Apr 29, 2010

Religulous and Other Intellectual Dishonesty

I finally got around to watching Bill Maher's "Religulous" a couple of weeks ago. It's on Showtime so what the hey. It was pretty much what I was expecting. Quite amusing in some parts. The unintentionally funny cartoons are the best part. Adam stroking the rib bone in an unmistakeably pornographic manner caused my husband to hit the pause button so we could just stare at each other in utter disbelief for several minutes.

That said, the movie in sum is a cheap shot. Maher does that thing that so many in the New Atheist movement can be counted on to do. He focuses almost exclusively on the outer reaches of religiosity and inductively reasons the lunacy of all religious people everywhere. He interviews a lot of fundamentalists and dogmatists and then draws broad conclusions about religion and it's implications for our future, reaching absurdly hyperbolic conclusions.

"Religulous" is what came to mind when I read this piece on The Huffington Post. John Thatamanil takes on the intellectual dishonesty of using the worst examples of religious thought (or lack there of) instead of taking on theologians and other religious thinkers of substantial mental wattage.

It should go without saying that tremendous expertise in biology does not entitle one to claims of expertise on religion. Dawkins is a fine biologist, but he knows precious little about religion. Terry Eagleton has made this point brilliantly: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." To Eagelton's quip, I can only say Amen.

In interreligious dialogue circles, participants operate under a fundamental ethical constraint: never compare the best in your tradition with the worst in another's. A Christian who compares liberation theology with caste in Hinduism is making an invidious comparison. A similar constraint should apply in conversations between atheists and the religious. Atheists who tar the whole of religion by contrasting the insight of Einstein with the fulminations of fundamentalists are engaged in egregious dialogical malpractice.

But most atheists are ill equipped to abide by this rule because they know nothing about Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, medieval women mystics like Julian of Norwich or major thinkers from other traditions like Śaṅkara or Nāgārjuna. Absent such knowledge, caricature becomes inevitable.

Cartoons aside, "Religulous" is indeed a caricature of religion. And after a while, it starts to feel a little mean-spirited. Laughing at the ignorant for an hour and half just seems cruel and unfair. It wears thin the way People of WalMart does. I just end up feeling really badly for some of these people.

But mostly I feel a certain sadness for Maher. He not only appears to be incapable of understanding that many people of faith are well aware that they are participating in myth and metaphor. He seems cut off from the richness of that experience.

As a side note, I once again find myself in the uncomfortable position of needing to point out that Jesus is hot. (see above) Why are our artistic depictions of Jesus always hot? What's up with that?

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