The Virtue of Not Thinking
David and I just saw Bill Maher‘s new movie Religulous, billed as a documentary satirizing religious belief. I haven’t regularly watched Maher’s show in years, but I often find him entertaining and insightful. Unfortunately I also find his views on matters of faith to be overly simplistic at times. The movie was better than I expected it to be.
Oh sure, it features an ample roster of religious nutjobs and tons of smug editorializing and too-obvious potshots by Maher. But it also includes a few things that would be on my wishlist for such a film including:
(1) A sequence where Maher rattles off a list of mythological details from Jesus’s life as prefigured in the biographies of Horus, Mithras, and Krishna to an actor dressed as Jesus at Orlando’s Holy Land Experience theme park. This provides a compelling, concrete reason for believers to look beyond the literalism on the surface of their faith, and represents a move toward acknowledging Christianity as a complex, dynamic system with lots of overlap and mutual influence with other Near East religions of late antiquity—not just a bunch of perplexingly random fabrications, as non-believers often like to assume.
(2) An interview with Dr. Andrew Newberg, a pioneer in the neurological study of the effects of religion on the brain and the author of the lucid Why We Believe What We Believe. More interviews with smart, rational people, please!
(3) Despite serving on the advisory board on Sam Harris’s Reason Project, Maher self-identifies as an agnostic, not an atheist. In the film he comes out against certainty, which he says makes “a virtue of not thinking.”
Conspicuously absent, in my opinion, was a perspective from psychology or comparative religion; perhaps someone like Huston Smith or Dr. Stephen Larsen who could help elucidate why mythological themes from 2000 years ago still resonate so deeply with so many people. This is the voice I find absent in most contemporary discussions about religion, and yet it seems to me that this perspective is the only thing that will help us get beyond the stalemate between religious literalists on the one hand and the reactionary and combative “New Athiests” on the other.
That said, I’m glad there are people like Bill Maher out there making movies like this. If nothing else, he reminds people to think critically about one of the biggest unresolved issues of our time. I doubt he’ll win many converts with his condescension, but documentaries like Religulous and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s Jesus Camp represent a useful trend toward fascinating and accessible examinations of the problems posed by unexamined faith.