Too stoopid to be atheist

October 27th, 2008
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Readers are likely at least peripherally aware of the renewed efforts by several public figures and commentators to discredit religion. Not that this is anything new. We are going into at least our second generation when it’s been unfashionable to profess anything more than healthy agnosticism.

It is fair to say that, since 9/11, attacks on religion have sharpened. This began with a focus on radical Islam, but faster than you could say “Christian Fundamentalist” veered to an implication that all religion is pernicious. Public intellectual heavyweights including Christopher Hitchens have weighed in, he with his recent book “God is not Great”. Such criticism must be taken seriously and, in a free society, welcomed as part of healthy debate. Have a look at the revealing interview with Hitchens.

Unfortunately, the “debate” often quickly descends into anti-religious screeds and simple ridicule of believers. Such is the case with Bill Maher’s film “Religulous”, which reportedly consists of him smirking for about 100 minutes, mocking his unfortunately ignorant fellow men. The National Post recently had an interesting evaluation of the film and Maher’s style.

The Canadian Press described Religulous as “deliver(ing) a laugh-out loud attack on the most sacred of cows.” This is a bit of a surprise to me, as I didn’t think there were any sacred cows left. Christianity in particular has been the object of escalating ridicule for 50 years – and is routinely profaned. At best it’s a “sacred” cow.

Yet it seems that despite their impressive success at expunging religion from the public sphere in much of Europe and Canada (less so in the U.S. – but even there the observant have to fight for every publicly displayed manger during the “Holiday Season”), Maher and many others seem intent on sniffing out any lingering belief they might still find and mocking it.

While this approach makes sense when producing a mockumentary for people who already agree with you, it strikes me as a little too easy. As the New Republic’s Linker says in the Post, Maher didn’t go out looking to debate theologians. Merely by showcasing religious views others find ridiculous serves to tar religion and people of faith in general.

It reminds me of the motivation behind Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans”. By asking Americans questions about Canada that – surprise – they were unable to answer, he easily “proved” how stupid they were. For the (Canadian) viewer it was a win-win: see how dumb Americans are and feel how smart we are. Ha-ha-ha! Things have changed since the days of Art Linkletter, when laughing at people wasn’t so readily accepted.

Given that there’s no apparent shortage of ignorance out there it begs the question why Maher, and others would focus on religion as being particularly pernicious. As a self-proclaimed libertarian, one might expect Maher to generally accept people’s right to free expression. However, as has been seen in different contexts, such freedom more often extends to all but religious expression. In fact Maher has called religion a “neurological disorder that justifies crazies and stops people from thinking”.

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By John Weissenberger