According to an Associated Press story on Friday, more than a half-million people have toured the creationism museum in Kentucky since it opened in May 2007. However, at least one of those people was there to make fun of it with a video camera.
In fact, a lot of what Bill Maher's new film, "Religulous", does is make fun of people. But by no means does Maher single out fringe religious believers. He interviews one of the few top scientists in the world who believes, a priest at the Vatican who believes, and plenty of random typical believers in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Maher's conclusion: these people (including the vast majority of Americans) are all enablers of neurologically disordered killers who are going to destroy the planet.
It takes a two part argument to get to that conclusion. The first part runs like this. A lot of religious believers want the world to end or are indifferent to its ending or are less opposed to it than they would be as atheists. As evidence, Maher interviews a bunch of cranks who think the end of the world, even if brought about by nuclear war or global warming, wouldn't be all that bad, and some who think it would be fantastic. Disturbingly, these cranks include people like U.S. Senator Mark Pryor who comes off looking dumber than a sea sponge but a lot more dangerous. Maher also interviews people who say they don't know anything about politics but voted for Bush because he's religious. Cute but deadly.
The film was clearly made before Sarah Palin came on the national scene. If you don't buy this first part of the argument after watching the movie, Palin should clinch it for you. The Associated Press reported on Saturday on her use of public money, in the Bush-Cheney tradition, to fund religious causes. Bloggers have reported on the belief of some of Palin's supporters that she has been chosen by God. Palin has taken intentional steps to facilitate global warming rather than curtailing it. She has, like Bush, said she believes God wanted war in Iraq.
The second part of the argument is that by failing to denounce religion, hundreds of millions of relatively secular religious people are enabling the lunacies of the religious fanatics, which -- according to Maher -- we must outgrow or all die together. We risk, he says, perishing as a species because we've invented the means of self-annihilation (nuclear and environmental) before managing to overcome the mental disease that makes us wish for self-annihilation. It is indisputable that at least some people tend to be more religious if others around them are religious, and that the opposite is true as well. And it is indisputable that humans commit mass murder in the name of religion. I think it's nearly beyond dispute, as well, that the attacks of 9-11 would not have occurred had Americans all been Muslims, and that the attacks on the Middle East by Americans before and after 9-11 would not have happened, at least in the same vicious way, had all the people there been Christian. Of course, without religion people can invent other justifications for slaughtering each other, but not for martyrdom, not for holy suicide, and not for blissful acceptance of environmental or nuclear catastrophe.
I think Maher's case is solid, and I think his movie tells his story in a compelling and often very funny way. But it has some shortcomings. For one thing, Maher is hardly ever nice to anyone in the movie, except as a pretense to get them to look stupider on film. He's a comedian, and he sees his job as mocking people. The cruelty of this is more apparent than usual, because the people he's being cruel to are there on film being humiliated before the world. It would have been helpful, for example, to include a serious conversation with someone who had recently overcome religion and who was able to explain how they'd done it. Maher does include snippets of a conversation with a scientist who's studied the brain activity of people praying and meditating, but he's only there as a straightman for Maher's jokes; we never learn whether he has anything useful to say. It might have made sense to include, as well, a relatively rational believer arguing against Maher that religion benefits the world. But that wouldn't have been funny.
Perhaps it was the way Maher made the film. Perhaps it was just the fact that he made the film. But for some reason, according to the Desert Sun newspaper a theater in California just shut down after receiving a death threat for Maher. One of the topics addressed in the film is, in fact, the insanity and cruelty of religiously motivated death threats. But Maher shies away from nothing, and asks why it should be that atheists (OK, he does shy away quite wimpishly from the word atheist, but that's what he means) should not feel safe expressing their views in public.
According to a survey Maher cites, and according to quite a few polls, atheists and non-believers are a sizable group in America -- smaller than in many countries, but still sizable. Other minorities, Maher points out, including African-Americans, gays and lesbians, gun owners, Jews, etc., all have organizations and spokespeople and at least sometimes get what they want or manage to be part of the debate. Why not atheists? But Maher stops short of pointing out any of the fledgling groups that do exist, most of which -- like Maher -- tend to avoid the word atheist. There's the Secular Coalition for America, The Brights, the Council for Secular Humanism, the American Humanist Association, the American Atheists, and more.
Either Maher is wrong, or our lives depend on joining and promoting the work of these groups. Watch his movie and decide for yourself. Think for yourself.