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A Problem Of Persuasion

Like the recent series of bestselling books by authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous takes ferocious aim at religion in all of its forms. And to his credit, Maher hilariously exposes astonishing levels of ignorance and parochialism among the earnestly pious Americans he encounters in his travels around the country. (Maher’s brief visits to other parts of the world are less amusing because the believers he interviews in Europe and the Middle East aren’t as boorish.) The film reaches its comic peak when Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas defends his belief in a literal reading of the biblical creation story by pronouncing, "You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate." With that unintentional self-indictment--and the dumbstruck silence with which Maher greets it--Religulous achieves the rare feat of blending stiletto-sharp cultural criticism with farce.

Yet Maher has loftier ambitions than laughs. He wants to save the world from the idiocy he unearths in the American heartland, and he believes the best way to fulfill this aim is to mercilessly attack religion and all those who adhere to it. And that’s why the film, like so much written by critics of religion in recent years, must ultimately be judged a failure.

Maher and director Larry Charles are highly adept at ridiculing their fellow citizens. Anyone who has seen Charles’ last film (Borat) is familiar with his directorial style: put ordinary Americans on camera, ask them a few questions about their beliefs, and then stand back as they reveal their vapidity. The technique is simple, but the psychological response it provokes in viewers is anything but. We laugh as we shake our heads in disgust, squirming with a mixture of pity and repugnance for the pious fools on screen. But we also enjoy a rush of pride for getting the joke, since every laugh confirms that we in the audience are smarter and more sophisticated than the ignoramuses ignorantly and ineptly defending their convictions. Maher is our surrogate here, posing the questions, smirking at the idiocy of the responses, and sometimes explicitly ridiculing the interviewee to his face. And not only to his face. Maher and Charles have been kind enough to include some of their banter as they travel from one interview to another, cracking a few extra jokes at the expense of the last inarticulate boob.

And that is what makes Religulous a perfect complement to the recent books by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. Like these authors, Maher harbors so much contempt for religion that he would rather score easy points than explore the messy reality of humanity’s complicated--often sordid, but sometimes noble--religious impulses and experiences. That’s why Maher takes on simpletons and extremists instead of seeking out theologians and other thoughtful believers to explain and defend their beliefs. That’s also why moderate believers simply don’t exist in Maher’s America, which aside from the 16 percent of the country* that explicitly rejects institutional religion, seems to be populated only by fundamentalists awaiting (and perhaps even itching to hasten) the apocalypse. How else to explain the absurdly paranoid peroration with which he concludes the film? Over ominous music and images of mushroom clouds, Maher informs us that religious belief is a “neurological disorder” that must be eradicated for the sake of human survival. "Grow up or die," he warns, as if those were our only options.

Not only is this approach to religion intellectually fraudulent and morally sloppy--equating as it does scientifically literate believers with God-intoxicated scriptural literalists--but it is also asinine as a practical strategy. In the early 18th century, with the Enlightenment just getting underway, it might have been sensible to dream that religion would eventually wither away, its roots strangled by the spread of scientific education, economic dynamism, and social pluralism. But hundreds of years later, with religion still thriving around the globe, such hopes seem rather quaint.

Instead of hurling insults and indiscriminate denunciations at religion-in-general, Maher and his fellow atheists could do far more good by encouraging the growth and flourishing of open-minded belief--the kind of belief that lives in productive tension with modern science and cultural pluralism. In doing so, they would be following the example of Thomas Jefferson and several of the American constitutional framers, who advocated a liberal, skeptical form of piety as the kind of religion best suited to a free society.

How likely is it that the "new atheists" will moderate their anti-religious ire, abandon their futile hopes for a godless world, and begin contributing in a more positive way to the project of improving the religion we have? If Religulous is any indication, not very likely at all, since it would require a fundamental change in moral and intellectual outlook. Maher and his allies would have to abandon their haughty condescension in favor of generosity of spirit. They would have to commit themselves to persuasion and restrain the urge to entertain. But most of all, they would have to concede that what America needs now is not faithlessness. It is intelligent faith.

*Maher fails to note that the 16 percent statistic he cites also includes institutionally unaffiliated theists of various stripes. The actual number of self-described atheists and agnostics in the United States is in fact much smaller--roughly 4 percent of the population.