laughter. They could be jailed, assaulted, or even killed. I have endless respect for their bravery. The world needs more of them.

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