Thursday, October 02, 2008


Tuesday night, Bill Maher was on The Daily Show to promote his new documentary Religulous. Based on what I know of Maher, it's probably going to be a very entertaining movie, but it's probably, no make that definitely going to be extremely offensive to a lot of people. As is often customary for such talk show appearances, his visit was preceded by a showing of a clip from the movie.

In the clip, Maher pretends to be a crazy homeless person standing on a street corner, ranting about how all of us are possessed by the spirits of space aliens that were killed on earth billions of years ago by being dropped into a volcano by an evil being named Xenu. Some will of course recognize that he's really giving the foundational doctrines of Scientology, presented in a manner to make them seem extra silly. Shortly after the clip, Maher makes an interesting statement:

...[W]e laugh at this because that's the new religion, Scientology, but it's not really that weirder, more crazier than Christianity, I hate to tell you. We're just used to that one. But if someone came to you today and told you that story, you'd never heard that, and said, God had a son. He's a single parent. And He said to his son, "Jesus, I'm gonna send you to Earth on a suicide mission, but don't worry, they can't kill you because you're really me. But it is gonna hurt for a hot minute, I'm not gonna lie about that. You're gonna hate me, but it's the best thing for you, son--I mean me, it's best thing for me; I'm you, you're me! So here's the plan, son: I, God the Father, (wink-wink) I'll go down to Earth first! We'll split up the work, because we're two people! (Not really!) And I'll see if I can find a Palestinian woman to impregnate, so she can give birth to you--I mean me!" It's just the silliest thing you'd ever heard, and this is a monotheistic religion.
I'm not sure what monotheism has to do with it, but I think Maher is right nonetheless: When you really think about it, Christianity is sort of silly. Really. I mean, even the Bible says so, as a friend of mine pointed out when I asked his opinion on this. So score a point for Maher, I guess, but...a point for what?
Maher chose Christianity no doubt largely because it's the most popular religion in this country. To pick on Christianity is to be more controversial (as one potentially offends a greater portion of one's potential audience), and so often it's controversy that gets people in the theaters to watch a documentary. Actually, while I of course don't know whether it plays a role in the movie, the fact is that Maher made the statement that he doesn't think so highly of atheism either, since there's something nearly as presumptuous in claiming that one knows God does not exist as claiming to know he does exist. I'm guessing it's not in the movie, at least not much, since, despite the fact that a statement like that may be as offensive to the average atheist as the anecdote above would be to the average Christian, pointing it out doesn't tend to be quite as funny, and Maher's aim is as much to entertain as enlighten.
Scientology is easy. It really is a funny religion to just about everyone outside of it; you don't have to try so hard there. It's also a much smaller religion in terms of number of adherents. The fact is, however, that pretty much every religion has some ridiculousness to it (and I do get the impression that Maher tries to cover many different religions within the scope of the movie) and he could probably pick one out of a hat. Any one. So what's the point?
Seriously, I'm not sure where this is supposed to be going, at least so far as being informational, which one tends to expect of a documentary film to some degree. I'm finding myself once again in a position of more or less reviewing a film I have not actually seen; who knows how I end up here? I really do expect that the movie will be quite funny and entertaining, even the parts that should be offensive to me, but how is it going to enrich my life, or anyone else's?
Call me a strange theist, but isn't claiming that religion is ridiculous almost a tautology? Think about it. "Religion" is defined by as "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs." Basically, when we talk of religion, we're talking about things that are outside the normal, natural, scientifically observable domain of physical reality, aren't we? We're talking about a higher power, be it personal or impersonal, singular or multiple, human-like or somehow beyond our understanding; isn't such a being or beings bound to be unusual by nature? (Or should one say "by supernature"?)
It's been said before that the Bible starts to get mind-blowing only four words into it. "In the beginning, God..." One pastor I heard teaching on Genesis paused here and said, "If you can accept that much, the rest of the book is easy." It tends to be the nature of religions, with very few exceptions, to believe that there exist powers of some sort that somehow predate the existence of the universe itself. It seems to me that even without such beings actually interacting with and influencing human history, just existing is remarkable. Is it silly for God to die on a cross? Maybe, but is it more or less silly for Him to become a human? Is it more or less silly for him to interact with humans at all? Or to have created humanity? To have even created a universe in which humans come to exist? To a Christian, none of these things are unthinkable, but to an atheist, every one is just as silly as any other, isn't it? "Hey, my atheist friend, I'll admit it: the whole Jesus Christ thing is just a fable. Still, you really should consider becoming a Jew. Or at least a Deist, maybe?" That wouldn't float.
Of course, at the same time, I just don't see that this kind of thing will have much of an impact on those of us who are of the religious bent. Surely Scientologists have heard it all, over and over again. As for Christians, does anyone think that there will be too many people who won't fit into one of two groups: the offended Christians who will turn away and not even watch, and the bemused Christians who will laugh in a lightly self-deprecating manner and go on believing exactly the same as before?
That's the thing of it: Maher is right, but so what? I can't help but see this film as coming across as a sort of anti-religious The Passion of the Christ, with controversial ridicule in the place of controversial violence. The people who are going to see this film for the most part are going to be those who already believe its likely conclusions, and didn't need a hundred minutes of footage to be convinced. It will be interesting to see how well it does at the box office, but I can't imagine it's going to change the world in the slightest. (Well, it got me the closest I'm ever likely to be to defending Scientology; I suppose that's something.)

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