In case you haven’t heard, comedian and Politically Incorrect/Real Time host Bill Maher has a new film headed to theaters: a com-ockumentary of sorts called Religulous, in which he sets out to explore, and generally ridicule, the silliness of religious practice and belief.
Now, it’d be rather silly for me to complain about someone criticizing religious beliefs. Or even poking a bit of admittedly underhanded fun at all things theological. But I still can’t in good conscience look at this film with anything other than apprehension…
First of all, Maher is not exactly a dream candidate for the cause of skeptics and rationalists: he’s bought into a lot of kooky rhetoric over the years, including McCarthyite (Jenny, that is) claims about vaccines being unnecessary and toxic. He’s certainly a staunch ally of secular government and the defense of science education: but his understanding of the issues is rarely reliably deep and well-informed. He has a laudably rock-solid commitment to freedom of speech and debate. But Ben Stein shared the same commitment: and in his own docu-drama-queen film Expelled, tried to appeal to it were it wasn’t relevant. Having and defending the right to speak out doesn’t guarantee good arguments.
Maher, contrary to what many people seem to think, is also not an atheist. He’s more of a militant agnostic, and in the more classical sense: ‘I don’t know, and you can’t possibly know either.’ He does seem to entertain a sort of deistic God, but considers religion “a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need.” Fair enough, as far as it goes. But how far does it go? Well, here’s the movie’s trailer for starters:
So can we expect some seriously funny bits, given that preview? Probably. Maybe even some in isolation that believers could self-effacingly chuckle along with. But rolled all together, and headed up by Maher? I forecast a high probability of dismissive, simplistic bombasticism that few devotedly religious people are going to take seriously as a critique of religion.
Of course, that’s not necessarily the problem. It’s not like devotedly religious people take criticism of religion in general seriously: regardless of quality or the seriousness. The problem is more just that of a non-believing supposedly simpatico critic of religion like myself: I’m tired of cheap laughs, however hearty. And I worry that of all the things for non-believers can indulge in at this point, shallow scorn is getting to be amongst the worst.
It’s not like the ever growing community of non-believers is particularly hurting for more yuks at yokels. Nor are we hurting in confidence. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. Right about now is the point where atheist exuberance is likely to overtake rational due diligence. What I fear from Religulous is a possible sign that, as non-belief and the skepticism of religion continue to go mainstream, we’re drifting towards the intellectual equivalent of Ugly Americanism: winners whose ungraciousness and confident cultural ignorance ultimately aids enemy insurgencies. That irreverence for the sake of irreverence is going to become more compelling than being compelling. That a taste for charming cheap shots will turn into an addiction.
Take PZ Myers’ Courtier’s Reply. It’s an ingenious little analogy in which the obscure objections of theologians to atheist critiques are compared to the excuse-making ministers in the classic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Now I happen to think there’s a lot to Myers’ fable, and so much the worse for obscure theologians. But on the other hand, outside of the expert hands of its author, the Courtier’s Reply is a two-word trope that can and most likely will turn rather quickly into a crutch: an excuse for instantly dismissing an argument pretty much unheard. And, worse, maybe even unrebutted.
I’ve felt this sort of temptation plenty of times myself: I’ll be directed to an essay by some theologian or religious blogger, and I find I’m mentally copy/pasting snippets of their text into my already formulated snarky reply… before I’ve even really read through their argument. More than once I’ve caught myself totally missing the point. Even more embarrassing, I’ve been caught missing it.
It’s not even that their “points” are necessarily good ones. Assume for a second that they aren’t. Even so, a sloppy, miscalibrated critique of bad ideas is ultimately just a boon to the defenders of bad ideas. Amateurism often just gives others ammo, and even if you believe that religious apologists really are all intellectually impotent, that just strengthens my argument. If you only pick fights with weaklings, and you’re going to end up flabby and out of shape no matter how many victories you rack up.
In any case, as a skeptic, I can’t just assume that arguments are going to be lousy, even if the conclusion is one I’ve heard poorly justified a million times before. That’s not how we, to cite a cliche, roll. The two pillars of the liberal scientific method are: nobody is the ultimate authority on what’s true, and no one ever gets to declare the debate over. We test and test and retest, for ever and ever, achoo.
And as fun as poking fun is, ridicule is ultimately something you do when you’ve unilaterally decided that the debate is over: when you’ve stopped trying to understand and grapple with someone else’s ideas. Believe me: in a world of Fred Phelpses and Larry Fafarmans, it’s quite a temptation! But while emotional release and blowing off steam are healthy in moderation, it’s hard to maintain your integrity and your edge on a diet heavy in dismissive disdain.
So consider Religulous on a nitpicking notice. Can Maher really balance ridicule with reason, be flippant and fair at the same time? I’m skeptical at this point, but we’ll see.
Besides, with Expelled pretty much off the radar, who else am I going to push around?