It's Easter Week, so what better thing to pull of the Netflix queue than Bill Maher's 2008 documentary "Religulous."
Bill Maher has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. He's rude, sarcastic, and completely close-minded on so many subjects. But he's also smart, quick, and right on the money with much of his political commentary. Given his well-known contempt for all organized religion, I was pretty much expecting that his less attractive qualities would be on full display in "Religulous."
He did not let me down.
I don't subscribe to any particular church or theology, but I'm a "do unto others" gal at heart and I hate "comedy" that seeks to make people look stupid. Fundamentalist of any religion are the easiest of targets: so earnest in their earnestness and certain in their certitude. Almost all religions have some funny hat or weird way of praying or quirky theological belief that looks absurd to outsiders. It's the comedic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, and I found it more than a bit cheap.
Beyond the raised eyebrows and snotty comments, he does raise some very valid points. Religion has been a driving force of worldwide conflict for centuries. There is a basic conflict between pure democracy and religion. He's also correct that many people don't realize how interconnected religions are, if you go back far enough. One of the most effective parts of the film are when he points out the overlap between the story of Jesus and that of Buddha and Mithra, and especially between Jesus and the Egyptian god, Horus.
But ultimately he fails to make his case. The irony is that in his own fundamental agnosticism, he wounds his arguments. He wants to be a pure rationalist, but he doesn't allow himself to penetrate the surface to consider why religion is so persistent in humanity. By getting himself hung up on talking snakes and burning bushes and Jonah being swallowed by a big fish, he cuts himself off from a deep understanding of the world he claims to know so well. He wants to be a humanist without accepting humanity as it actually exists.
Religion is so old, we literally don't know when it started. Records start in the Bronze Age, nearly 8,000 years ago, but clearly people were assigning spiritual meaning to the world during the many centuries of the Stone Age. Archaeologists have uncovered burial mounds that are more than 100,000 years old, indicating that even Paleolithic hunter-gatherers likely believed in some kind of afterlife.
People have held on to faith even though science has been steadily unraveling many of the mysteries religion used to explain. In a way, science has proven how elemental religion is to humanity: we now know that prayer and meditation have a powerful influence on the brain, releasing electrical, hormonal and biochemical surgest that produce an altered sense of self -- a sensation of being connected to a greater reality.
I see religion as a cord that ties us to the greater reality, the universality of human experience. I believe in evolution. I don't believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. But not believing in a literal supreme deity doesn't mean I shouldn't pray.
I know from my research that that early Christians pushed devotion to the Virgin Mary as a way to dilute pagan worship of the goddess Isis, who herself came from older pagan religion. So if I say a prayer to the Virgin, I'm tapping in to a humanity that has always needed the boundless love and comfort of a mother....so even if there was no Mary and their was no Isis, and in my darkest moments, I know that I'm not alone. There's nothing wrong with that.
To Maher, the cost of religion is simply too high. "The plain fact is religion must die for mankind to live," he says at the end of the film. "The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people - by irrationalists - by those who would steer the ship of state, not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken."
Even agnostics can't avoid faith. Faith is a belief in something for which there is no proof. In Maher's case, he has faith that without religion, people would stop killing each other for boneheaded reasons, clean up their environment, have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and smoke pot without censure. But in all of recorded history, there has never been an agnostic civilization, so there is no way to prove that is true. He he has faith that there's a compass, when there's only really ever been chicken entrails.
Have a blessed Passover and Easter, y'all.