Why Bill Maher’s Wrong

Love him or loathe him, there’s one thing we can all agree on about Bill Maher: he’s a jerk.

In Religulous, his documentary-cum-diatribe on the horrors of religion, his approach to his interview subjects is at best mocking, at worst contemptuous. He variously interrupts, laughs at, winces at and provokes his subjects. He edits the interviews to highlight their ignorance and intercuts their answers with clips from old movies that are more amusing than insightful. This approach would be brave if he were interviewing, say, the Pope or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it’s just mean-spirited when he’s talking with the guy who plays Jesus at a Christian amusement park or the pastor at a truckstop church. Only a handful of his subjects–such as Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Rabbi Dovid Weiss of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta International–merit such ruthless mockery.

But misguided aesthetics aside, is Maher’s message worth heeding? Um, no.

He excoriates religion for two main reasons: one, that its holy scriptures are full of ridiculous nonsense that no rational person in the 21st century should believe; and two, that it is used as a pretext for war and oppression. Let’s take point two first.

Millions of people have died in wars of religion, and they should be mourned. But most of the world’s greatest atrocities and deadliest wars have had little or nothing to do with religion: during the Holocaust, Nazi hatred of Jews was based in pseudoscience and rabid nationalism, not religion; both Stalin’s reign of terror and Mao’s Cultural Revolution were the byproducts of explicitly atheistic ideologies; World War I had nothing to do with religion; the Korean War was between co-religionists; the various wars and massacres in Rwanda and Congo have been based in tribal, not theological, disputes. Indeed, looking at the 20th century–the century of the worst wars and genocides in history–the greatest evil has been excessive nationalism, not religious fundamentalism.   

As for his contention that religions are fully of fantastical nonsense, Maher is correct. But by focusing on the impossibility of the Virgin birth and the absurdity of Joseph’s Smith claim that Native Americans were a lost tribe of Israel, Maher misses sight of what really matters about religion: its values, how people live those values and the community it creates. For most religious people, the mythology is less important than the ethics. Maher misses the forest for the acorn.

Take Yom Kippur, for example. My attitude toward the existence of God is skeptical at best, but that didn’t stop me from finding great value in Yom Kippur this year. On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), Jews are supposed to focus on forgiveness and repentance. Forgiveness of those who’ve wronged you, repentance for those you’ve wronged. On any other day of the year, if you spent hours thinking about those who’ve wronged you, you’d be accused of wallowing in self-pity. If you spent hours thinking about those you’ve wronged, you’d be told to stop beating yourself up. But on this one day, those socially unacceptable behaviors are encouraged, because everyone else who is observing Yom Kippur is doing them. By participating in the religious community of Judaism, I was given the freedom to do perform a psychologically and morally healthy self-audit that would be considered strange by secular society if performed alone. Whether or not I believe in God, Adam and Eve, or Moses is beside the point.

In the beginning of Religulous, Maher claims to be a seeker, looking for answers to the question, “Why religion?” But he’s not. He already has his answer: “Because they’re idiots.” (Which I kind of suspect is his answer to everything.) Throughout the film, he criticizes religious people for not having an open mind to the possibility that their beliefs aren’t true. If only he had taken his own advice.

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One thought on “Why Bill Maher’s Wrong

  1. I really like your take on this. I was raised in an atheist/agnostic household by a former catholic and a former protestant. I became religious (I converted to Judaism) somewhat later in life, and I often find that the people I talk to are stuck, like Mahler, trying to interact with a cartoon version of religion. Many people are hung up on the historical accuracy of religious texts, or finding “scientific” explanations of supposed miracles, or simply in mocking ancient religious texts (which do often seem silly when looked at in a modern light). This seems to me like it completely misses the point. Do you analyze a poem to determine whether or not its author accurately represented events? Of course not. Religious aren’t looking for “truth” with a lower-case “t” — a precisely accurate representation of the real world (as if such a thing is possible). Religion is looking for big-”T” Truth — truth at the level of metaphor, truth that calls us to action, truth that illuminates, truth that touches us.

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