OK, Jay, for starters, I did like this Bill Maher film more than I liked Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. I saw it last night at a pre-opening screening sponsored by the Washington Area Secular Humanists and the American Humanist Association.

I am a huge film fan.I really try to approach every cinema experience hoping for the best.  I try to evaluate films under the standard: “do they achieve what the filmmaker wants to do?”  In this case, Maher and director Larry Charles want to accomplish two things: make a funny film and make a documentary about the dangers of religion, as in all religion. There were some bits here that were hilarious.  I laugh easily, though, and even found a few sections of Mike Myer’s “The Love Guru” high comedy.  But as a documentary on religion, and the real dangers it can pose, it really missed the mark.  Why?  Bluntly, it was too “preachy”.

Here’s the setup.  Raised a Catholic, in a mixed Jewish-Catholic family, Maher begins the film by discussing his abandonment of faith. He is sitting in what looks like the passenger side of a van speaking to the director off camera. He then chats with his Jewish mother and his sister about some of the funny things that happened during his childhood.  He liked girls and baseball more than going to church.  Most of us can relate to that.

Then the long slide begins.  Most of his interviews are with fairly obscure religious “leaders” who make astonishing claims.  He chats with a pastor who was once a member of the famous doo-wop group the Bluenotes, who is now doing very fine financially as the pastor of a church.  He wears $2000 suits and lots of bling.  He assures Maher that his congregation wants him to look good and that God wants him happy as well.  He concedes that some of the women in his church may have a crush on him, noting that he’d have a crush on himself if he was in the audience. For most of us Christians, this “prosperity gospel” message–love God and you’ll be “blessed” with dough–is unbiblical and predatory.

Maher visits the leader of one of those “ex-gay” ministries, that tries to scam people into believing that they can be “cured” of their homosexuality. There is a whole cottage industry of these fellows, so they are hardly hard to locate hiding their dim lights under baskets.  On the other hand, millions of other Christians reject this “mission”. I speak out regularly against them myself.

A few other interviews go the same way.  Listening to Ken Ham, the founder of a Kentucky creationist museum, attempt to explain how science and Biblical literalism mesh is breathtakingly inane. However, most people have seen all this before, presented by Jon Stewart or Penn and Teller or maybe the local college biology teacher adding a little humor to his community outreach lecture on evolution.

During a trip to the Vatican, however, after no officials from the Holy See will see him, he finds two interesting characters.  One is the former official Vatican astronomer; the other a jovial old priest apparently on a visit to Rome himself.  The astronomer explains to Maher that the Bible is not a science book because during the period of its creation, 2000 B.C until 300 A.D. there really anything we’d call science.  The still devout astonomer thus makes the critical point that you can’t do Twenty-First Century science with First Century Bible proof-texting.  The old priest tells Maher that most Catholics these days have repudiated ideas preached during Maher’s tenure with the church, even the concept of hell. What’s important to the film’s structure, though, is Maher’s reaction to all this. Here are just two more examples of religious buffoons.  If you don’t literally accept all the Scripture and/or Church says, and you pick and choose what to believe, you are obviously still holding on to the fig leaf after the fig has fallen away–and that makes you foolish.

There is a rather obvious alternative view.  People who move away from Scriptural literalism often become more clearheaded thinkers about the very issues that are at the heart of the “religion question.”  Is there a purpose to the universe?  What is the source of evil if you believe that God is good? Why should we be moral actors anyway?  There are really serious theologians who have taken this path, including my friend Bishop John Shelby Spong.  If in the end you are arguing that all religion is dangerous, really dangerous, shouldn’t you be willing to confront the best thinkers, not just the weirdest ones?

Of course, there are plenty of interviews with Muslims, including a Muslim rapper, a Muslim elected official in Amsterdam, a Muslim scholar, and lots of historical footage of angry Muslims would wanted to kill Salman Rushdie and airplanes flying into the Twin Towers.  Most of those interviewed attempt to convince Maher that fundamentalist attacks on the West are more political than religious.  Maher finds such thinking preposterous. (So does the Religious Right.)  Most experts on the Middle East know Maher is wrong–religion is the excuse (sometimes the rallying cry) for what are in fact long-standing political power plays.

Here is the fundamental flaw in the film.  Most devout Muslims, Christians and Jews have long ago moved away from the very thinking Maher is criticizing.  Believe me, I know how damaging to the Constitution and to freedom the views of the Christian Right would be if they became law. I’ve spent much of my life stopping this movement.  I am acutely aware that the Christian Right is 18-20% of the American electorate.  I also know that most of the rest of us Christians have no interest in the very things this film justifiably criticizes: we don’t want to “convert” gays to heterosexual bliss; we don’t want to stop women from exercising their own moral judgment about abortion (an issue given short shrift in Maher’s film). We are happy to concede that all of the Gospels give differing accounts of the life of Jesus (and that the earliest description of Jesus, in the book of Acts, just says he was born, lived and then died, not mentioning any resurrection) and know that such is the result of the all too human construction of a book decades, even centuries, after events ocurred.  

Since most of us religionists simply aren’t trying to regulate Bill Maher’s life, why does he even care about us?  I think the people over at PETA are wildly wrong about a lot of issues, but so long as they don’t pull my hamburger from my mouth, let them keep making their case for vegan salads. What matters is the bottom line: how does your secular or religious worldview impinge on my health, safety or well-being?  How does it effect the broader community? What would it force me to do?

The last few minutes of the film, though, contain the documentarian’s dagger to his own heart.  Maher spends several minutes speaking to the camera about how we must stop all religion–presumably even Barry Lynn’s–because it will lead to nothing short of nuclear conflagration.  As he speaks, the most violent Koranic and Biblical passages are emblazoned on the screen, often accompanied by the detonation of nuclear devices.   We are told: this is the inevitable result of religion.  DO YOU HEAR ME AUDIENCE OF PEOPLE NOT AS SMART AS I AM–THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD!  Look, to the extent this is a documentary it either makes its point in 90 minutes or its doesn’t.  If you have to tell me what I’ve seen, it is you the filmmaker that has failed. 

There is a quite intellectually defensible argument made by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris that all religion is equally dangerous.  I don’t agree with it.  I’ve had chats with both about it. This film doesn’t add a whit to that debate. Want to promote world peace and avoid nuclear catastrophe?  Rebut the ravings
of any religionist or secularist who thinks maybe we should have a preemptive nuclear strike on Iran (you know who you are); don’t tell the Methodist minister in Louisiana that he is a moron for believing God wanted him to go to New Orleans to keep people alive after Katrina.
A question and answer session occurred after the screening. There was a great diversity of opinion about the methodology employed in the film, the way it ended, whether there was too much “vinegar” and not enough “honey” in it.  This is precisely the kind of debate that ought to occur, and why it is so important that humanists become recognized as spokespeople on the crucial issues of the day. There was one theme that ran through virtually every comment, an idea with which I heartily concur.  It is great that a film on this topic (flawed or fabulous) can get widespread release throughout the United States.  Just a few decades ago, non-theism was the idea that “dared not speak its name” and couldn’t even find many self-publishers willing to put out its writings.
Finally, I’m not a film reviewer–I didn’t get a DVD of this film so I could check every fact.  But one final question.  When Maher is riding along in his van, does he really not have his seatbelt on?  It seems to be unconnected behind him.  If this is true, would somebody tell Bill that, as a rational person, seatbelts have been scientifically proven to save lives.  Buckle up.
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