Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Religulous and the atheist's dilemma

I just managed to get my grubby paws on Bill Maher's Religulous and to be honest, my opinion of it is... meh.

I have to state up front that (as anyone who's read my longer posts would know) I've been atheist for quite a while, so, really, there's nothing new in Religulous that I haven't seen stated before in far greater depth by the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Krauss, Harris, Hitchens, Sagan, etc, etc, etc. Bill Maher tackles the problem as a stand-up comedian would, and this isn't a bad thing! Most of the more famous stand-up comedians are tremendously intelligent, articulate, witty people and, of course, they reach out to a far wider audience than the more intellectual breed of atheist, who tend to be demonized by insecure anti-intellectualists as stuffy, soulless old boffins with a tenuous grip on reality.

Religulous tackles the theistic delusion in a very Socratic manner, with Maher going up to various believers and simply asking them those fiddly little questions that would usually cause cognitive dissonance in sane people but draw a peculiar breed of blank stare from believers. e.g.:

- What was the Holocaust? Why was that good? (Re: God's Divine Plan)

- What do you think it says about religion and how serious it is if you can be a minister when you're 10? (Re: Teddy Pendergrass, in an interview with "Dr" Jeremiah Cummings)

- Why isn't the Virgin Birth mentioned in 2 out of the 4 gospels?

And of course the matter of evolution did turn up, together with a quick tour of Ken Ham's Creation Museum. With a model of Protoceratops, with a saddle and a diorama featuring Velociraptors and Brontosauri frolicking with Mowgli-esque children. Lovely. Keep an eye out for the anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew (wtf??). Crazy as a sack of rats...

I think I'm being fair in saying that Maher does not paint these people as fools but simply asks honest, important questions and then leaves these people to show us how profoundly stupid they are. One's a US senator, mind you. And of course, he's got to be funny, he's a comedian, it's what he does. So the whole movie is peppered with cute little clips here and there to grab a couple of laughs and drive a point home.

There was nothing new in Religulous for anyone who has read any works by the 4 Horsemen. No interesting new refutations, no rebuttals to the usual Creationist silliness, no serious dissection of theology or anything of the sort. What Religulous does is highlight the absurdity the religion leads to and the dangers of allowing it to permeate through so much of our* society. A US SENATOR, for crying out loud! And he's a Democrat!

Maher concludes the movie with a brief statement that could be summarized as follows: The only sensible position towards the big questions is militant agnosticism - I don't know, and you don't either**. Theism is simply delusional and dangerous. And though he doesn't explicitly say so, he does lean towards the empiricist stance, i.e. evidence first.

So, while Religulous didn't really have anything to directly offer grumpy atheists like me apart from a couple of good laughs, it did have me thinking about the atheist's struggle, that is, the matter of actually communicating the message. Our foundation is reason. The theist's foundation is faith. In my dealings with theists whom I know personally, there is a yawning void in their minds where reason goes in and... nothing happens. You'll get back blank stares and empty platitudes, sometimes anger, mostly denial. They are ignorant and they LOVE IT. They take tremendous pride in proclaiming their unwavering, whole-hearted belief in something for which there is no evidence whatsoever. In fact, the less evidence there is, the purer their faith.

How does one combat this? If you were to present evidence that undermined, say, Newton's Laws of Motion, and the evidence held up under scientific scrutiny, then GREAT! Bye-bye Newton, hello special relativity. Our perception of the world changes, and we're stronger for it.

But when you subject religion to the same kind of intellectual rigour required of any of the sciences, it all falls apart spectacularly. And the believer takes such pride in ignoring this. How does one have a rational conversation with such people? How does one help these people to free their minds? What works, exactly?

We know from bitter experience that Reason is spurned as heresy. Is Maher's approach any more efficacious? I would suspect that pointing out the absurdity of religion would simply make theists withdraw further into their shell. And, naturally, they love to portray themselves as victims. "Stop oppressing me for my beliefs!", they cry, to which the exasperated atheist throws up his hands and says "Why should I? Your beliefs are pretty fucking stupid and detrimental to the well-being of our species and look, here's why..." And here's the bit where the believer sticks his fingers in his ears and retorts, "Ican'thearyoulalalalalala!"

It just wears me down a bit, logging in to Facebook and seeing, oh, some couple I barely know (yes, I sometimes add people I don't know just for Mob Wars, too) all happy-happy joy-joy over baptising their baby, the poor little sot. Or some otherwise sensible, working adult, happily proclaiming she's just been inducted into the Catholic faith. *facepalm*

Sometimes, it really feels like building a sandcastle with a pair of tweezers and hearing the tide rolling in. It's a very ugly piece of math - the cancer of religion spreads quickly, and the cure is reason, but it is slow, and sometimes doesn't work at all. Ain't hard to see where this leads.

But, fuck it. If there's one irrationality I will allow myself to draw from the tenets of Bushido and watching way, way too many Akira Kurosawa movies, it is this: Though the battle appears to be lost, I will stand firm. I will speak and write and reason against the taint wherever I can, because in this instance, endeavour is its own reward. And sod knows, there's few enough of us as it is...

P.S. :- 10-q, daemun, for your feedback. Will try to get back to it at some point. And you're a bit wrong about Malaysia leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. It has, in fact, nigh killed my tastebuds outright, such is the horror of seeing past the bullshit and into the truth of the festering, pus-filled, gangrenous wound on this Earth that is Malaysia. But hey, it could be worse... *nods in direction of violent neighbours to the north* Come see the pretty beaches and jungles while they last!

* And by "our" I mean humans as a whole.

** An interesting take on militant agnosticism can be found in Buck Godot, where the Slag-Blah priests, rather than not believing in anything, opt to believe in
everything, with each religion gaining absolute dominance for one day each year, meaning that a Slag-Blah year is 7,823 days long.

1 comment:

Rene Benthien said...

I just saw the flick. I liked it, but as is the case with you, I've been living this kind of rhetoric and material for a long time now. This was not a film directed at the faithful. This was directed at borderline secularists, alienated secularists, and secularists in closets.

Like Hitchens, Maher only attempts to rally the troops. This is not an attempt at conversion.

I'm a lot more relaxed about faith than most of the New Atheist movement. Firstly I don't think faith is as bad in practice as it is in theory, as far as individuals are concerned (groups are another matter).

But more importantly, Reason always wins out in the long-run. There are a lot of casualties, useless and tragic wastage of lives and treasure, but as Bertrand Russell said a while back, reason just trudges on in one clear direction, while the other forces destroy each other.