Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Being stuck indoors for the better part of a week due to a fairly major shoulder surgery, I had to get out and do something. So I figured I’d go read a chapter in Horton’s Christless Christianity at Barnes & Noble and then go see Religulous. I hadn’t originally planned on seeing Maher’s Masterpiece [sic], but being laid up like this gave me an excuse. Most of the other movies out my wife wants to see too, so I’m not going to go to one of those solo. I found out she wanted to see Max Payne after I saw it and wasn’t too happy that I went without her! Doesn’t matter too much, though. I was still in fairly strong pain and spent most of the movie shifting around in my seat and concentrating on my shoulder rather than the movie. Anyway, the pain wasn't too bad today while watching Religulous … well, the shoulder pain , that is. Since I'm wounded, T-blog authorities put me on light duty, New Atheist Duty. Since this is an apologetic blog that tries to deal with every attack against the faith, someone had to see the movie. Given that I'm not much use in other areas right now, I took one for the team and watched Religulous so I could to report back to all our T-blog readers.
The movie takes a page right out of the New Atheist handbook. The basics go like this: Religion is absurd and religious adherents are suffering from a mental disorder. Religion causes all the death and destruction in the world. Religions teach an end times, and now have the ability to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore, we need to end religion to ensure the safety of the human race. He concludes the movie saying, “Religion must die in order for mankind to live.” Maher’s tutelage under the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris is evident. But Maher is not as intelligent as Dawkins or as witty a wordsmith as Hitchens. If all the village atheists around the world formed their own village, he’d be the village atheist of the village.
Maher is his typical smug, condescending self. His aim is to make religious adherents look like idiots. It is clear that he lied to get people to appear in the movie as almost every single person interviewed had to interrupt Maher and ask him what his intentions were. Apparently one pastor thought the film crew was from PBS. Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas has claimed Maher was severely misleading. What could have made for an interesting segment of the film was Maher’s “interview” with Dr. Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project. Collins said he “felt a bit misused,” but was sharp enough to “guess no one would claim this was an attempt to find the real truth.” He’s right, I certainly didn’t. Anyway, apparently it’s morally problematic to “lie for Jesus” but morally virtuous to “lie for Mammaw Nature.”
The editing is bad and blatant. It’s clear the editors steered the film in the direction they wanted it to go. And if Maher couldn’t “catch” the guy in the act, he’d later critique the person from inside his van. At one time he gave his “comeback” two days later. And if he couldn’t think of a “comeback” on the road, the editors added text to the film contradicting what the person was saying. Maher began by insulting the audience’s intelligence by claiming that he was going on an honest and open-minded quest to find out how believers could believe what they do. As anyone with half-a-brain could tell, this was clearly not the intent. One also wonders if Maher smoked weed during the entire cross-country trip since when he was in Amsterdam, taking pulls from a joint filled with some dank reefer, he claimed that the mota helped him open up his mind. This isn’t to shake my finger and condemn tokers as some kind of self-righteous pietist, just to point out that I’ve been there before. I remember my teen years and early to mid-twenties when my friends and I would smoke bud and “trip out” on how deeply we could think through issues. So there was a sense of fulfillment the flick gave me in that I’ve always wondered what it would be liked to get critiqued from the likes of Jeff Spicoli.
Now there was one aspect I appreciated about Maher’s film, but before I get to that I’ll mention a few of the more memorable bone-headed errors made by Maher throughout the film. What’s ironic about the movie is how Maher wants to paint himself with the intellectual brush, yet he just couldn’t help tarring and feathering himself as a religulous religious ignoramus. It’s clear that Maher, much like many of those who critique the faith, just can’t seem to escape the hayseed, backwoods fundamentalism and literalism characteristic of much of American Christianity. So, though Maher never missed an opportunity to question a made-up word used by a religious adherent, point out their ignorance of the Bible, and mock them for not knowing some accepted facts, for his own part he:
1. Called the book of Revelation the book of RevelationS, multiple times. Indeed, the editors even spelled the book as “RevelationS” when they added the printed text.
2. Claimed the book of “Revelations” actually taught that Jesus was coming back to a specific place in Israel, Megiddo. He offered no verse, no exegesis, and didn’t preface the comment by saying “some Christians believe the book of Revelations [sic] teaches such and such.”
3. Tried to make a joke about the first time people heard of circumcision, claiming that it was from Moses. Abraham would have been more precise, although many ANE cultures did circumcising of their own.
4. Claimed multiple times that Jesus was “against being rich,” period. No qualification, rich qua rich.
5. Claimed all Christians think that they’re drinking the actual, literal blood of Jesus.
6. Claimed Christians believe in three gods, but sometimes shifted from that to modalism (e.g., claimed Jesus “prayed to himself”). In fact, when the “Jesus” character at Orlando’s “Holy Land” theme park tried to show how the Trinity made sense he used the old “water, gas, ice” analogy. Not only did this stump Maher where all he could do is simply laugh at the answer two days later, he was too ignorant to recognize it as modalism.
7. Claimed he was on a war against certainty yet was certain that no one knew that Christianity was true. He even told people that they didn’t know. He also brushed people off who didn’t believe in macro evolution as just “obviously wrong.” Evolution is a fact, and that’s that. So he suffered from a rational/irrational dialectic.
8. Claimed Jesus’ “second coming” was a “second reincarnation” of Jesus.
9. Reasoned that the Bible did not originally teach a virgin birth since only 2 out of the 4 Gospel’s taught it (he left out the other references, though)! I fail to see the connection. If the Bible mentioned it only once, then the Bible would have mentioned it. Maher’s “reasoning” seems to be “but it was so important and foundational, so why would anyone leave it out.” This probably stems from his Catholic upbringing as well as his view that the “Gospels were biographies.” He seemed basically ignorant of Christian theology as well as early Christianity.
10. Asserted without so much as an argument or documentation that the Jesus story is based on Horus. He never so much as hinted that he was aware of the counter arguments, and seemed unaware that even some of the most skeptical atheists (like Richard Carrier, for instance) have denied some of these links. I guess bald assertions are cause for ridicule if you’re a believer, but become incontrovertible fact when uttered, without evidence, by smug agnostics.
11. Claims the 10 commandments are inferior since they don’t mention child abuse.
12. Claims homosexuality isn’t considered a sin by Jesus because Jesus “didn’t mention it.”
13. Has an anti-supernatural bias. Either miracles are coincidental, or prophecies were "fulfilled" by later writers, or if the miracle reports take place later, they just didn't happen since rational people simply can't believe such a thing.
14. Affirms moral relativism yet acts as if some of the evils committed in the name of a religion are absolutely immoral.
Those were a few of the blunders and schoolyard arguments Maher seems to think are sufficient to undermine religious belief.
But what happens when we hold Maher to his own standard? For instance, what about his claims that religion is the only cause of man’s woes and if it were gone, all would be well. Given his constant request that one base his beliefs on evidence, and scientific study, Maher frequently drops the ball on his own end. For example, take his belief that religion is the cause of war. He fails to engage in any scientific investigation on how it is that religion is to blame for all the troubles in the world. He doesn’t, as Plato said, “carve nature at its joints” but he “hacks off parts like a clumsy butcher.” One rightly wonders, especially since Maher offered no sources, from where did he draw his scientific data from? Or, is he meaning to give us a rant based on loosely cobbled facts mashed together with some of his own personal experiences, and concluding with a fallacious hasty generalization that “religion poisons everything?”
If the latter, we are, again, free to dismiss him. If the former, I wonder how this is so? Maher certainly presented no data or cited any sources. One such study on the nature of war and violence that came out just last year is the book, The Most Dangerous Animal by David Livingstone Smith, an atheist philosopher. He claims on page 35 that the scientific study of war is a recent phenomenon. One survey of the world’s three leading sociological journals, Smith points out, revealed that less than 3% of the articles published between 1936 and 1984 concerned war, and most were published in 1942. Another survey of articles between 1986 and 2000 reveal that fewer than 1% deal with war, and none of them considered the causes of war.
One thing you do in an objective, scientific study of something is take into account all the relevant empirical information. Those who exclude empirical data that bears on their thesis are not engaged in honest scientific inquiry. They’re engaging in a witch hunt! Maher doesn’t mention sociological, economic, political, historical, ideological ethical, or geographical factors, all of which play a huge part in wars. He doesn’t reference the influential work of Robert Pape, for example, who concluded in the book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism: “There is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world's religions.” After studying 315 suicide attacks from 1981-2004, Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor, concludes that suicide bombers' actions stem from logical military strategies, not their religion. Pape claims that the fundamental motive is political. The desire to force the withdrawal of foreign forces occupying land believed to belong to an oppressed people who have seriously limited resources at their disposal (McGrath, Dawkins Delusion, 80), is demonstrated by Pape through serious scientific study.
The simple fact of the matter is, and it is one that Maher is too lazy to take note of or account for, the causes of war are just too complex a thing; we must, as atheist David Livingstone Smith puts it, “resist the temptation to box the causes of war in tidy categories hedged about with arbitrary distinctions.” Smith, our Darwinian atheist philosopher, offers his views on the cause of war in his book. He claims that, “War can be approached from many angles. We can consider it from the standpoint of various disciplines. All of these are important, but there is one dimension that underpins them all: the bedrock of human nature.” (p. xiii)
Other atheists that are more level headed than Maher on this matter are those like Michael Shermer. Shermer claims that he “is not convinced by the New Atheists argument that without religion there would be, "no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no Northern Ireland 'troubles'…. In my opinion, many of these events—and others often attributed solely to religion by atheists—were less religiously motivated than politically driven, or at the very least involved religion in the service of political hegemony.”
Worries about the hack scholarship of some like Maher and the New Atheist led University of Hawaii political scientist R.J. Rummell to introduce the term “democide” to cover all forms of politically motivated government-sponsored killing apart from warfare. Maher seems to think that all genocides are religiously motivated. But estimates of the death toll from 20th century democide ranges up toward the 170 million mark according to Rummell’s book Death By Government. How can Maher's theory explain all the relevant data. As a worshiper of "Science," Maher should know that a scientific hypothesis that cannot account for all of the relevant data should be dropped. But Maher is one of the faithful. He refuses to let facts and evidence get in the way of his jihad.
David Livingstone Smith claims that, “Today’s genocides and ethnocide often take place at the behest of multinational corporations eager to acquire resources, typically by dispossession and environmental degradation. These include oil interests in Ecuador, Burma, Nigeria, copper and cold West Papua, farming in Tanzania, logging in Malaysia, and uranium mining in Australia.” He states that, “Wars are purposeful. They are fought for resources, lebensraum, oil, gold, food, and water or peculiarly abstract or imaginary goods like God, honor, race, democracy, and destiny” (p. 7)
And that is the level-headed answer. I certainly do not mean to absolve all religion or all religious adherents from their involvement in wars and killings and terrorist activities. I recognize their involvement, just as I recognize a whole host of other factors. No religion will not equal out to no war.
And with that, I’d say Maher biggest weapon in his arsenal just got turned into a squirt gun ... minus the water.
Now for the useful aspect of Maher’s film. No doubt it’s a chicken bleep move to attack a bunch of “Christians” at a truck stop church in the deep south, but no one claimed Maher was an intellectual giant. Of course the main argumentative force of his film was that he appealed to a lot of extreme versions of Christianity. Crazed tongue speakers, holy laughter twits, a man claiming to be the second coming of Christ, and a dash of Fred Phelps. That is to say, this wasn’t a sincere, rational, scientific inquiry into the reasons for faith; it was simply a concerted effort to make religion look stupid based on cherry-picked evidence samples. But despite all of that, Maher really showed how far American Christianity has gone. Even when he dealt with milder versions than the above, whether the folksy charm of Osteen-esk Christians or more popular forms of contemporary evangelicalism, the rather lost condition of much of the church came through loud and clear. After dozens of years trying to become “relevant” to the world, they became another side-show. Another moralistic system promising to give us “our best life now,” complete with a handbook on how to “take back America for Jesus.” The gospel has been lost in all of this. This was quite clear even in Maher’s own understanding. He claimed he tuned out of Christianity because it wasn’t “relevant” for him. It was just a “set of rules” and he wanted “to masturbate to pin-ups.” Maher gives no indication that he’s familiar with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not necessarily his fault. The blame lies with the rock concert churches and the Jesus-as-life-coach Christianity popular in much of contemporary Christian bookstores.
So I’ll take this opportunity to tell Maher something he may not know. Christianity isn’t primarily about making a better you. It’s not about turning this world into heaven. It’s not about filling that “hole in your heart;” you know, the one the Jesus character at the Orlando theme park told you you had. It’s about something that happened in history. Something that was accomplished for sinners by Jesus Christ. It’s not about looking at me and how well I’m doing in life. It’s not about looking at those well-meaning but theologically ignorant Christians at the souvenir shop, it’s about looking to Christ and what he did for us. It’s about an actual resurrection that took place in history where God judged an innocent Jesus so that all of those united to him by faith have also been declared innocent. That declaration is final. It cannot be reversed. Please don’t look at me, I’m a failure. Don’t look at any of Jesus’ followers, even those in Hebrews 11. Don’t ask, “what would Jesus do?”. All that matters is what he has done. If the Spirit so chooses to make this word effectual in your heart, and you grasp the gravity of your condition before a holy God, and you marvel at the grace that was given to you totally apart from anything worthy in you, and you place your faith in the work of another, trusting in him, you will bear fruit in your life. But that good fruit always comes with rotten fruit. We are both sinner and saint. So we trust in the goodness of Christ, every day, as the only basis upon which we can stand before the Father. Christians are ridiculous much of the time. But the foolishness of God is wiser than men. Of course I don’t mean to say that we are irrational, or anti-intellectual. Indeed, I believe it was this religious person who made your arguments against and knowledge of Christianity look rather ridiculous. We can easily answer all of your reasons for not believing; that is, if you ever give any reasons instead of the sophormoric and emotive bleatings of a New Atheist sheep. I just mean to say that your focus is on the wrong man.