December 7, 2008


I saw Bill Maher’s movie Religulous last night, and I have to say I was a little disappointed. I really didn’t have high expectations to begin with, and just wanted to laugh. And for the most part it was funny, but I have to be honest – the movie was no funnier than a decent episode of the Daily Show, and they manage to crank one of those out at least a couple of times a week. For a feature film, I expected, especially from someone like Bill Maher whom I find consistently funny, some real belly laughs.

For the record, I am pretty much completely on board with Maher’s views on religion. I agree with him that religious beliefs are on the extreme end of ridiculous, and am fascinated how otherwise rational people can seriously discuss women made from men’s ribs and talking snakes and people living inside fishes. Just listen, for example, at how sophisticated people often become when discussing money – everyone’s all of a sudden a financial analyst when it comes to their 401(k). But when the issue of theology comes up, we’re dealing with the equivalent of Santa Claus and children’s stories. Lord of the Rings is profoundly more complicated and nuanced than most of the stories in the Bible. I agree, too, that religion is responsible for more bad in the world than good. Yes, there have been many acts of decency and kindness carried out in the name of religion. Those have been more than made up for by atrocities, immorality justified by religious doctrine, unequal and immoral power relationships, con artistry, and outright theft.

But Bill never makes up his mind in this movie whether he really wants a laugh-a-minute, Borat-style (this movie has the same director as Borat) comedy show or a serious exposition on the ills of religious doctrine. He swings from one to the other, and when it swings toward seriousness, it comes across as overblown, shrill ranting. And I say that, again, as someone who loves Bill Maher, respects him, and agrees with his overall points.

We’re treated to a variety of bizarre religious characters and scientists, but we’re never given a good idea of who is actually a respected person in their field and who is a crackpot. This distinction wouldn’t matter if the goal were simply to make us laugh, but when serious messages enter the equation, it is necessary to draw a distinction between the guy who plays Jesus at The Holy Land: The Experience in Orlando, Florida (picture a Biblical Disney World…now erase the image from your mind to keep from vomiting) and George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, a Georgetown PhD and Arizona professor who has done very serious astronomical research at both Harvard and Tucson. The latter is no Creationist, well aware of the age of the universe (he studies galaxy formation, for chrissakes). The former is a slick, charismatic con artist. Yet the casual viewer of the film is given little to distinguish them.

Scientific claims are vastly oversimplified and hypotheses presented as fact. For example, Bill briefly introduces a scientist who seems to claim to have discovered the “God gene” and the “gay gene.” This gives the impression that both religious belief and homosexuality (why those two things have to always appear together isn’t addressed in the film…) are explained by alleles of a single gene, propositions which lie somewhere between improbable and outright untrue. There have been multiple genes discovered that affect religious belief and sexual orientation in controversial ways, however the genetic contributions to either remain poorly understood, and it is unclear the degree to which either is genetically determined. Again, the oversimplification of such a discussion would be irrelevant if it weren’t for certain pretentions in the film.

Interestingly, Bill plays to certain stereotypes as well. Fundamentalists are given the lion’s share of attention when it comes to Christians, even though they only represent a minority of the faith (there are a number of selection effects that could explain this bias in the film). Christians are largely portrayed as nitwitted dupes. Muslims, on the other hand, are less mocked than feared. Attention predictably focuses on the violent fringe in that religion and passages in the Koran used to justify that violence. The passages are not put into any context by, say, comparisons to similar passages in the Bible and other religious texts, giving the impression that there is something inherent in Islam that makes it uniquely violent, something widely believed but fundamentally untrue.

I hope I’m not coming off as either too harsh on Bill Maher (again, I love the guy) or too serious about a comedy film. There was plenty to laugh at in the film and if you ignore its pretentions to seriousness, you’ll enjoy it. The scenes from the Holy Land amusement park in Florida are priceless, as is an interview with a world-class pothead in Amsterdam. And Bill does an excellent job showing how incredibly stupid many religious narratives are (and how people cling to them in the face of all contrary evidence and even common sense). But it’s the pretensions to seriousness that get me. The film ends with a montage of death and destruction and end-of-the-world gloom, with a dire warning about what could befall us if we remain a bunch of religious ninnies in the face of rapidly increasing technological prowess. Bill’s rant in this section, combined with the gloomy images and horror-film music, were ridiculous themselves. This was not the intended effect.

One last thing about the film. Pascal’s Wager comes up at multiple points in the film, and I wanted to say something about it. A number of religious bozos in the movie say something along the lines of “What if you’re wrong?” to Bill. In other words, you ought to believe (or act as if you do – it’s unclear which, as it’s quite difficult to make yourself believe something you are inclined to doubt), because if you don’t you’re going to Hell. So by believing you have a lot to gain if you’re right, little to lose if you’re wrong. By not believing you have everything to lose if you’re wrong, little to gain if you’re right. A simple cost benefit analysis comes down on the side of believing. Nobody in the film articulated the point this clearly, and Bill never bothered to clearly refute it either. And the proposition is nothing new: Blaise Pascal, the French 17th century philosopher and mathematician, came up with the idea (hence the name Pascal’s Wager).

There are a number of problems with the proposition, integrity not the least of them (what kind of person are if you pretend, or FORCE YOURSELF, to believe in God JUST IN CASE he exists?). One is – which god do you believe in? For Christians and Jews, Exodus 20:2-7 lays out the first four of the Ten Commandments:

“2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3 Do not have any other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” [the numbers are verses]

So according to this, there’s only one God, the one who led the Jews out of Egypt. If you don’t believe in that particular God, i.e., if the God you believe in didn’t lead the Jews out of Egypt (and if you don’t believe in the Exodus, for which there’s very little or no historical evidence, you’re really screwed), or didn’t write this particular book, then you’re believing in the wrong God and are going to Hell anyway for violating the FIRST FUCKING COMMANDMENT of this particular God! He didn’t make this one #1 for nothing! But if this isn’t the right God and it’s some other one that has some other belief requirement, you’re equally screwed. What if the Jews are right and Jesus was not divine (or perhaps didn’t even exist)? Then worshipping Jesus as a God breaks this same commandment, as he would be a false God. So Pascal’s Wager really falls apart in the face of ten trillion different religious with different belief requirements.

Second, what if belief itself isn’t the necessary and sufficient condition to get into Heaven? What if you believe but God sends you to Hell anyway for breaking other rules? Take a look at the first four commandments above. There are some other rules right in there. You can’t make an idol of anything above or under the Earth? WTF does that mean??!! Some believe that means you can make statues. The Orthodox Christians make 2-dimensional icons for this reason. Some believe “idol” means you can’t make any image at all, so a painting of the Virgin Mary or of Jesus is a violation of this commandment. If you’ve ever been in a mosque, you’ve noticed there are no images in there at all – it is forbidden.

This is just one example. Some religions/gods require all sorts of elaborate behaviors to get into Paradise and/or avoid Hell. There are baptism rituals, good deeds, sacrifices, fasts, pilgrimages, etc. Which do you do? Whose? Another enormous problem with Pascal’s Wager.

Finally, there’s the converse of the above – what if you can get into Heaven without belief but by doing good deeds? Then atheists are ok provided they are good people. Many Protestant sects accept this.

The bottom line is that Pascal’s Wager is extremely problematic, and is no reason to feign or adopt religiosity (which religion? to what extent?).

And one final point on it – even if it DID (which it doesn’t) offer a wise course of action based on probability, it still makes no determination WHATSOEVER on whether God exists or not. Which is really the bottom line.


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