Friday, October 10, 2008

Bill Maher and the Atheist Apocalypse

Apocalypticism not just for religious kooks anymore

Normally, Bill Maher is a very funny guy.

At many points of Religulous, he even is funny. But sadly, by the end of the film, he just wants to scare the living shit out of you.

Maher, you see, believes the apocalypse is coming. To his credit, and unlike many religious fundamentalists, he doesn't welcome it. But he is willing to point fingers, and to exploit fear of a potential apocalypse to further his own personal agenda.

That agenda? An agenda of doubt.

"I don't know," he says repeatedly through the film. It's the maxim he preaches: one of skepticism and disbelief.

Most of the film relies on a carefully-constructed "mook" personae, making outrageous -- and often hilarious -- comments while smirking at the beliefs of his subjects. Maher the atheist "mook" also has a self-satisfied sense of superiority. Only when he converses with individuals that he can also regard as an equal -- all too often individuals who are themselves skeptics or can at least mix their religious beliefs with healthy skepticism -- does Maher cast off his "mook" character and cease being the snarky funnyman and try to address the subject matter with a modicum of respect.

Sometimes, it's hard to begrudge Maher his smugness. All too often, his subjects make it remarkably easy for him. One simply must find amusement in Maher's discussion of the virtues of creationism as opposed to evolution with a creationist museum curator -- an individual who looks vaguely as if he himself could be the missing link between man and ape. Or in the case of an amusement park Jesus (for whom an unstrung tunic seems to be the biblical equivalent of a popped collar) who makes an impressively weak pro-belief sales pitch about how the Holy Trinity is like water -- it can be steam, ice or water.

Maher's smirking mookish inquisition of his kooky subjects is amusing and really does serve to highlight some of the crazier beliefs held by various religious believers, but it ultimately ill-serves his thesis by the film's end.

Maher's conclusion that religion can only lead humanity toward nuclear annihilation ultimately arrives stillborn given the lack of attention devoted to actually devoting that thesis.

While his focus on Muslim rioting surrounding the Muhammad Cartoons, death threats issued against Salman Rushdie and the assassination of Theo Van Gogh start to develop the religion as violence theme initially advanced by Dutch legislator Geert Wilders, Maher spends too much time cracking jokes about some of the more controversial beliefs held by Scientologists and Mormons and focusing on self-styled prophets such as Mormon church founder Joseph Smith and Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda (who describes himself as the second coming of Christ) to make his sudden turn toward apocalypticism seem credible.

In the end, in Maher's view, it all has to come down to atheists against believers -- with little or no middle ground to occupy. How can there be, when religion is allegedly going to be the catalyst by which the apocalypse is triggered?

Maher challenges atheists to stop being so damned timid and challenges "moderate believers" to "look themselves in the mirror" and cast off their religious beliefs.

But Maher's challenges encounter two key inconsistencies. First, atheists have been anything but timid, especially of late. Atheists such as Michel Onfray have advocated open warfare between religion and atheism. And of course there's always nonsense like this.

In the end, Maher's "call to arms" is far more damaging than constructive. Maher's clarion call seeks to erase the vital middle ground through which the gap between extremists on either side of the issue -- atheists who seek the destruction of religion and religious fundamentalists, including those who seek to trigger the endtimes themselves -- must be bridged.

No matter what Maher and those who think like him may believe, it simply isn't reasonable -- or rational -- to attempt to define religion only according to the crazed beliefs its most warped adherents subscribe to or by the numerous mistakes that have been made in the name of religion.

To do so would overlook the numerous positive advances that have been made often in the name of religion: Mahatma Ghandi led the non-violent resistance to the British colonization of India based on his Hindu religious beliefs. Dr Martin Luther King Jr mixed Ghandi's methods with his own particular Christian religious beliefs to win civil rights for African Americans. The Protestant Social Gospel has led, in many countries (including Canada) to the emergence of a charitable welfare state.

But Maher doesn't want to talk about that. Like many self-satisfied atheists, Maher doesn't want to recognize these things.

Maher actually wants to wipe out any middle ground occupied by the reformers who helped win these various advances and replace it only with socially and civically destructive polarization.

Sadly, he isn't alone in this desire.

In a certain sense, perhaps Maher's call to arms should be answered -- via a rejection. Those atheists whom Maher considers too "timid" -- timid in the sense that they respect other people's right to believe as they do -- should reject his call. Those moderate believers -- especially reform-minded religious believers -- should not reject their religious believers in deference to Maher's fear mongering. They should reject his call.

While certain religious sects -- such as oppressive Scientology, militant Islam and bigoted Christian organizations -- should be rejected, religion itself has not been such a vulgar thing as Maher's one-sided description of it would insist.

At the very least, these things should not be rejected in favour of what Maher favours -- once again, doubt.

Maher's reasons for his atheism may suit him. But to tell people they must reject their beliefs for the simple virtues of "humble" doubt is an utter farce. For one thing, it says nothing about any positive reason for embracing doubt. It merely speaks to what he considers to be the negative reasons for rejecting religion.

No matter what Maher and his compatriots may insist, there is nothing rational about suggesting that the often irrational-seeming questions asked by religion ("who am I? Where did I come from? What is the meaning of life? What will happen to me after I die?") should not even be asked. That is taking the intellectual coward's way out of questions that it is very much within human nature to ask.

Last, but certainly not least, embracing fearful atheist apocalypticism as his answer to religious apocalypticism is hypocrisy. Nothing more, and nothing less.

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