Monday, March 9, 2009

The Disappointment of Religulous

I Netflixed and watched Bill Maher's Religuous over the weekend--well, watched much of it anyway.

What I anticipated was a snarky skewering of religious ignorance and hypocrisy. What I got was ignorant, shallow, ham-fisted, third-rate insult "comedy".

To me, the intellectual depth of mainstream American conservative evangelicalism can be aptly characterized as "kindergarten-Sunday-school-Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know-for-the-Bible-tells-me-so". Evangelicals don't want to wrestle with any questions, confront any doubts, or go anywhere beyond the shallow depths of Christianity--and always wear water wings.

An incisive, respectful skewering of this shallowness might get some people thinking, and might get some to dig below the surface, deal with some real questions about their faith, and might even enrich their lives by going through such a self-examination.

Just don't count on Religulous inspiring any such introspection.

Two segments in the movie pretty much sum up my annoyance and disappointment with Maher.

In one he's interviewing Francis Collins, the highly respected geneticist who headed up the Human Genome Project, and who is also an evangelical Christian. Maher is questioning him not about evangelical hot-button issues like evolution, or faith vs science, but whether an individual named Jesus ever actually existed in history. He lists some criticisms that undermine the claim that Jesus was a historical person, and then asks Dr. Collins whether, given these criticisms he's just leveled, his belief in the physical, historical existence of Jesus rises above his threshold for scientific truth.

I was a little disappointed in Collins' response, because what he should have said was, "Bill, what an ignorant question, didn't you do any preparation for this interview? Scientific research is performed using the scientific method--observe, hypothesize, experiment, refine theory, repeat--which is wholly inappropriate to the ascertainment of historical events. For historical research you use historical methods, whether you're researching the existence of Jesus, Socrates, King Arthur, William the Conquerer, the Trojan War or the Battle of Hastings. Asking for scientific proof that Jesus lived two thousand years ago is akin to my asking you for scientific proof that you're not a tool."

The second segment was Maher's interview with Vatican astronomer Father George V. Coyne. Father Coyne is well-versed in science and the scientific method, is grounded in the reality that science has illuminated for us, and knows full well--far better than your average evangelical or attack interviewer--when and where to apply the tenets of science and the tenets of faith. He even explicitly describes, and Religulous illustrates with a helpful graphic, that the Bible was written between approximately 2000 BC and 200 AD, while the practice of modern science began in the 1600s. Therefore there is no science in the Bible. Well, this just draws Bill up completely short, he appears to have no idea on how to heap scorn on a religious believer that understands the proper roles of science and faith, and therefore finds them a solid and compatible foundation on which to live, work, and believe.

Gary Thompson's review of Religulous captures my sentiment about this segment, and the disappointment with the movie, really well:
"There is a briefly provocative exchange with a Vatican astronomer, the closest 'Religulous' comes to a fair fight. It's an inconclusive draw, and leaves the viewer wondering how much more interesting the movie might have been had Maher picked on more people his own intellectual size."
That's my problem with this movie, Maher just constantly goes for the cheap shot, the easy snicker, the splicing in a brief shot of campy footage from somewhere to illustrate some Beavis &Butthead grade "irony".

I was very disappointed at the shallowness and ignorance of this movie, the only difference between it and a similar movie made by some college age jerkwad is that Maher had a bigger budget and is far snarkier and quick on the take than almost anyone else.

When Maher goes after the hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness of politics and politicians I'm fine with this approach, they're all down in the mud then. But if you're going to purport to show the ridiculousness of religion, at least take on the varsity squad.


Joshua said...

I had earlier seen the movie and came away somewhat disappointed. My own major disappointment was Maher's repetition of various claimed similarities of Jesus to Mithra and Horus which are either wrong or misleading but are commonly repeated in atheistic circles.

However, I disagree with your characterization of the Collins and Coyne sections. Indeed, the fact that Maher included those segments speaks to his intellectual honesty. The basic point of Maher's movie, that there a lot of ridiculous beliefs out there and that many of them are actively harmful, isn't something than can be removed by discussion with intellectuals. In that regard, Maher's interaction with Coyne and Collins is extremely positive; it shows that he is willing to acknowledge at some level that intelligent religious individuals exist.

Marc said...

@Joshua: I take your point about the film's willingness to include intelligent religious individuals, to its credit. Those segments, though, were brief, and I cynically suspect that was because it was becoming readily apparent that Maher wasn't going to be able to make these individuals look ignorant and close minded.

It's the "iron sharpens iron" (Prov 27:17) thing--I'd like to see that kind of debate and give-and-take, but in Religulous just as soon as it starts to get interesting Maher, seemingly unprepared to deal with an intelligent opponent, bails.