Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Religulous (Lionsgate, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One thing I didn’t get a chance to do yesterday was write my comments on the film Religulous, Bill Maher’s satirical documentary lampooning organized religion. The title is a Maher coinage obviously making a pun on the words “religious,” “incredulous” and “ridiculous,” which pretty much defines the filmmaker’s attitude towards the subject. To make Religulous, Maher hooked up with director Larry Charles, who used the same technique he had with his hit movie with Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat — essentially getting interviews with people under false pretenses and then filming the results. In this case, Charles requested interviews with various ministers, lay preachers and other religious types by saying they were for a movie called A Spiritual Journey, and only when the film crew actually showed up did the interviewees become aware that Bill Maher was going to be their interviewer and his agenda was quite different from what they’d been led to expect.

What Maher and Charles came up with was a somewhat underhanded film with a few rather nasty cheap shots, but also a quite funny one that’s less about the absurdities of religion than the absurdities of some of its practitioners. I’d have especially liked to see more of the woman televangelist who’s shown in a film clip saying that in order to be in touch with God, her congregants have to have the Holy Spirit “rammed up your ass” — a weird image indeed for a religious tendency so opposed to real live Gay people! Religulous features a wide range of weirdos, ranging from the Blacks and whites who worship together at the “Truckers’ Ministry” (and who — except for one heavy-set white guy who looks and acts like a stereotypical redneck — seem surprisingly sympathetic to Maher’s position and actually come off better than most of his ambush victims) to Jesús Miranda, a Puerto Rican minister who claims, Da Vinci Code-style, to be an actual biological descendant of Jesus Christ.

Some of Maher’s greatest scenes take place in religious installations aimed at selling the faith of their creators in theme-park style, including the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky (whose main message seems to be that, contrary to reality-based paleontologists, humans and dinosaurs actually inhabited the earth at the same time) and a religious theme park in Florida which attracts a man who not only claims to be Jesus but even dresses like the common image of him. To his credit, this “Jesus” doesn’t seem to be living the delusion that he is Christ, merely assuming the persona as a way of winning people over to Christianity.

Christianity isn’t the only religion that gets scathed in this film; there are also the predictable critiques of Islam and especially its absurd treatment of women — according to Maher’s narration, in one Muslim country women actually had to petition the governing authorities for permission to cut eye slits in their burkas so they could actually see. Maher is also quite delightful about the absurdities of Mormonism — though Mormonism and Scientology are easier targets because their founders lived recently enough that we actually have biographical documentation of them and therefore can subject their claims to prophet-hood to more critical scrutiny than we can those of Abraham, Moses, Jesus or Muhammad. The film succeeds as entertainment and makes a lot of religious people look genuinely ridiculous, but Maher had more in mind for it than that — as he makes clear in the closing peroration he delivers at the end, he wanted it to be a grand statement to the world to reject religion and eliminate it altogether from human culture:

“The irony of religion is that because of its power to divert man to destructive courses, the world could actually come to an end... Plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge having in 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. George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he didn’t learn a lot about it... Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.

“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... And anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you you don’t. How can I be so sure? Because I don’t know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that’s what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong...

“This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you comes at a horrible price... If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a Mafia wife, for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let’s remember what the real problem was. We learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That’s it. Grow up or die.”

I’m not a religious believer — never have been, never have had much use for it, and agree with Maher’s assumption that the reason religion persists is because we’ve never reconciled ourselves to the reality and inevitability of our own deaths, so wanting to be immortal and realizing at the same time that we must die, we accept the next best thing to real immortality: the fantasy of immortality that every religion offers, the idea that the end of this life is not the end of us (and what would be so terrible about the end of this life being the end of us? Are we all such egomaniacs that we have to believe our consciousness, or as the religious B.S.’ers call it our “soul,” is going to survive the physical death of our body?) — but even I think Maher is going too far here.

I tend to agree with Karen Armstrong in her book The Battle for God that any religious tradition is acceptable as long as it remains rooted in love and compassion; it’s when it gives that up and starts teaching that it’s O.K. to attack (by verbal abuse, institutional discrimination, or physical force) the people who believe in some other religion (or no religion at all) and/or to use the power of government to impose their beliefs on others who don’t share them (as the people who voted for Proposition 8 based on their religious beliefs did to me and Charles when they voted to deny us civil marriage because we are a same-sex couple) that it becomes illegitimate and dangerous. I would agree — and I’ve argued the point with my religious friends — that on balance, repeat on balance, religion has been a negative force in world history; the good religiously motivated people like Gandhi and King have done seems far outweighed by the evil wrought by the Torquemadas, the Cotton Mathers, the Osama bin Ladens.

But I don’t want to destroy religion — just to render it harmless by doing what the framers of the U.S. Constitution thought they were doing when they wrote the first two clauses of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law guaranteeing an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” If we take that literally, Congress — and, by extension, U.S. government in general — can’t put “In God We Trust” on our money or stick God into the Pledge of Allegiance and force atheist schoolchildren like me to swear allegiance (a word virtually no one forced to repeat it in the grade-school classroom actually knows the meaning of, just as they don’t know why the rules Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai got called “The Ten Commandments” instead of simply “The Ten Commands”) to a God we don’t believe in as well as to our country (the insertion of God into the Pledge, with its implication that an atheist or agnostic cannot be a true American, has rankled me ever since I was in grade school, and in my later years I would keep my lips pursed whenever the words “under God” came up — and I felt vindicated when I found out that they weren’t part of the original Pledge, but were added in the 1950’s to reflect the general perception of the Cold War as a battle to the death between “God-fearing” America and “Godless Communism” rather than what it was, a quite normal clash of interests between two major world powers, the U.S. and Russia), while at the same time anyone with any belief, no matter how loony-tunes it is, is entitled to it as long as they don’t start killing other people or doing other sorts of harm in its name.

I liked Religulous overall — as did my believing husband Charles (despite my concerns that it might offend him) — but there’s a certain bit of wise-guyness in its open propagandism for atheism that rubs me the wrong way even though I agree with the main point: that there’s no real evidence that God exists, and all the arguments that God does exist are based on wild assumptions, breathtaking leaps of illogic and ultimately the call to faith — “Don’t worry about whether or not it seems to make sense. Just believe.”