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November 21, 2008 / JV


I saw Bill Maher’s movie Religulous yesterday. It’s basically him traveling around the world harassing religious people, and it seems like he intentionally targets those enthusiasts who are least likely to engage what he has to say.

In the movie, Maher is the jehovah’s witness of agnosticism (he preaches the “i don’t know” doctrine). He goes around (mostly rural America) asking people why they believe in a story as fantastical as a space god who sends his son on a suicide mission (adjust accordingly for given religion). Near the beginning, he visits a little truck-stop chapel in North Carolina and he says to the patrons: “But, you all are smart guys…” as in they should “know better”. I find this assertion to be a tad offensive, and I’m not religious.

When did claiming atheism/agnosticism become the “smart” thing to do? (I should note that this is true particularly for liberals, who act as though thinking critically is incompatible with faith.). This puzzles me. There’s this idea that once you’ve reached a certain level of sophistication or education, you should be rational enough to not believe in the “fairy tales” of religious stories. I’ve even caught myself falling susceptible to this idea. Sometimes I’ll be surprised to hear someone speaking about left politics or something and in the next breath reference Christ. Wait, what..?

I understand where Maher is coming from in terms of questioning religious absolutism and the misappropriation of scripture that has often caused mass amounts of hate and violence. However, I don’t think faith is inherently absolute, and I attribute the problems of religious fanaticism to an inability to separate religious belief from the secular. Not to mention, ignorance in general. Bigotry (which is part of what propels Religulous) is to blame for people’s jacked up attitudes towards out-groups. To what extent does religion create ignorance, hostility, and political conservatism, and to what extent is it merely a fuel behind existing personalities and an already established right-leaning political ideology? Maher’s opinion that “religion must die for mankind to live” is pretty simplistic to me.

I’m not opposed to respectfully interrogating people’s viewpoints, but I think the approach that one way of seeing is right/smart/more reasonable is extremely problematic, whether coming from a devout Muslim or a militant atheist. In the words of George Shulman, “human beings cannot help but live by ‘faith,’ whether in reason, secularism, or ‘democracy’ as an ideal.” That is to say, agnosticism and atheism are “beliefs” that people hold and should be able to defend, but at the same time, those beliefs are also bound in a “faith” that is neither superior to, nor more mature than, anyone else’s.



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  1. heather / Nov 22 2008 11:44 am

    I don’t see how critical thinking and faith are compatible. We’re supposed to believe in Noah’s Ark and be rational at the same time? “I don’t know” is a fact, and a perfectly reasonable one.

  2. the black scientist / Nov 22 2008 3:54 pm

    I agree that “i don’t know” is a fine position to take on anything that you don’t know about. But i also think believing in something is just as fine. From what I understand about the stories in most bibles, they are meant to be parables – stories (fantastical or not) that illustrate a larger lesson. I don’t think the irrationality comes in believing the story. Sure, it may not have happened, but if holding that belief empowers you, supports you, helps you face the fact that you haven’t eaten in four days, or whatever, who am I to tell you that you can’t have it. I think people should be entitled to believe whatever they want honestly, concerning how we came to be, and I don’t see the point in policing what people believe so we can all be on the same ‘i don’t know’ page. The irrationality, in my opinion, comes when a person cannot draw the line between the stories they read in their bible and present-day reality. Believing in Noah’s Ark: not the problem. Neglecting to design a thorough evacuation plan for New Orleans because you believe the people will stand on some magical ark: problematic.

    Believing that the U.S. should not question Israel, because that will be the site of the second coming of the lord when he will save all the Jews and lift us up to Heaven: insane.

  3. Kjen / Dec 15 2008 2:46 am

    in discussions about religion, it’s often stated that religion is the cause of ALL the wars, hatred, etc. just the general screwed up things mankind has committed through out history. This reasoning is always dragged out in discussions of homosexuality and prop. 8. But I’ve thought for a long time, that religion is being used as a mask. Wheter in the name, of God, Allah, Jehovah, people would have plundered other nations, shunned certain groups. Religion is almost an afterthought.
    Their is a certain naive, innocence driving many atheist/agnostics to say that everyone should just stop, think and be reasonable (i.e. stop believing) Supposedly, once everyone takes a chill pill the world will be a better place. But I think atheist/agnostics kind of hold up this “solution” of doing away with religion for the same reason that religions say that people have to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their God. NO ONE has been able to come up with a single sure fire method to make others act/behave decently to others.
    Umm, in my experience, the stories of the Bible were taught as literal truth and the WORD is held up as ultimate truth that can help you learn all you need to about the past, present and the future if you would just read it closely enough.
    Any belief you have will dictate or at least influence your actions. So ultimately as long as humans remain free thinking autonomous creatures there will continue to do “insane” things.

  4. Alexis / Dec 26 2008 10:43 am

    As a religious person who is also a fan of/participates regularly in rational thought, his ideas on religion are extremely offensive, but definitely not the first time I’ve heard those assertions. Maybe it’s because I’m young (15), or I was raised with it, but I don’t see why people have a problem with religion.

  5. Just Sayin' / Jul 16 2009 6:33 pm

    Religion is powerful because belief is powerful. Obviously religion was behind the Christian Holocaust against the Jewish people of Europe. Equally obviously the concurrent atheist mass murders of Russians and the occupied people of the Russian empire was not less deadly for its lack of godliness. The genocidal policies in Tibet are fought with religion and instituted with official atheism.

    Belief is powerful.

    Maher’s belief that religious belief is the source of all evil is not strictly rational.

    Empowered people can be a force for good (Rev. MLK Jr, liberation theology in Central America, …) or evil.

    • the black scientist / Jul 16 2009 11:12 pm


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