Monday, October 6, 2008


Okay, so last night I went to see Bill Maher's new movie on religion. My take: mildly thoughtful, mildly funny. I was rather hoping for hilarious, but it didn't often reach that level. A favorite gimmick was the cut-away, in the middle of some schmuck's soliloquy, to some snarky film clip or another. To really work, this has to make a cogent comment on the schmuck's insanity, but the clips were often more interruption than commentary - shorter and snappier than a "Family Guy" diversion, but not much better targeted. Usually, it was funnier just to let the wackier people speak for themselves.

And some of these folks are seriously wacky. Maher preaches the tenets of Scientology to a pitying crowd in a London park, who can't distinguish him from any of the other ranting nutjobs nearby. At least Maher gains no followers there. But we also meet a Latino preacher who claims direct descent from Jesus and himself as the Jesus of the Second Coming. Or a bling-bedecked con man who leaves you wondering if he's in it for the money or for the pussy - it's hard to say. These folks have followers, followers who are not, by any standards other than an atheist's, especially crazy.

And that's the crazy part - ordinary people believing obviously crazy things. Those of us raised as Protestants and Catholics find it easy to laugh at Scientology and Mormonism, or mock the whole 72 virgins business, but c'mon - let's be fair. Talking snakes and globe-covering floods don't make a whole lot more sense, yet a lot of ordinary folks believe this is literal history - at least, that's what they'll tell you, with passion.

So we see Mormon musclemen chase Maher away in Salt Lake City*; he receives a similar reception at the Vatican. We meet an "ex-gay" who, with slight prodding, looks awfully damn gay still and gives Maher a goodbye hug that needs no punchline (although it might have been angling for one). We meet a Muslim woman who stands on the very spot where Theo van Gogh was murdered and insists that violence is no part of Islam.** Maher has received a lot of criticism for taking on the easy religious targets and there's a bit of truth to it, but that criticism also misses the point. And the point is this: it's not that there are a few crazy people out there giving religion a bad name. Religion has this way of taking perfectly ordinary, intelligent people and getting them to believe utterly crazy things. You don't have to be crazy to act insane, if you just have a dose of religion.*** That's what scares the rest of us.

There was one opportunity to look deeper into the subject that, disappointingly, Maher didn't follow up on. In the Vatican, he meets the official astronomer, who easily dismisses Bronze Age science in favor of modern knowledge and then, outside, he encounters an Italian priest who laughs at Biblical listeralism and breezily dismisses most of the Bible as just "stories." The question that needs to be asked then would be, "So, um, then why are you a priest? What does Catholicism mean to you that seems to escape the rest of the world?" I would have liked to hear those answers, but no. Perhaps they weren't going to be funny enough.

* As they go, you hear one of the crew commenting that this made better footage than if they had stayed. There are some scenes of religious folk listening patiently to the infidel, but not all that many. Theater.

** To his credit, Maher comments later that the defenders of Islam seem more disturbed about violence than they're willing to let on to a stranger. This is probably correct. One historian has noted a similar phenomenon with 19th century Mormon women, who fiercely defended polygamy against "gentile" attacks, but seemed pretty happy with monogamy when that finally came along. You dare not concede a point when the enemies are on the attack.

*** Even sports fans have a lot more sanity to them, outside game time. I mean, c'mon.

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