Spiritual, But Not Religulous

“Religion must die for mankind to live.” So concludes Bill Maher in his new documentary Religulous, in which he travels the world interviewing religious zealots in an attempt to alert humanity to the apocalypse-ushering absurdities of their beliefs.

On the one hand, the film, directed by Larry Charles of Borat fame, is a super-funny and much-needed intervention for a world increasingly beholden to religious fundamentalism. The problem is that Maher purports to show that all organized religion, not just fundamentalism, is “detrimental to the progress of humanity” and he falls short.

“I get this criticism a lot,” Maher told The New York Times. “It’s a pet peeve of mine, because I’m confronted with this notion that ‘Oh yes, you only go after the extremists, and by doing that you make religion look silly.’” But, Maher counters, “Anyone who’s religious is extremist.”

While such a black-and-white view of faith may infuriate some, I’d be happy to hear Maher out. But by the time he exhorts moderate religious people to realize that their solace comes at a “terrible price,” the film’s seconds away from the credits. He’s had so much fun eviscerating easy targets like an actor portraying Jesus at a holy land theme park that he fails to prove his more interesting thesis: that moderate religious people enable the intolerance and violence perpetrated by their more fundamentalist fellow believers.

It seems Maher’s two primary goals for the film – to be funny and to actually convince people to abandon religion – are often at odds with each other. I have no doubt that sometime atheists such as myself will find Maher shriek-out-loud hilarious, but it is unlikely that his film is going to change the minds of any committed believers. (Actually, it’s probably more likely to inspire galvanizing rage in the Palin-loving portion of the electorate just weeks before the election.) For instance, Maher somehow gets an ex-gay minister to agree to an interview and the two men actually end up having an interesting conversation. Of course, Maher can’t help himself and when hugged by the “formerly” gay man asks him if he got a hard-on. I’ll admit it – I laughed. But any minds Maher might have actually managed to pry open with this exchange were probably firmly slammed shut again thanks to the boner comment.

The truth is, Maher is preaching to the choir and the choir may be rolling on the floor, but their amusement will have no affect on the majority of people in this country that firmly, unapologetically, believe in God. He is so very right that the 16 percent of Americans that are not affiliated with any organized religion need to come out of the closet and take back their fair share of the political process. Hopefully he’ll inspire some of his fellow travelers. But what Religulous won’t do is convince believers because as any evangelist knows, pissing people off does not generally lead to conversion.

But Maher has also said the film’s goal is to start a conversation and, in this regard, he seems to have succeeded. It’s high time someone vocally challenged an America in which, as Maher has pointed out, once “you say the word ‘faith,’ the debate is over—no matter what incredibly nonsensical, destructive, ridiculous tenet comes out of your mouth.” People of faith should be held accountable for their beliefs, especially when they insert these beliefs into public life. Beliefnet.com – which Maher has parodied with his Disbeliefnet.com – wisely doesn’t dismiss Religulous (actually it’s crawling with ads for the film) but instead implores its readers to “prove Maher wrong” on its discussion boards by explaining “how faith, or your spiritual practices, has made you a better person or your world a better place.” If Maher can’t succeed in converting extremists to agnosticism, perhaps his film can at least bring moderate religious voices more prominently into the discussion.

Interestingly, many of these more moderate voices are offering up the “spiritual, but not religious” stance as a rebuttal to Maher. As Heretic_for_Christ puts it: “Of course religion is bad. God is real to me as a spiritual presence in my life, but religion is a man-made construct based on the preposterous notion that a set of ancient writings – akin to a printout of Beliefnet postings – is the holy and infallible word of God.”

For the record, Maher says he has “no problem with spirituality.” What I think he fails to understand is that many people who belong to organized religious groups actually view themselves as spiritual rather than religious, probably because they associate religion with the same kind of bigotry and violence that Maher does. Actually 40% of Americans use this phrase to describe themselves, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. Meaning, perhaps, that they don’t take the stories of their particular faith literally and don’t just subscribe to whatever nonsense is coming from the pulpit. There’s a difference between official doctrine and how the majority of people live their faith on a day-to-day basis. And Maher paves over this difference. Sure, a small proportion of Christians, Muslims, and Jews take their holy texts as literal word-for-word instructions and thus find it hard to coexist with others. But as the Onion A.V. Club’s Noel Murray so wisely points out, Maher isn’t “quite fearless enough to interview or lay into the multitudes of moderately devout folks who use their religion as a cultural signifier and a way to make a difference in their communities.”

I have a sense that Maher is aware of this but he knows that a film parsing out the differences between various groups of believers would not be as provocative or as funny as a sweeping condemnation of all of them. (Well, Western ones at least. There’s no mention of Eastern religious traditions in the film). Obviously, a sober PBS-style treatment of the subject would not inspire the kind of widespread discussion of the role of faith in Western culture and politics that “Religuous” will. So, yeah, the film is perhaps unfair in lumping moderate religious folks with extremists (though if Maher wants to make a sequel proving the validity of this claim, I’ll watch). But by doing so, he provokes the majority of Americans to think critically about what they believe and how it impacts our world. The best thing that Religulous could do is inspire more moderate religious folks to assert their claim on the word religious, wresting it free from the stranglehold of misguided extremists.

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Related story: Why Bill Maher Gets a “C” in My Introduction to Religion Class…

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