BY CHRIS SZABLA
Nearly everyone will find at least one part of Bill Maher’s Religulous amusing: even the orthodox ecumenical must let out a bit of a smile when, for example, a visitor at Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock decries Maher’s presence not because of his religion or obvious anti-religious sentiments, but simply because “he’s not funny”. There’s also the time when a costumed character runs, screaming, behind the director of Florida’s Holy Land Experience theme park, belying all of his calm reassurances with such comic timing that it’s a wonder she’s no plant.
Still, when one laughs at Maher’s incendiary new documentary probably tells a lot about oneself. The prototypically leftwing Cambridge audience I saw it with found Maher’s Borat-esque mockery of the literalist beliefs of American Evangelical Christians hilarious. But when Maher turned around and pulled the same tricks on Dutch Muslims, the crowd was nearly silent. (For the record, the comedian’s comparatively mild coverage of the excesses of Orthodox Judaism elicited mostly nervous chuckles.) Did this audience, likely steeped in the mores and masochism of the three great monotheistic faiths, even notice the comparative absence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, or any of the other myriad faiths strangely exempted from Maher’s cinematic shit list? Oh, the Hindu god Krisha gets a shout out, by way of Maher’s (actually quite informed) critique of Jesus Christ’s uniqueness (his life story is remarkably similar to the Indian deity’s, as well as to the Persian god Mithra’s and ancient Egyptian standby Horus’). But in failing to even touch on non-Abrahamic traditions, Maher not only does a disservice to them, but to his larger point as well.
For Religulous, while mostly a vehicle for Maher to expose the indefatigable ignorance of the most credulous and sheepish faithful, is ultimately an argument about the consequences of turning them loose. Standing in a crater at Megiddo, the Biblical site of Armageddon, the former host of Politically Incorrect delivers as direct a screed as any self-proclaimed prophet: “religion must die so humanity can live,” he proclaims, as profiles of his streaked silver hair are interspersed with images of mushrooming fireballs alternating with incendiary excerpts from scripture. But even as the world fears the consequences of a nuclear-armed India facing down Pakistan, Maher does not bother citing the Bhagvad Gita in support of his blanket distaste for devotion, much less explain how Tibetan monks’ nonviolence threatens world peace. It’s not that he couldn’t make these arguments – Religulous contains plenty more facile correlation than that – as much as that Maher apparently feels they are either less relevant (or less self-evident) than the phenomenon of Muslim suicide bombers or End Times-enabling American Crusades.
Nor does Maher do much to dispel arguments that much “religious” violence is politics by another name. The most he does to refute the idea that religious violence is the result of a political gloss is to quote violent lines of scripture. Yet during a confusing conversation with British Muslim rapper Propa-Gandhi, he has no good response to the point that Islam possesses numerous schools of thought. Yes, many of the self-righteous twits Maher encounters possess a criminally dangerous tendency to take each line of their holy books literally – a particularly horrifying example being Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, who professes his belief in creationism while declaring “there’s no IQ test to be in the Senate” – but most do not. Maher’s only recognition of religious “moderates” is his call for them to abandon their beliefs lest they further “enable” radicals. But won’t these people inherently possess more influence over their fellow faithful than agnostic insult artists like Maher?
Just under two and a quarter centuries ago, radical atheists perpetrated the bloodbath that was the French Revolution. From then on, nationalism and ideology regularly achieved similar levels of death and destruction. In the wake of the dehumanizing hyperrationality of totalitarianism and the atomic bomb’s exposure of the catastrophic consequences of limitless science, Western intellectuals have largely retraced their steps back from the precipice of total faith in reason. Some, like Jürgen Habermas, have even come to believe that the time is ripe for a dialogue with faith. Bill Maher neither acknowledges the equally destructive power of more nakedly political ideologies, nor appears to have caught up with these developments in public thought. Like the fundamentalists he so heartily mocks, he appears to be standing on his own precipice – that of an earlier time.