I saw Bill Maher's documentary, Religulous, and while I was amused, I wasn't enlightened. It's easy to make fun of a lot of religious beliefs (Maher seemed to have a particular thing for the talking snake of Genesis), but there wasn't a lot of information in the film that I hadn't heard before.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the film was the comparison of the stories in the Christian Bible with its Egyptian, Hindu and other precursors (apparently virgin births and martyred prophets who return from the dead were thick on the ground in the pre-Christian era).
As to the rest, it could be summed up thus: religion isn’t just ridiculous, it’s bad, and unless humans get over our religious infatuations, we’re going to exterminate ourselves. Religulous is a refreshing debate opener in a time when obligatory deference to religious sensibilities is the rule, but it’s too simplistic and, finally, too focused on getting a laugh from the other bad boys in the back of the classroom.
Of course Maher comes from standup comedy (it shows), and humor is a very effective way of undercutting the solemn power of established religion. It’s also, pardon the pun, preaching to the choir. There are two things strikingly wrong about the film: it doesn’t take seriously the sense of connectedness and empathy that the mystical experience can confer upon practitioners; and it treats religion as a monolithic entity.
Absent from the film are discussions of Zen Buddhism, Yoga in the Hindu tradition (as opposed to Americanized version popular among the entitled class), and other contemplative disciplines that seek to unite practitioners with the transcendent. The very human desire to reconnect with the sense of peace and wholeness one gets from, say, watching the sun rise over the ocean, strikes me as not only sympathetic, but admirable.
Religion isn’t all one thing. It offers the mystical experience; a bonding experience with one’s neighbors, tribe and country; solace against the pain of loss and the fear of death; a way of establishing and enforcing social norms so that large numbers of people can peacefully coexist within their communities; and a place to find meaning in life, among many things. It is also, and I think primarily, a byproduct of large, complicated brains.
The most interesting question that Maher never asks is, “What is it about the architecture of the human brain that predisposes people to religious belief?” (He does sideswipe the question in a too-brief and rather shallow segment with neuroscientist Andrew Newberg in Grand Central Station.) That may be the metaquestion that eventually unlocks the stranglehold that punitive, rule-bound religions have on humans across the globe. But it’s hard to play complex scientific data for laughs, so what we’re left with are intellectual spitballs from the back of the class.
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