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

I’ve just watched Bill Maher’s cheap-thrills-but-funny-and-semi-provocative Religulous and find myself fantasizing about having “Bill” in my Introduction to Religious Studies course, right next to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and other sort-of-atheists. (I’m talking the nerdy academic’s version of “fantasy football” here.) And I give them the assignment I always give to my eighteen-year-old students: come up with your own definition of religion, see if you can put it in a sentence, and then give some paragraphs of support to back it up. The assignment has no singular answer, of course; I’m looking for their ability to think coherently and offer support for their ideas. This is something at which Maher and cohorts would mostly succeed. But I’m also looking for my students to do a little reflection on their own assumptions about what religion is and does, to do a little research, and to think about the variety of ways religion has been described, defined, defended, and derided through the ages. Here begins the downturn of their GPA.

On the first day of class I provide my students with a ten-page list of brief definitions of religion assembled by my hardworking colleague Darren Middleton. The nearly 100 definitions on the list range from those given by religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and Lao-Tzu, Christian thinkers from C.S. Lewis to Paul Tillich, critics of religion like Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, politicians from Abraham Lincoln and Kofi Annan to Jesse Ventura, and pop singers, including Sting and Al Green. One of my favorites comes from the defunct TV-show Ed, in which a character called “Reverend Ike” says, “Religion is like a big flashlight. You shine it around you to help you illuminate your life, and find what it is you’re missing.” It’s not a terribly complex or comprehensive answer, but offers a distinct alternative to the God-haunted, belief-oriented versions of religion offered by my C-grade student named Bill.

Bill gets this low grade because his definition of religion appears to have been culled solely from Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary in which religion is essentially defined, in solid US-Protestant style, along the lines of a set of beliefs in God. (To give credit where credit is due, the problem also lies with the director Larry Charles and whatever half-baked research team they assembled; and while Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are all susceptible to the same critique, in these pages I’ll confine myself to Religulous.) This is the kind of thing a fair number of my students, raised in the Protestant-dominated United States (even Catholics and Jews have assimilated this definition), come to university thinking about religion; the two key components of which are “belief” and “God.” Religion is some cryptic interior, individual thing that exists in one’s own head, and is only understood in relation to a God. I don’t blame my students for the deficiencies in their cultural upbringing; rather, I see a chance to expand their horizons, to get them, as my wise colleague Andy Fort says, to “mentally migrate,” to come to terms with the radical diversity of religions as they historically and presently occur around the world.

The reality of the matter is that what we see in religious studies classes across the United States is the great variety of manners in which religions happen in and through their rituals and practices, through their symbolic and communal exchanges, and, yes, in light of and sometimes in spite of their in-the-head beliefs. Two of the more usefully analytic definitions of religion that I offer my students, which is not to say they are the “right” ones, come from Catherine Albanese, Professor of American Religious History at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Columbia University’s Chair of Religious Studies, Mark C. Taylor:

Religion can be understood as a system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values. (Albanese)

Religion, I would argue, is a complex adaptive network of myths, symbols, rituals, and concepts that simultaneously figure patterns of feeling, thinking, and acting and disrupt stable structures of meaning and purpose. When understood in that way, religion not only involves ideas and practices that are manifestly religious but also includes a broad range of cultural phenomena not ordinarily associated with religion. (Taylor)

Albanese and Taylor have spent decades of their lives investigating this strange beast called religion, but notice: neither of them mentions God and they only tangentially note belief, in the guise of “creed,” “feeling,” “thinking.” Religion is a network, a system, and its currency is symbols, rituals, myths, and concepts. It takes place within communities that act, and interact, and is set within specific cultures. These are brief definitions wrenched from larger contexts and intended to be used for further investigation, but they begin to suggest that Maher somehow escaped from (or slept through) his religious studies courses in college. Thus, he’s right back where our eighteen-year-olds are when they start those courses. Then again, here is a recent thesis statement from Cara Beth, one of my sophomore students who worked to define religion and its impact: “While religion draws people together through various fusions of culture, tradition, and family life, as well as quells the fears of the unknown and gives meaning to life, it separates and creates rifts between different sects of people, often leading to war.” That’s a much more rational, balanced, and thought-through statement than Maher & Co ever offer in Religulous.

It’s somewhat unfortunate, given the film’s title, that Maher and Charles never offer a working definition of religion. But the mode of questioning lays bare the thinking that went into Religulous. Except for an early scene at the “Truckers Church,” Maher interviews individuals, alone, as if he’s on his HBO talk show (but even there, there’s a panel . . .). It’s a great strategy for TV but that’s not the way life, to say nothing of religious life, operates. This is the first key problem with the modus operandi for the film: it functions like a talk show, imagining that religious life can be reduced to a few sound bites, told via spoken words, by a single person, in an artificially constructed environment. Maher’s question to the “ex-Jew for Jesus” about suicide (“If heaven’s so great, why not kill yourself now?”) only underscores the individualistic framework of the film: religion is about solitary individuals and their own pleasures and desires. No traditional rituals are shown—almost no communal gatherings at all in fact—nor do many of the realities of religion, either good or ill, make much of an appearance.

Let’s go back to the dictionary definitions for a minute. When Noah Webster was 70, he published a new and vital dictionary that has had long lasting influences on the American populace. In the “Introduction” to his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, the polyglot, erudite Webster examines the “Origin of Language,” beginning with a synopsis of how God gave a divine decree to Adam to name the animals. In other words, the origin of language begins with Adam. Moreover, Webster hoped his dictionary would be a “useful instrument for the propagation of science, arts, civilization, and Christianity.” These are exactly the kinds of things Maher gets so upset about, and I’m right behind him on this critique of religion, as it negatively impacts general social and cultural life.

At the same time, however, the basis for the critique Religulous insists upon using is the culturally myopic, outmoded definition of religion that Webster offered in that same dictionary 180 years ago:

Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties.

Not until definition number four in that dictionary do we find that religion might, beyond Christians, include “pagans and Mohammedans.” Of course, that definition ends with, “We speak of false religion as well as true religion” (emphasis his). It should come as no surprise that Webster’s 1828 version is the dictionary of choice for home-schoolers across the United States. The outlook on language and general definitions of words is a strikingly Christian one, and theologically conservative at that—just the kind of attitudes Maher wants to make fun of. A contemporary Google search for “Webster’s 1828 dictionary” will turn up the swarming of conservative Christian groups praising Webster and, more typically, offering a reprint of the old book for sale. Christianbook.com sells the product with this description:

Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language was produced during the years when the American home, church and school were established upon a Biblical and patriotic basis. Webster made important contributions to an American educational system which kept the nation on a Christian Constitutional course for many years.

So, here’s the thing: Maher mocks people for their antiquated beliefs though he never moves beyond an antiquated definition of religion himself. He borrows the same viewpoints of religion that all the way-out interviewees have. He is indignant that people actually believe in an existing Adam and Eve and the attendant talking snake, or in a man (Jonah) swallowed by a whale (or, really a “big fish”). These are the problems he keeps seeing: conservative religious people actually believe the myths of their traditions. But then Religulous splices in images of explosions, violent street demonstrations, and other aggressive activities. So, what’s the relationship between people who actually believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and suicide bombings? The film doesn’t really make those connections, nor could it, because they don’t connect. The broader connections between belief and violence could have (and, I’d say, should have) been made, but it would have taken some much more careful consideration of the topic at hand.

What Maher and filmmaking cohorts don’t appear to understand is that a person can be a Jew, have an enjoyable evening around the Sabbath table, and not believe that God actually created the world in seven days; that a Christian can stand up with her community, recite the 1700-year-old Nicene Creed, not believe a word of it, but still be moved by the experience of collective recitation; that a Muslim can make the pilgrimage to Mecca, touch the Kaaba, and still realize that at its base it is, indeed, a meteorite and not a holy rock from God. Maher even goes so far as to claim that “Christians believe” they are drinking the blood of a man who lived 2000 years ago. But he never asks anyone if they believe that. It’s a straw man argument. Even if this theological idea of “transubstantiation” has been written into Catholic dogma for centuries, I’ve yet to meet a Catholic who believes what Maher claims they believe (though I’m sure he could find a couple if he just kept throwing money at the film).

Funny thing is, had he watched Tim Burton’s Big Fish, he could have garnered some insight about how stories operate within human life. Here’s a hint, Bill: The big fish doesn’t have to be real! It’s a great story.

In other words, Religulous fails to understand the actual context and realities in which religious people live. This is why the film is actually not a documentary; a documentary at least purports to get at the realities of its subjects. Maher shows himself ultimately to verge on the inhuman in his inability to understand people. His statement that “Religion must die for mankind to live” (beyond the gender exclusive language) is strikingly off as he appears to have no real interest in humanity. To have that would necessitate listening and at least the pretense toward understanding.

Maher and Charles could have landed a bigger punch, but rather than talk with people, they chose to deride, interrupt, or simply ignore what people actually said. (Let me be clear, almost none of the individuals he interviewed would rate more than a “C” in my fantasy class either.) The filmmakers furthermore missed the opportunity to speak with others who don’t have such dogmatic assertions about their religiousness, as Jennifer Hahn suggested in these pages last week.

In the end, beyond showing contempt for and ignorance about the full dimensions of religion, Maher shows that he’s actually one of those beings who most likely will be outmoded in the near future: a mind-body dualist; someone who still believes in beliefs and ignores the realities of lived religion as experienced through the body via rituals, practices, storytelling, and symbols. Religion is ultimately not about talking heads around a Real Time table, nor can it be represented as such. Maher’s Freud-like, humorless screed at the end of the film about rationality and how he hopes we’ll all “grow up” and abandon religion, is the biggest joke yet. He’s moved beyond childhood only to get stuck in adolescence.

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Related Story: *Spiritual, But Not Religulous.

splate@hamilton.edu'

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. His most recent book is A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects, from Beacon Press. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.