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Religulous: Uncut Reflections

If you consider a wide sampling of the reactions to Bill Maher’s and Larry Charles’ Religulous, two distinct themes emerge. On the one hand, reviewers consistently note that the filmmakers were deliberately manipulative in their survey of religion: in whom they chose to interview and feature, in asking baited questions, and finally, in their merciless splicing and dicing in the editing room. And so, not surprisingly, religious people come off as goofy, gullible, and worse. On the other hand, a number of reviewers note what they take to be an earnest search by Maher to understand people of faith. As Maher puts it himself at the outset, his quest is to understand how otherwise intelligent and rational people can continue to believe in fantasies like talking snakes and a virgin birth. It’s a worthwhile question, and there are moments in the film when Maher displays some genuine curiosity about it. Nonetheless, these two observations about Religulous are incompatible. And regrettably, by the end, it is clear that Maher and Charles set out not on a quest for understanding, but rather to proof-text their presumptions. Religulous is funny enough, and at times thought provoking. On the whole, however, Religulous is a “mockumentary”. A hit-piece. It is a quest that begins with a predetermined destination in mind and manages to arrive there by scrupulously avoiding any detours that might have derailed the script.

On the Corner with Doubt

Maher tells us: “My big thing is, I don’t know. My product is doubt. I’m on the corner with doubt.” It’s a nice phrase. If you poke around this site, you’ll discover that doubt, uncertainty, and intellectual humility are honored here. Uncertainty is an appropriate epistemic disposition considering the limits of our human faculties, and doubt serves us well as an impetus for questioning and testing our beliefs. So, based on that pitch, I’d be buying. But is Maher really pitching an all purpose cleaner, effective at removing the stains of certainty from any surface at all? Or is this a spot cleaner, good only for the stains of religious certitude? Even based only on the film’s cleverly sardonic promotional posters, one might suspect that Maher’s doubt is not distributed wholesale. And, it’s not long into Religulous before he is uttering exasperatedly, time and again, “Come Aaaon!”, quite certain that the religious beliefs espoused by his interviewees are hopelessly ridiculous. By the time Maher closes with his hard sell, casting believers as our “intellectual slaveholders”, one can be certain that Maher is not at all doubtful that religious beliefs are on a par with snake oil. The doubtful, affable guise Maher adopts briefly is in the end, hard to buy. It turns out that what Maher is pitching is not skepticism as a process, as a cautious and circumspect way of approaching important questions, but rather as a brand label for a particular set of beliefs that precludes any possibility of the supernatural.

Often, the problem with skeptics is that they’re not sufficiently skeptical of their own skepticism. As Tim Keller notes, “All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.” Maher’s incomprehension and exasperation toward the religious beliefs of others is the result of taking his own beliefs as obvious and undeniable truths. The answer to Maher’s question — How can otherwise intelligent people believe in a virgin birth? — is that they have a different set of presuppositions, a different worldview. As it turns out, there is a vigorous debate amongst philosophers and other thinkers about whether naturalism or theism is more consonant with the totality of evidence. However you come out on that question, it will determine what you think is and is not plausible otherwise.

For example, Maher is baffled that anyone could believe in a miracle, but miracles are not so obviously ridiculous as they seem to Maher unless you have already concluded — for good reasons or bad — that no God whatsoever created and sustains the physical universe. When one Christian says, “I don’t believe in Santa Claus”, Maher chides: “Of course not. That’s one man, flying all around the world and dropping presents down chimneys. But one man hearing everybody murmur to him at the same time, that I get.” It’s a funny moment, but telling as well. Maher apparently judges these claims to be equivalent. But none of the philosophical, historical, or scientific arguments that lead some to believe in God are akin to the reasons for childhood beliefs in Santa or unicorns. And, if we do have reason to believe that there is a God who created ex nihilo a universe as incomprehensibly vast and complex as ours, we might also think a God of that magnitude could in fact attend to our thoughts. Maher’s off-hand argument from analogy does not withstand scrutiny. His bemused smirk is something short of an argument. One can wonder how such a skeptical mind could be so easily self-satisfied with the feeblest of retorts. Perhaps it is because of his own self-evident and unexamined presuppositions that Maher so often offers punch lines as though they are arguments, all of the necessary premises unstated, taken for granted.

If Maher looked, he would find Christian thinkers who, while rejecting radical Pyrrhic or Cartesian skepticism, acknowledge our shaky epistemic footing as humans and yet seek as extensive an understanding of the world as possible, defeasible though it may be. Religulous sums up what it takes to be the Christian view in a short snippet of Kirk Cameron saying: “Learn to go around people’s intellect, to circumnavigate it.” There is no hint of another way. Consider by contrast the words of Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland:

Humility and the associated traits of open-mindedness, self-criticality, and nondefensiveness [are] virtues relevant to the intellectual life. We must be willing to seek the truth in a spirit of humility with an admission of our own finitude; we must be willing to learn from our critics; and we need to learn to argue against our own positions in order to strengthen our understanding of them… The purpose of intellectual humility, open-mindedness, and so forth is not to create a skeptical mind that never lands on a position about anything, preferring to remain suspended in midair. Rather, the purpose is for you to do anything you can to remove your unhelpful biases and get at the truth in a reasoned way. (Love God With All Your Mind, p.109)

This is good advice for us all. It’s unfortunate that Maher steers clear of more thoughtful religious people, because there is here an opportunity for common cause. In a recent interview with atheist philosopher Bradley Monton, Casey Luskin confesses that in many ways he feels more kinship with an atheist like Monton who inquires deeply into the big questions than he does with his Christian brethren who do not [8:35 min. mark]. The battle between rationality and irrationality in everyday life is not a battle between religion and secularism. There are cultural forces at play in both realms for and against a thoughtful life. In our postmodern age, when so many are cynical about the possibility of knowledge, in Christians Maher would find a community of people who still value the quest for truth, that it is worth seeking and upholding. The doubt Maher thinks he is selling is predicated on the assumption that one could be wrong, that there is a truth that one may not have grasped. And Christians too, perhaps most of all, consider themselves to be subservient to a reality that is outside of themselves.

As atheist Julian Baggini has lamented:

For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers, and isolate extremists. But if we demonise all religion, such coalitions of the reasonable are not possible. Instead, we are likely to see moderate religious believers join ranks with fundamentalists, the enemies of their enemy, to resist what they see as an attempt to wipe out all forms of religious belief. (“The New Atheist Movement is Destructive” at Fritanke.no, Mar. 19, 2009)

Secular and religious thinkers all can commend together intellectual humility, reason, open-mindedness, and dialogue in the interest of the truth; that is, we can find common cause if it is a quest, if “skepticism” is not merely a guise for naturalism as the foregone conclusion to which we must all submit at the start.

And this is the problem. Maher’s supposed doubt does not go both ways. While Monton acknowledges that though he is an atheist, he is not certain about his atheism, Maher is all too certain that the totems of twenty-first century scientific materialism are beyond question. C. S. Lewis made a similar observation about a pair of skeptics in his time, that in fact they “will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes”, that, “their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough.” (“The Way” in The Abolition of Man, 1943.) Maher, likewise, commends “doubt” to religious people and gives a pass to himself and his fellow “rationalists”. Luskin asks Monton: “What do you think happens when a person tries to pretend that there is no reason or room for any doubt or self-introspection in their worldview?” Monton replies:

I think that leads to dogmatism, in part, and this sort of emotional reaction to the people who are on the other side. Because, if you think that the other side has nothing going for it, you’re going to dismiss them and react badly to them… Unfortunately what I’ve been encountering lately are more atheists who seem to be completely, incredibly dogmatic about their view, and then, at least in my personal experience, I’m encountering Christians who are more sympathetic.

Maher, regrettably, resembles Monton’s observation. The difference between Maher and Monton, I suspect, is that Monton is regularly brushing shoulders with Christian philosophers of the  highest intellectual caliber, philosophers who acknowledge uncertainty about their own worldviews. For example, he cites William Lane Craig, a leading Christian apologist, who nonetheless acknowledges that “atheism is not an implausible worldview”. Let us hope that it is the likes of Monton and Baggini, who do exemplify mutual respect and intellectual humility, that show us the way forward.

The Cultural Landscape

Humanity, both civilized and not, is an embarrassment of riches if you want to document kitsch, charlatans, superstition and ignorance. Western culture and the Christian subculture are not exceptions. From tabloids to TBN; Leno’s Jaywalkers to the Jerry Springer Show; get-rich-quick-schemes, cure-alls, and televangelists; The Secret and Your Best Life Now; astrologers and faith healers; Vegas to Branson; Paris Hilton’s “My New BFF” to “Hot or Not”; Jedi bobble heads and Baby Jesus decorator plates… our culture is awash in vanity, inanity, and silliness. In particular, sociologists have well documented the decline of education and cultural literacy in our times, though it’s not clear to me that it hasn’t always been like this. But that isn’t the whole story. People both religious and not are a variegated lot. While Leno’s Jaywalkers can never seem to remember who George Washington was, David McCullough’s 1776 was a bestseller, and I’m always amazed at Jeopardy and Cash Cab contestants’ preternatural facility with factoids.

Religulous shines a light only on religious people who are unable to persuasively answer its often facile questions. But the truth is, very few of us are capable of justifying many of the beliefs we hold. We believe them because people we trust believe them. We take things like black holes, dark matter, and the theory of relativity for granted because smart people believe in them, but we’d be hard pressed to justify these beliefs, or even to articulate them. After asking “Jesus” at the Holy Land Experience to explain the Trinity, if Maher had turned to his cameraman and asked him to explain how light can have properties of both a wave and a particle, I suspect the answer would have been equally inept. Indeed, even to “the experts”, the latter is no less mysterious than the former. I think it’s talk show host Larry Elder who often invokes the “Elvis Principle”, the fact that apparently 10% of Americans believe that Elvis still lives. Further examples could be enumerated ad nauseum. So let’s be fair, ignorance and superstition are not the special provinces of religion. And the irrationality and ignorace of some believers, whether in black holes or a virgin birth, does not in itself discredit the rational standing of those beliefs. David Bentley Hart makes note of the parallel situation against this cultural backdrop:

For one thing, it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike. In part, of course, this is because the modern media encourage only fragmentary, sloganeering, and emotive debates, but it is also because centuries of the incremental secularization of society have left us with a shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes. (“Believe It Or Not” at First Things, May 2010)

Charles’ and Maher’s strobe lighting, which flickers only on the credulous and ignorant, may be just the thing for an irreligionist rave, but it fails to illuminate a true, that is a complete, picture of Christian faith.

Instead of returning once again to the standard stock footage of well-heeled televangelists, pentecostal theatrics, and disgraced Christian leaders, a more pertinent survey of Christian faith in 2008 might have included a class discussion of Machiavelli and Aquinas at the Torrey Honors Institute, a debate between believers and skeptics hosted by the Veritas Forum, an interview with Christian and atheist philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley as they worked together on Knowledge of God. Wouldn’t it have been fair after interviewing a pastor in a thousand dollar suit to also represent the tens of thousands of Christian humanitarians who are working to address the plight of the poor in every corner of the globe for meager pay? Can’t we agree that straw men are still no basis for an argument, that no group should be reduced to the lowest common denominator?

Maher doesn’t reflect on the state of education and literacy as a broad cultural phenomenon, nor on its causes, though it would have provided a helpful backdrop to a culture that seems willing to believe in anything. There is, as always, debate about causes. One theory is that this credulity is the outgrowth of postmodern ideas in the popular consciousness. If truth is unknowable, the search for truth, for the fact of the matter, is a waste of time. Whatever the cause, anti-intellectualism is not the necessary outgrowth of Christian ideals. Many of the great universities of the West were founded out of Christian mission, believing Jesus that, “You will learn the truth and the truth will set you free.” That is not to say that all Christians have been open to following reason and evidence wherever they may lead. The history is mixed. And in the last century, as naturalism became the ascendent ideology in the academy, many Christians stuck their heads in the sand and resorted to “blind faith”. That, thankfully, is changing. But one cannot think that Christianity and learning are intrinsically at odds. A little history precludes such a notion.

Maher is right. Many Christians, among others, are anything but paragons of intellectual rigor and responsibility. In this respect, he joins a chorus of Christian thinkers who observe and lament this same phenomenon both inside and outside the church, many of whom are working tirelessly to restore a high regard for learning and the intellect.

Boxing with Lightweights

The most obvious objection to Maher’s approach in Religulous is his selection of religious representatives. Maher consults working men at a truckers’ chapel on theology, an actor at the Holy Land Experience on miracles and antinomies, and a shopkeeper and politician on evolution. Now, I have nothing at all against truckers, actors, and entrepreneurs, but couldn’t Maher have mustered the courage to sit down with a few experts in these fields, with intellectuals to whom Christians themselves look for rational guidance.

To this objection, Maher has pointed to his interview with Francis Collins, an eminent scientist and former director of the Human Genome Project. As Collins tells it, he and Maher spoke at length about the implications of Darwinism to theism, an issue he has given great reflection. None of that made it into the film. Instead, the viewer is treated to an exchange about the Resurrection. Collins makes the claim that we have eyewitness accounts. Maher responds emphatically that we do not, and has called Collins “foolish” for saying so. On camera, Collins hedges his bets and concedes the point, probably reticent to make a strong claim on the record outside of his area of expertise. But it’s really Maher who is showing his stripes here. For one, there’s no nuance, no tinge of uncertainty in his claim. Secondly, Collins’ claim is perfectly defensible. Now, it’s true that biblical scholarship is a contentious field because of the nature of historical sciences and, perhaps more so, because of what is at stake. Maher could cite scholars who share his view that we have no record of eyewitness accounts. But there are a host of scholars from various viewpoints who argue after a meticulous appraisal of the evidence at our disposal that we do have good reason to think we have such accounts. The point is, had Maher sat down with Craig Blomberg, N.T. Wright, or any number of experts in the field, he would have had to engage an argument about the facts of the case and couldn’t have gotten away with such an absolute and unqualified claim.

In his Salon.com interview, Maher says:

This is the idea that people have in their heads, that somehow you can have a person who sounds very rational and can hold his own in a conversation about whether religion is silly or not. And I just disagree with that premise.

In Religulous, he makes a particularly naive statement along these same lines. “I’ve never heard that there is any evidence.” I don’t know if Maher is unaware or just dismissive of the many Christian thinkers who patiently argue from reason, evidence, and experience that Christian theism is a rational worldview. It would have taken no more than a Google search to find them, and many are represented here for your consideration. Perhaps Maher’s naturalism is so entrenched, so thoroughgoing, that any argument that ends in the possibility of miracles is “silly” by definition. Whatever the case, Maher’s failure to engage Christian intellectuals whose life work has been the conciliation of faith and reason belies his stated goal. We can only wonder if Maher could be so cavalier in rejecting the possibility of reasonable faith were he to engage a Christian apologist like William Lane Craig without control of the microphone or the final cut.

God and Country

Maher takes nationalism and Christianity to be incompatible. “I hear Christians say you have to take care of your own first. I can’t imagine Jesus saying that, even on a bad day.” I agree. The conflating of religiosity and patriotism is common and worrisome. Leo Tolstoy’s rendering of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:43-47 is apropos:

In the former law it was said: “Do good to men of your own nation, and do evil to strangers.” But I tell you, love not only your own countrymen, but people of other nations. Let strangers hate you, let them fall upon you, wrong you; but you speak well of them, and do them good. If you are only attached to your countrymen, why, all men are thus attached to their own countrymen, and hence wars arise. Behave equally towards men of all nations, and you will be sons of the Father. (The Kindgom of God is Within You, chp. 1)

The example and exhortations of Jesus that we live not for ourselves but for others is fundamentally at odds with thinking “me and mine, above all others”. Here Maher notes a discrepancy between Jesus himself and many who claim him. The distinction is appreciated, as when he thanks those intrepid truckers for being Christ-like, not just Christians. It is in scenes like these that Christians should not miss the teachable moment, moments to be admonished by a critic who sees well where Christians themselves fall short of their own first principles. Where Christianity has been syncretized with jingoism, there is due cause for self-examination. And as members of the most diverse and global affiliation in the world, Christians are uniquely positioned to understand that our humanity is more fundamental than our nationality.

Religulous isn’t always so acute. Later, the viewer is treated to the now famous footage of President George W. Bush saying that he believes that God wants all people to be free and that this belief influences his foreign policy. The audience at my viewing responded with laughs and some horrified gasps. The footage is shown without commentary, so it’s fair to assume that the filmmakers thought this statement so absurd that it would incite exactly the reaction it did. But since when did it become unacceptable for a politician to be guided by the conviction that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”? It would have been funnier, and a lot more thought provoking, to have played the footage, paused for the laughs and sneers to subside, and then to have recited these opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. It is certainly an exceedingly difficult task to know when and how to promote human rights across the globe, but is this worthwhile goal disqualified if it comes from religious conviction?

Many fear that if only Christians could have their way they would institute a theocracy modeled on Mosaic law with its stringent laws and severe punishments. Religulous stokes that paranoia, so, allow me to dispel some fears. I don’t know of any Christian leader of influence who advocates anything of the sort. There are, to be sure, Christians who have nostalgic notions of a “Christian nation”. They’re out there in no small number. But, what the overwhelming majority of Christians want in our pluralistic society is the freedom, like everyone else, to bring their values and ideas into the public square and make the case on their behalf, in the spirit of William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr.. For example, the Evangelical Manifesto puts it thusly:

On one side, we repudiate the partisans of a sacred public square, those who would continue to give one religion a preferred place in public life. In a diverse society, it will always be unjust and unworkable to privilege one religion. We are committed to religious liberty for people of all faiths. We are firmly opposed to theocracy. And we have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose beliefs and behavior on anyone. We believe in persuasion.

On the other side, we repudiate the partisans of a naked public square, those who would make all religious expression inviolably private and keep the public square inviolably secular. This position is even less just and workable because it excludes the overwhelming majority of citizens, who are still profoundly religious. Nothing is more illiberal than to invite people into the public square but insist that they be stripped of the faith that makes them who they are.

Our societies in the West are, for practical purposes, democratic republics. To the extent that anyone can persuade a majority of the citizenry to share their point of view and vote accordingly, those values may be instituted in law. All should have a voice, every vote should count, without prejudice for creed, religious or not.

Who is Fear Mongering Now?

One of Maher’s recurring complaints about religion is the threat of Hell. In a twist of unintentional irony, Religulous ends with what Richard Carrier calls a “final thought”, a hellish montage featuring hysterical mobs and nuclear explosions while Maher preaches in dark tones. His apocalyptic vision gives even the most horrific paintings of the medieval imagination a run for their money. And this is our fate, we are told, if religious people have their way. Casting any pretense of doubt or uncertainty to the side, Maher intones:

The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people, by irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass but by the equivalent or reading the entrails of a chicken… Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are our intellectual slave holders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing Lord, I’ll do whatever you want me to.” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas… And anyone who tells you they know, they just know, what happens when you die. I promise you, you don’t. How can I be so sure? Because I don’t know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble and that’s what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong… This is why rational people, “anti-religionists”, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only “moderately religious”, really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price… If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife, with the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end, here or wherever, or if it limps into the future decimated by the effects of a religion inspired nuclear terrorism, let’s remember what the real problem was: that we learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That’s it. Grow up or die. [Transcript of 1:32:55 to 1:37:11. Interspliced footage, represented by ellipses, is excluded.]

This is a diatribe if ever there was one, and it begs to be deconstructed. First of all, Maher again invokes the wisdom to doubt in one breath, and in another delivers a string of absolute claims and unqualified indictments. The lack of self-awareness is stunning. “Doubt is humble.” Yes! But there is no humility here. I wish mightily that Maher were in fact a voice for circumspection, for self-doubt. We need such voices. Rather we have yet another partisan convinced that those on the other side are fools and idiots, psychotic and wicked to boot.

Furthermore, this notion that conflict, that war, is a religious problem rather than a fundamentally human problem is hard to sustain. If only it were that easy. Because humans throughout history have been so irredeemably religious, religion has played some role in most human conflict. A small subset of wars have been waged for distinctly religious motives. And today, with the rise of Islamic extremism, it is clear that religious ideology can be a source of enmity and conflict. Critics have been quick to indict all religion in turn, guilty by association. The Crusades and the “troubles” in Northern Ireland are cited to seal the deal, without much in the way of analysis of the complex causes in those cases. But school children in the 70s weren’t rehearsing nuclear fall-out drills, hiding under their desks because of the theological commitments of Communist Russia. From Ghengis Khan and Alexander the Great to European colonialism and the Great Wars of the twentieth century, the more common engines of war are all too familiar: grievances, power and plunder. There’s no reason to think that the deeply human impulse to pursue one’s own interests above all others’ would magically subside if only we could rid ourselves of that troublesome religion. And rationality, as great as it is, cannot transform the fundamental passions of the human heart. As they say, in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, the trains always ran on time.

As for the Apocalypse, I can’t say that I understand the religious fascination with the “end times” any better than Maher, though the History Channel’s Mega Disasters and a raft of dystopian fiction and doomsday nonfiction suggest that the appeal is broad. It has always puzzled me, and I certainly have no desire to hasten the end of life as we know it. On the other hand, I do confess an occasional longing for restoration. At times, when the woe and tragedy of this life seem especially overwhelming, I long for things to be set right. If “judgment day” is understood in this way, as a just and good God setting right what humanity has set askew, perhaps that would be a good day. There is so much wondrous beauty and goodness in this world of ours, and yet it is defiled and overshadowed by human corruption at every turn. Indeed, the world is “not the way it’s supposed to be”. If in a hundred, in a thousand, in ten thousand years we are still clawing at each other’s necks, at what point do we utter a collective human sigh: “God, if you are there, save us from ourselves”?

What was the Question Again?

I don’t recall Maher proposing an answer to his question: How can otherwise intelligent people believe in the miraculous? If Religulous were our only data, one would have to conclude that such people aren’t really that bright after all. I’ve ventured my own answer, that our initial conclusions about the fundamental nature of the universe orient our intellectual lives one way or the other. If I am right, equally rational thinkers will arrive at different conclusions based on different sets of first premises. I wonder if such an answer would pacify Maher somewhat. Remembering his own change of perspective, John C. Wright recounts:

My wife is a Christian and is extraordinarily patient, logical, and philosophical. For years I would challenge and condemn her beliefs, battering the structure of her conclusions with every argument, analogy, and evidence I could bring to bear. I am a very argumentative man, and I am as fell and subtle as a serpent in debate. All my arts failed against her. At last I was forced to conclude that, like non-Euclidian geometry, her world-view logically followed from its axioms (although the axioms were radically mystical, and I rejected them with contempt). … I saw that I was confronting a mature and serious world-view, not merely a tissue of fables and superstitions.

In view of all that follows from our most basic beliefs, fundamental questions are all important. If the endurance of these questions throughout human history is any indication, it seems likely that we will be unable to settle these matters decisively in this life. The urgent question, then, is how to live at peace with one another for the time being. Allowing as much space as possible for freedom of conscience is essential. To preserve that space in the public square, civility is also vital. Maher’s contribution to our discourse about fundamental questions, unfortunately, pollutes the public square with fear and anger, just as so many religious voices do. As a result, the questions themselves are clouded by suspicion and animosity. We are left with another kind of war, a culture war, rather than civil discourse about timeless and urgent questions. As Maher says in his publicity statement for the film: “Join me in the final battle between intelligence and stupidity that will decide the future of humanity.”

I need to say, in the course of researching this film autopsy, I read and watched a lot more of Bill Maher than I had since his days on Politically Incorrect (no HBO for me, so thanks YouTube). He is funnier and more penetrating than I remembered. Sometimes, I couldn’t agree more. I still enjoy the sparring between his eclectic guests on Real Time, though I think it seldom constructive, shrill as it is. Unfortunately, Maher is so strident, so extremely hostile in his view of religious people that he cannot engage the discussion objectively or fairly. It’s why he can create a film that inserts ad hominem in the place of arguments, stereotypes in the place of distinctions, and fear mongering in the place of peacemaking; and then proceed unselfconsciously to commend to us his “enlightened” view. Maher condemns all the sectarian squabbling and violence for which religious differences are responsible, and then declares war himself on the majority of the population that does not share his naturalistic ideology. Bill, this is not the way forward. I say this as one who would gladly join you in battle if it were for a more literate and civil society.