“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.” —G.K. Chesterton
I was raised by agnostic parents whose childhood experiences with religion forever left a negative impression. At age 10, a random visit to a friend’s church resulted in my being sequestered by the pastor, who told me that my Rick Springfield and Def Leppard records had put me on the path to hell. For the next decade and then some, I remained very much my parents’ son when it came to religion. And yet I now spend more time defending faith than not.
Bill Maher’s new documentary Religulous is a hilarious and often disturbing journey through what the comedian considers to be the lunacy of organized religion. Focusing on the many curiosities, hypocrisies, and illogical beliefs of both orthodox and unorthodox faith, Maher has fun with the little questions. (How did Jonah survive in a whale’s belly? Is mankind really only 5,000 years old?) And yet also asks the big ones. (Why do people feel the need to believe in God? Is religion not the source of much of the world’s problems?).
But within the first few minutes of the movie, I knew exactly what to expect after the freethinking critic offered the clichéd indictment that religion is an impediment to rationalism and the “progress of humanity.”
The 20th century was unquestionably the bloodiest in human history, with the worst culprits committing murder in the name of rationalism and the betterment of man. Karl Marx also believed religion was an impediment to rational human beings making rational decisions, and his followers in Russia, China, and around the world massacred millions for the “greater good” of communist revolution. Adolf Hitler wanted a better Germany and thought the Holocaust necessary to pay tribute to an Aryan god of his own making. And it is no accident that both National Socialism and communism were rationalist religions that forbade traditional religion.
In outlining the silliness of much of the world’s religion, Maher is showing how flawed men arrive at flawed conclusions often based on flawed premises. That man cannot comprehend God is understandable and often hilarious; that Maher believes those who try should turn away from their gods, real or imagined, and worship at the altar of reason will inevitably produce the same insanity. Man is not sane.
And yet humans do recognize that sanity exists. Why? Humans alone are the only beings on this earth that recognize morality, although our concepts of right and wrong differ from culture to culture. All animals have survival instincts, and yet humans alone have a moral instinct. Why? Christians believe man is made in God’s image. With this in mind, Christian author G.K. Chesterton believed that man was half-animal and half-god, and that we would be judged by how much or little we chose to exploit our fellow man. That’s about the best answer I’ve heard to date as to the earthly uniqueness of human beings, despite the irrationality of many Christians.
As a non-sports fan, I could make an entire documentary about the irrationality of hardcore sports fanatics, many of whom measure their day-to-day happiness by the athletic prowess of complete strangers. The casual sports fan is just as irrational in many ways, but he sort of takes it all in stride. In making my movie, I would primarily focus on just the fanatics to make my point.
Maher has approached religion the same way. If Maher believes in rationalism, then should not the collective wisdom of centuries of religious thought have as much, or even more worth? Religious tradition offers some of the best glimpses into the meaning of life and man’s purpose on this earth. It also offers a lot of junk, some of it dangerous. The same goes for Maher’s rationalism. And the most fanatical and successful rationalists, like Stalin and Hitler, certainly did more harm than good.
Conservative Russell Kirk believed the definition of a fanatic is one who seizes upon a slice of truth, or perceived truth, and harps on it incessantly at the expense of the larger picture. In trying to prove that those who have the most faith in religion represent the gravest fanatical danger, Maher is missing the larger picture. The most dangerous fanatics are men who have the most faith in themselves, whether by insisting on the infallibility of their own interpretations of God or insisting on the infallibility of their own interpretations of anything.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.
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