Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bill Maher and the Militant Agnosticism of "Religulous"

When Kirst and I first met and were e-courting I remember, trying to explain myself and look cool at the same time, calling myself a "militant agnostic." Her reply: "Well, I'm not a militant anything." When I read that I knew that this was a girl who had a perspective I needed to get with. I liked the lack of judgment her response implied, and in some ways we were coming from the same point of view: people should be able to believe whatever they want. But looking back, I think my instincts went a bit further than that and what I really felt was, when it comes to the big questions, not only do I not know, I kind of have a problem with anybody saying they do.

I saw the film Religulous last night and left the theater humming from the perfect resonance that comes from having someone both articulate your own perspective back to you and help you refine it. The film is directed by Larry Charles (Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld) and follows satirist Bill Maher around the world as he confronts both the leaders and followers of various religions, from fringe to mainstream. Like Borat, which disguised its political commentary in the shock and shenanigans of ambush comedy, Religulous's jokes have dead-serious implications. But after a hilarious two-hours of clear-eyed journeys through the halls of absurdity, Maher wraps the whole thing up in a sobering closing monologue - cut to the familiar stock images of global brutality and war that we've come to take for granted - in which he makes the case that not only is humanity in danger of destroying itself, beliefs like Christianity and Islam are greasing the wheels. Religions are not just fantastical myths, he says, they're political systems in disguise. And now that us humans have finally got our hands on the means to ACTUALLY DESTROY THE WORLD, any political group that looks toward the Apocalypse with welcoming arms can no longer be viewed as benign. "If there's anything I hate more than prophecy," Maher says, "it's self-fulfilling prophecy."

This is where I get stuck, working out what I feel about tolerance and the limits to it. Maher spends much of the last quarter of the film in Amsterdam, a city famous for its permisiveness. But he illustrates how that town has also become a breeding ground for hate and extremism: the Dutch are in danger of becoming tolerant of intolerance. If we all agree that some beliefs are so irrational and destructive that they should be confronted, at what point do we need to start calling out organized religion on its immorality.

Maher has some beautiful and solid things to say about the importance of doubt: doubt is not just humble, its logical. As Maher points out, human history is nothing if not one big thousands-year-old story of people getting shit dead wrong.

It's a shame that so many people are put off by the thinly veiled anger in Maher's tone and throughout the film's travels his reputation proceeds him, occassionally blocking him out of interview opportunities and even getting him kicked out of the Vatican. I'm a big fan now, but even I found Maher hard to take during his Politically Incorrect years, until I realized that much of his rage is really just misdirected, but sincere, humanism. (His new HBO program Real Time with Bill Maher is a much better version of what he attempted ealier on network TV.) But Religulous might cast Maher's satire in a whole new light. Instead of coming across like an argumentative comic taking on a bunch of easy targets just to look superior and be contrary for its own sake, it reads like a work of geniuine concern. It's interesting watching Maher working out how much shrift to give the various politicians, holy men and true believers he interviews, for courtesy's sake, while at the same time exposing the corruption, fear and ignorance behind what they're saying. But it never seems mean and I think Maher and Charles found a great balance between inclusiveness and following their conscience. Still, Maher is an equal opportunity offender and just about everybody can find something in this film to offend their sensibilities. Which is a shame, because a gentler cut of Religulous could qualify for a Nobel Peace Prize.

If I had one misgiving, it's mostly the result of leftover superstition coating the walls of my brain and has to do with Maher's makeup: his producers should really rethink caking his face and eyebrows in so much white foundation. His hair is already grayed and the excess white doesn't just wash his face out, it makes it look like a death shroud. There is something truly eerie about receiving a sermon of sacrilidge from somebody who increasingly resembles this guy:

Please, go see Religulous. I think it has something urgent and challenging to say to people of all beliefs, even agnostics like me. I spent my first year of college at a Bible school in Missouri, where people study for Christian ministry. It was a pretty dispicable place to be, but I'd go back under one condition: to teach a course on doubt. I'm kidding in a way. I don't actually believe I'm qualified to be a professor of anything. But I think all institutions should employ a resident skeptic. A kind of ombudsman whose job it is to play devil's advocate. We don't make enough room for contrary views in our institutions, and I'm thankful to see a film like Religulous existing at all. If we're going to indoctrinate our children with our personal worldviews anyway, why not sow some seeds of doubt in their as well out of respect for human failing. Religulous could be such a text, an instructional video for doubt, and should be required viewing for every person on this planet.

Listen to Terry Gross interview Maher and Charles on Fresh Air.

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