Sunday, October 05, 2008

Bill Maher's romp

The recent spate of books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens signals a new aggressiveness on the part of non-believing intellectuals. Some of these people like to style themselves “brights,” implying that those who do not share their views are dumb. (Amusingly, the new usage of “bright” is modeled on “gay.” The enthusiasts don’t seem to be aware that nowadays young people are likely to use “gay” to mean “lame, boring, dorky.”)

At all events, it seems that the feistiness is trickling down. In the fervor of their proselytizing, some garden-variety atheists have even earned comparison with their mortal adversaries, evangelical Christians.

Non-believers like to quote the results of a new survey that indicates that the religiously unaffiliated amount to 16% of the American population. This is a rather heterogeneous category, though, and only five million people (less than 2%) actually avow that they are atheists. Moreover, a new report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that 21 per cent of US atheists believe in God. Well, why not? George Santayana famously avowed that “there is no God, and the Virgin Mary is His mother.” More generally, if some Episcopalians, Unitarians, and Jews can say that they are atheists, why can’t atheists say they believe in God?

Proselytizers of unbelief like to note that their number is increasing. And so it is--though mainly in the rapidly depopulating countries of Western Europe. Worldwide, the number of the religious is increasing by leaps and bounds.

Now the campaign against religion has a vehicle that promises to take the campaign to a wider audience--a movie that uses humorous infotainment as its vehicle. The film is “Religulous,” featuring the TV iconoclast Bill Maher and directed by Larry Charles. Laced with profanity, Maher’s effort certainly has entertainment value. In the end, though, his fervor escalates into a fire-and-brimstone conversion message--for his team. This film is his personal crusade to out religion as, in his words, “detrimental to the progress of humanity.” “The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live,” Maher declames in a melodramatic flourish that is as blatant as the pitch of any late-night cable TV evangelist.

As one reviewer notes, “God, apparently, doesn't have a lock on fanatics.”

If Maher would just stop and think a minute before he delivers his next oneliner, he would realize that it is a nonsequitut to say that "religion must die for mankind to live." As it happens mankind has been living all-too-abuntantly under the yoke of religion, resulting in planetary overpopulation. Since nonbelievers tend to have fewer children, a more appropriate slogan would be "religion must die for mankind to diminish." (I leave aside the gaffe of "mankind," which in these PC times generally yields to "humanity.")

Relentlessly, Maher pushes and pushes. How can anyone possibly believe the Bible? A talking snake? A man swallowed by a big fish? “Complete bullshit,” he says, forgetting that four-letter words do not enhance an argument, but detract from it.

Missing from “Religulous” are the charities, hospices, soup kitchens, and shelters supported by faith. The recent study by the Barna Group points up this problem. Atheist and agnostic adults contribute only a paltry amount of money to charitable causes. “The typical no-faith American donated just $200 in 2006, which is more than seven times less than the amount contributed by the prototypical active-faith adult ($1500). Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics. In fact, while just 7% of active-faith adults failed to contribute any personal funds in 2006, that compares with 22% among the no-faith adults.”

Absent from Maher’s witnesses are the best and the brightest of the standard bearers. No real theologians need apply. They wouldn't suit Maher’s purposes.

Many years ago I learned from my teacher Karl Popper that when one undertakes to refute an idea, one must seek out the most potent version of the idea. Then one must devise other arguments of one'e own to bolster the mistaken view. Make the adversary as formidable as possible; then take him down. Ideas that are refuted in their strongest form are more likely to stay refuted. But of course Maher and his sidekick Charles prefer to take the easy way out, ridiculing the "rubes," but never confronting serious adversaries.

I am scarcely one to set up as a mouthpiece for religion. I only claim that with their vehemence and self-indulgence the latter-day opponents of religion are doing themselves and their cause a disservice.

In a certain frame of mind, one might say that the illusions of religion are the worst possible thing for humanity. That conclusion is crystal-clear to our new atheists. But in fact there is one thing that is worse than religion: programmatic atheism. In Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the abolition of religion failed to usher in the earthly paradise. Instead, the exact opposite occurred. Following the lead of his mentors Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Maher is silent on this huge problem. Atheistic regimes produced tens of millions of unnecessary deaths in Eurasia--that is one reason why I am an agnostic, not an atheist.

In Maher’s celluloid screed, Asian religions are completely ignored. Hinduism, obsessed with caste and populated with ridiculous animal deities, abundantly deserves this treatment. It is not so certain, though, that Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism would provide similarly apt targets. At all events, the movie is not about the horrors of “religion” but about the incubus, or so it is perceived, of the three Abrahamic faiths. And even here it is scarcely even-handed, for Christianity, especially the evangelical and Catholic varieties, bears the brunt of the attack. Criticisms of Judaism and Islam are almost incidental.

A clue to this imbalance stems from the backgrounds of the two people responsible for the film. Maher, who had a Jewish mother but was brought up Catholic, evidently has a score to settle. Larry Charles, his director, has a similar, but different background. Jewishness is central to his comedy and his world view. "You can't dismiss any seminal influence. I grew up in Brighton Beach, New York, where essentially everyone is Jewish. I grew up thinking the whole world was like that. Obviously, Jewishness gives you a historical background, and a comedic one. The movie moguls who started the movie business tried to create an idealized gentile world. The idea of a white picket fence world is a Jewish creation. So it's pervading American culture and I know it has had an impact on me and my work."

Larry Charles is best known for directing the sophomoric “Borat,” featuring Sacha Baron-Cohen. Because of its premise--a clueless Kazakh journalist visiting the US--Islamophobia constitutes the very bedrock of the film. What fun to laugh at that hapless raghead! In addition,“Borat” includes several episodes ridiculing Christianity.

Anti-Semitism, though, is an entirely different matter. It is roundly condemned. But if anti-Semitism is wrong, why are Islamophobia and anti-Christianity just dandy?

These two recent films bring into focus a central problem that afflicts most of the antireligious propaganda of recent years. It is not even-handed, as it must be if it is to be taken seriously. Instead, this stuff is a compound of resentments that often reflect the personal experiences and backgrounds of its creators. For them, it seems, it is payback time.

As I have tried to show in my recent postings, mockery, fueled by personal grievances, is not the best way to handle the matter. Using the best of recent scholarship, the claims of religion must be carefully sifted. The results on the faith side of the ledger are, it could be argued, fairly meager. On balance, though, the step-by-step procedure is more likely to be productive of lasting results than sophomoric mockery and cheap laughs.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wayne, as always, your salience is keen, but the "problem" is finding intelligible, intelligent, and theistic individuals who are capable of having a rational dialogue -- or at least agree to the inferences of logic and Boole's Laws of Thought.

It has been done, and by none other than one Thomas Aquinas, but at considerable reduction of biblical revelation into the systematic thought of Aristotle -- an atheist. Karl Rahner is the only theologian of any gravitas to attempt a post-Thomistic systematic theology of any coherence (Hans Kung is dancing on the head of his own eye of a needle).

The "faith" expressed by the majority of people today is babbling and incoherent psychodramatic nonsense even Martin Luther and Jean Calvin would recoil at. Satelite and cable feeds offer 14 channels of religious broadcasting -- virtually all of it trite, vile, and pop-psychology. The so-called "Evangelical" is a figment of imagination, as few biblical fundamentalists know how to read and listen to their demagogue pastors instead. The chance that you or I might encounter a Jacques Maritain, Peter Geach, or Liz Anscombe (all Roman Catholics) and have an intelligent and intelligible faith discussion is close to NIL.

Finally, we have to confront the existential dilemma: Darwin insisted only that a god was unnecessary to explain the evolution and origin of species, including the descent of man, and even that "compromise" was repudiated by Oxford dons as Church of England prelates. With Richard Dawkins' writings, the original Darwinian "not necessary" becomes "impossible" and "incompatible."

Thus, if Darwin is true, and no theory has more support from more independent branches of natural science than Darwin, god cannot exist -- at least not a "god" in any sense Anselm, Pascal, Kant, or Aquinas understands (recall the transcendental aesthetic for god exists to secure the categorical imperative, not as a vindication of god's actual existence, which Kant rejects). How people of faith who are also people of the scientific worldview reconcile a contradiction (not merely an antimony) has never been "pretty" and requires intellectual schizophrenia. Of course, intellectual schizophrenia can be accomplished in the same host, but the disjunction tears at the fabric of their wholeness. It must, just as its extreme proponent must tear at WTC and other emblems foreign to the Prophet.

Finally, you seem to regard Harris, Pascal, Hitchins, Dawkins, Dennett, et alia as anti-evangelists for the atheist position (no belief concerning an impossible existent) and somehow equally transgressive as the theistic culprits deluding the masses with the opiate of an illusion. Parity (much less any equivalence) of the disparate parties has no common thread, shared assumptions, and shared conceptual framework. But the religionists -- not the non-theists -- invariably resort to Hebrews 11:1-3:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith* our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

But then the Darwinian objection strengthened by Dawkins impedes the move. Given that wars and mayhem often are religious in origin, perhaps JIHAD is as Zionist as Islamic?

10:53 PM  

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