It seems that every time I turn on the television, I hear the comedian Bill Maher bad-mouthing religion. In the last several years, Maher has appeared dozens of times on Larry King’s show, where he consistently mocks the beliefs of religious people, especially Christians. Well, he’s come out with a new documentary film on his favorite subject, and he’s called it, subtly enough, Religulous. I had the opportunity to see an advance screeing of the movie last week in a theatre on the near north side of Chicago. Please don’t go to see it — and I say this for two reasons. First, it’s a mindless and utterly unpersuasive attack on religious faith, and second, it’s remarkably unfunny. Religulous is basically a one-joke movie: put Bill Maher in the presence of simple-minded folks and let the clever comedian take apart their beliefs. This might have worked as a five-minute sketch, but twenty minutes into the movie, I was gazing at my watch in boredom. Practically all of Maher’s interlocutors — Christian fundamentalists, anti-evolutionists, a holocaust-denying rabbi, or even a man who thought he was the re-incarnation of Jesus — had in common a complete intellectual incapacity to deal with the standard objections that the comedian raised. Again and again, I found myself muttering, “Come on, Maher, pick on someone your own size.”
One of the themes to which he returned obsessively was biblical literalism. How could 21st century people possibly believe, he asked, in “talking snakes, a five-thousand year old universe, and a man who lived inside of a whale for three days.” As his poor conversation partners struggled to explain these “facts” to the smirking comic, I thought to myself, “he could benefit enormously from a course in biblical interpretation 101.” To claim that the entire Bible is to be taken literally is akin to saying that the entire library should be taken literally. The Bible is not so much a book as a collection of books from a wide variety of literary genres, including history, poetry, saga, letter, prophecy, and philosophical meditation. Worrying about the literal truth of Jonah’s whale and the serpent of Genesis is a function of gazing at poetic texts through lenses appropriate for the reading of historical texts.
Another of his favorite topics was the incompatibility of science and religion. He gleefully exposed the lunacy of a creationist “museum” somewhere in the south that purported to defend on scientific grounds the belief that dinosaurs and human beings co-existed in the relatively recent past of our five-thousand year old planet. To support his point of view, he enlisted the help of one of the only Catholics that he interviewed, namely, Fr. George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican observatory. Coyne patiently explained that the Bible offers, not a modern scientific explanation of the origins of the universe, but rather a theological cosmology and that Catholic belief is therefore perfectly compatible with the theory of evolution. After this brief sensible clarification, Maher cut away and we never heard from Coyne again. I’m convinced that a half hour with him would have cleared up much of the comedian’s confusion. A telling point: when Maher introduced Fr. Coyne as a “Vatican astronomer,” he quipped that that description seemed an oxymoron. But why should it? For Catholics, there is no conflict between the truth of science properly laid out and the truth of religion properly interpreted, since both come from the same divine source.
A final concern of Bill Maher, and of most of the new wave of atheists, is that religion, in its irrationality, conduces toward violence. This objection, of course, goes back to the era of the Enlightenment, when many prominent thinkers held that religious belief by its nature is extremist and fanatical. Maher delighted in showing scene after scene of religiously-inspired mayhem, from Islamist suicide bombers to Christian fomenters of nuclear Armageddon. At the very end of the film, he delivered himself of a rather ponderous and self-important speech the burden of which was this: until people abandon their crude religious beliefs and embrace Maher’s style of enlightened secularism and agnosticism, human civilization remains in grave danger. Well. The most violent century in human history was the twentieth. During those hundred years more people were killed than in all of the previous centuries combined. And the perpetrators of this unprecedented slaughter were not religious people but rather secularist ideologues such as Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot. God knows that wicked people have done terrible things over the centuries in the name of religion, but I emphatically contest the insinuation that religion is uniquely or principally responsible for violence.
Religious belief is under rather aggressive attack right now. We need our best and brightest, our smartest and most articulate, to come forward and defend the faith, and to do so not with bitterness but confidence but with good humor and intelligence. But believe me when I say that we have nothing substantive to fear from the likes of Bill Maher.