Saturday, November 8, 2008

Religulous - From Funny to Freefall

I saw the movie Religulous last week. I am a big fan of Bill Maher. His stuff after 9/11 was dead on - all those great war posters that never were: "When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden. " His absolute lack of apologies has always struck as honest if sometimes over the top.

Religulous is funny in ways that you would expect. Maher is of course not asking any really deep questions. He is out to show where the bias and blindness in religion lies and to no one's surprise he finds out without a whole lot of effort. His conclusion about the real danger of letting people who are waiting for the apocalypse run governments is however presented with real force.

The problem, as is often the case, is the debate is nothing but the poles each calling each other out. Maher is right about the real bias against people who dare to call themselves atheists but he fails to think very hard about why people are religious. For him its all about not wanting to think or to have a hand to hold or having a simple answer. There is no doubt that its pretty easy to find these kind of folk. But that still does not answer where the Martin Luther Kings and the Gandhi's come from. It does not address the beauty of Caravaggio's The Calling of St Matthew, the grace of Tibetan Buddhist statuary or the aspiration that drove Kepler's discovery of elliptical orbits for planetary motion. Religion has many functions and many of them are about social control. But to miss what William James speaks of as Religious Experience and dismiss it out of hand is like deciding that you can ignore those parts of physics that you don't like or agree with.

Maher's movie is about the dull, though well populated extreme. James talks about this - the kind of "man" who has "his religion … made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to him by fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.” Much of what Maher shows is true but still he misses the deeper parts of what James saw - that people find a sense of the sacred in their lives and that they can do it within or without institutional religions. Those experiences are the root of what becomes religion and, I would argue, in different form becomes the aspiration for science. We would all do better if traced that root and then directed its energy towards our "better angels".

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