Maher Tackles Religion

The most amazing thing about Bill Maher’s Religulous, a documentary that criticizes religions of all stripes, is that, so far as I know, Maher hasn’t had to worry much about death threats. This movie is a lot more insulting to Islam than, for instance, the Danish cartoons. But Maher is an American, and moreover he’s a comedian. Strangely, then, Maher was able to make a more interesting documentary than might have been possible to more “serious” documentarians. I recommend it, despite a variety of flaws.

Religulous has a split personality. It is filled with low-brow jokes and cheap shots. Yet it also reveals a wealth of interesting facts about many religions, such as the predecessors of Christian myths, and its concluding message is surprisingly serious. “Religion must die for mankind to live,” says Maher in the closing segments, in which nuclear blasts are superimposed with religious passages. Dark words for a funny man.

The film has two main shortcomings. First, Maher pokes fun at the many absurdities of religion, the low-hanging fruit, but he never gets around to talking about the most sophisticated forms of religion. Thus, Maher’s conclusions don’t follow from his arguments.

Second, Maher offers no real alternative to religion, he offers only doubt. He is “preaching the gospel of ‘I don’t know.'” “Doubt — that’s my product,” he says. But if he has no answers to the “big questions,” how is he possibly going to get the religious to seriously question their faith? In a contest between religion and nothing, religion will win every time. The religious do not lack doubt — they doubt everything Maher has to day. But man cannot live by doubt alone. He needs a positive philosophy. In the absence of a serious alternative, religion will continue to dominate.

5 thoughts on “Maher Tackles Religion”

  1. It’s interesting that he puts such a bold sweeping (and true) statement as “Religion must die for mankind to live.” alongside “Doubt is my product.” Saying anything about what must happen for mankind to live involves a claim to a very far reaching kind of certainty. Didn’t Hitchens similarly undercut the title of his book “How Religion Poisons Everything” with some kind of claim to not be sure of anything?

    Environmentalists are making similarly far reaching claims every day and nobody is asking them how they can be so sure. But then, they aren’t appending a disclaimer to their statements like Maher and Hitchens.

  2. “But man cannot live by doubt alone. He needs a positive philosophy.”
    I must disagree. Doubt is hardly negative. It’s simply the impetus which drives curiousity and the inability to be satisfied with simple, fatuous explanations. Example: how was the world created? Answer: God made it. Um. No. Doubt keeps the rational from accepting this “explanation.”
    Moreover, to imply that man needs a “postive philosophy” is wrong on two counts:
    1) It implies that religion is positive (since we must find a “positive” replacement.)
    2) It implies that disbelief in religion is some kind of loss. It is not. It is intellectual freedom. It’s the ability to live by a code of ethics based on humanism rather than centuries-old mythology. That’s positive enough for me.

  3. 1. The matter of how the world was created is a question for natural science, not philosophy. Moreover, the religious have doubt; for instance, many doubt the truth of evolution.

    2. I was not suggesting that religion is “positive” in the sense of being good.

    3. Doubt is obviously not enough. How do you gain knowledge? How do you operate in the world? What or who is the appropriate beneficiary of your actions? Is it, for instance, right or wrong for you to steal and beat people you don’t like? Doubt doesn’t cut it: you need real answers to such questions.

  4. I see what you’re saying, but that isn’t my point. (Altho, I’d point out the very religious do assert that the creation of the world is a question for religion.)
    The idea that one needs a “positive philosophy” is an interesting statement, but I see no evidence to support it. Some very successful individuals have lived long lives with a philosophy best described as “Me first and to hell with anyone else.” Without getting into a semantic argument, I’m saying that the lack of religion in one’s life is no lack at all. For me, doubt is enough. Or, if you prefer a better term: skepticism. Choosing the answer to life’s questions by leaning toward the answer with the preponderence of evidence. Works for me.
    To believe that one must “replace” religion with something demands that you think religion worthy of replacement. It’s not. Myth, superstition, and nonsense can all be safely jettisoned without the need to replace them.
    (Just an aside, but your questions in #3 don’t really illustrate your point. If they are questions that must be answered in the absence of religion then, presumably, you feel that religion answers them. Which it does. Sort of. “Is it, for instance, right or wrong for you to steal and beat people you don’t like?” Yes, if they’re unbelievers. And so on. But, as I’m sure you’ll agree, those answers aren’t very good ones.)

  5. I’m completely unworried about sophisticated faiths. It’s the “low hanging fruit” that is likely to cause slaughter. It always has been.

    And we have people trying to enforce the evangelizing of the Air Force Acadamy. People who will one day be in charge of nuclear weapons and technically capable of bypassing their safeguards.

    That should be seen as a significant national security threat.

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