My Comments at The SBL On Bill Maher's Movie Religulous

Religulous by John W. Loftus

I intend to defend this movie from most of the criticisms made against it today. If you don’t think this can be done then please stay tuned.

Combining the words Religion and Ridiculous, Bill Maher’s movie Religulous is a fascinating documentary comedy about the perils of religion in a world that has weapons of mass destruction. As an atheist, I found his movie to be funny, educational, and helpful, and I appreciate being able to respond to the excellent papers read today.

Professor Randy Reed describes the New Atheism as a cultural moment, a promising one, but not without its faults. It was thrust into center stage by the mass killings of innocent human beings on 9/11 by suicidal people of faith. As such, professor Hector Avalos accurately pinpoints what is missed most often as the hallmark of New Atheism, a secular apocalyptic. On that day Sam Harris began writing his book, The End of Faith, calling upon thoughtful people to cease granting religion a free pass from criticism. And although these terrorists did not use weapons of mass destruction, we learned on that day they would if they could. We live in an unprecedented era of weapons of mass destruction before we’ve outgrown infantile and ignorant religious beliefs.

In February 2002, two years before Sam Harris’ book was published, and four years before The God Delusion was published, Richard Dawkins called for an atheist campaign against religion much like homosexuals used to gain acceptability in American society. He did so in a talk given for TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). His final sentence was this: "Let's all stop being so damned respectful." Just like the civil rights and the gay/lesbian movements before them, so also Dawkins argued that atheists must follow in their steps. The New Atheists are tired of being patient and respectful with believers while religion marches onward, wreaking havoc with the world. Enough is enough. We live in a modern world. It’s time to give religion in all of its forms a swift kick in the butt.

That’s exactly what Maher is doing in his movie using his stock and trade, comedy. On the Larry King show Maher told us he was poking fun at religion in order to, in his words, “rouse the atheists so they would stand up and make themselves heard.” He’s making fun of the sacred in order to call atheists into action. This kind of disrespectful extremism has the power to incite a social movement among those who agree, and it gets people’s attention. It is the hallmark of the New Atheism, the kind Dawkins first proposed. People do not tend to hear moderates. But we listen to extremists. They grab our attention. Every social movement needs these kinds of initial voices if it expects to change the cultural zeitgeist.

What followed on the heels of each of these preceding movements were the scholars in their respective fields of research who won the day for their causes. So it’s no different with the New Atheism. Biblical scholars like professor Avalos are taking up their cause by calling for an end to Biblical studies as we know them. I, for one, hope his impressive efforts succeed. And I hope my meager efforts help to bridge the gap between the New Atheists and secular Biblical scholarship as well.

While professor Reed is correct that the New Atheists need to become better informed by secular Biblical scholars, I myself question how much scholarship it really takes to reject any given religion. The Joe six-pack’s of our world do not have the time to research into any given religion, much less all of them, nor even become literate enough to read the scholarly works. And yet they can still be justified in rejecting one, or more, or all religions based upon all that they know. That best explains why Dawkins probably thought it was a waste of time researching into religion for his book. He already knew from the fact of evolution, his stock and trade, that religion is a delusion. Until someone can show him that evolution does not explain everything in the biological world, he has no need for the God hypothesis, and no need to put a great deal of time researching into it.

People only need to place all religions on an equal playing field and then critically examine them as outsiders do. All they must do is apply the same level of skepticism to their own religion that they do to the religions of others. This adequately describes what I call the Outsider Test for Faith. I find the Christian religion to be ridiculous for the same reasons Christians find the beliefs of Scientology, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims ridiculous. If believers refuse to examine their own faith as they do to the other religions they reject, when it’s clear that an overwhelming number of people adopt the religion of their parents and culture, then I merely ask them why the double standard? Why treat other religions differently than you do your own? I don’t find any way around this test. In my opinion this is the test by which to assess the various religions that Maher uses in his movie, despite professor Dennis MacDonald’s claim that his movie lacks such a test. And I think Maher did a good job of it.

If anyone is troubled by the movie Religulous, then perhaps one reason why has been described best by cultural anthropologist David Eller: “Nothing is more destructive to religion than other religions; it is like meeting one’s own anti-matter twin. Other religions represent alternatives to one’s own religion: other people believe in them just as fervently as we do, and they live their lives just as successfully as we do. The diversity of religions forces us to see religion as a culturally relative phenomenon; different groups have different religions that appear adapted to their unique social and even environmental conditions.” Eller goes on to ask the problematic question: “But if their religion is relative, then why is ours not? [Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker, p. 233].

And to think, Religulous didn’t even attempt to deal with the myriad number of eastern and tribal religions found around the globe, which would only magnify this whole problem.

A key question in Religulous is what it means to say someone is ignorant, as professor Avalos said. The wise person, Socrates first told us, is someone who knows that s/he is ignorant. But in this movie we see religious believers claiming to know that their God exists and what he wants them to do, with a kind of certainty that is simply unattainable. We see this kind of religious certainty expressed throughout the movie, best expressed by the trucker who said: “When I’ve seen what I’ve seen, I know there’s a God. You can’t change my mind. Nobody can change my mind.” So if Socrates is right, religious believers like these are ignorant, all of them, and equally ridiculous.

But they are not the only ones ignorant. Daniel Dennett informs us that "One of the surprising discoveries of modern psychology is how easy it is to be ignorant of your own ignorance.” [Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, p. 31]. Even smart, educated people may be ignorant and not know it. How else can you explain the fact that there are Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars all arguing for different and mutually exclusive religions? Since I don’t see much by way of evidence for any religion, it seems that religious scholarship is little more than special pleading on behalf of prior held conclusions arrived at before someone first entered the college of his or her choice.

Bill Maher’s message throughout the movie is doubt: “My big thing is I don’t know. That’s what I preach. I preach the gospel of I don’t know.” But this was not something he was raised to accept, because later in the car Maher says, “I wasn’t born skeptical.” The fact is that none of us were. We were all raised as believers. We were taught to believe what our parents told us. If they said there is a Santa Claus, then he existed until they said otherwise. Whatever we were told by them we initially believed. If we were told there was a god named Zeus we would’ve believed it. Skepticism is an acquired trait that comes by questioning that which we were taught to believe.

Professor MacDonald faults the movie for it’s own kind of dogmatism, especially the ending. But I think there is a huge epistemological difference between rejecting a metaphysical answer to the riddle of our existence, and affirming the correct one, since affirming an answer demands verifiable positive evidence that excludes other answers. The rejection is the easy part. We all do it, sometimes without even examining a proffered answer because it just sounds ridiculous, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Victor Paul Wierwille’s The Way International, or the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The hard part after the rejection is to affirm the correct answer. That’s the distinction Maher is making here. He doesn’t think anyone can be certain when it comes to affirming the correct answer to the riddle of existence. That’s agnosticism, and it’s adopted through the process of elimination. None of us can know with certainty about these questions. None of us. He has every reason to be dogmatic about this.

I appreciate professor Cheryl Exum’s feminist stance against sexist language. She’s right, it is important. But I would like to see an equal stance taken with religious language in our Christian dominated culture. David Eller calls upon atheists to eliminate our use of words and phrases like “heaven,” “hell,” “sin,” “angel,” “devil,” “bless,” “soul,” “saint,” “pray,” “sacred,” “divine,” “baptism,” “purgatory,” “gospel” “the Mark of Cain” “Garden of Eden” “patience of Job” “a voice crying in the wilderness” “wolf in sheep’s clothing” “wars and rumors of wars” “lost sheep” and others. They have no corresponding referent in other non-Christian parts of the globe. This Christian language only serves to continue the cultural domination that Christianity has in western society; much like chauvinistic language does with respect to women.

Professors Exum and MacDonald’s main problems with the movie seem to be the same ones that John Haught wrote about the New Atheists in his book, God and the New Atheism, and the same ones Karen Armstrong wrote about in her book, The Case for God.

Professor Exum makes the claim that in Maher’s segment on Christianity he mostly interviews “people on the fringes of Christianity.” That is a common complaint with the movie. But from my perspective I see little difference between Christianities. It doesn’t matter much how many people believe in a particular religion. Maher said “Even if a billion people believe something it can still be ridiculous.” This is patently obvious since there are billions of Muslims and Christians whose religions cannot both be true.

This raises the question of “who speaks for Christianity?” There isn’t a consensus. There only seems to be a rabble number of voices each claiming to know the truth. The truth is that Christianity has evolved and will continue to evolve into the future. The Christianities practiced and believed by any denomination today are not something early Christianities would embrace. And future Christianities will be almost as different. The trouble we atheists have when attempting to debunk Christianity is that we have a moving and nebulous target which evolves in each generation. So how can any of us be faulted for not knowing which specific sect to take aim at if there is no consensus between believers on what best represents their views? There are intense debates between them. For my part I agree with the Protestant criticisms of the Catholics as well as the Catholic criticisms of the Protestants. And I also agree with the fundamentalist criticisms of the liberals as well as the liberal criticisms of the fundamentalists. When they criticize each other I think they’re all right! What’s left is the demise of Christianity as a whole.

The fundamentalist criticism centers on why liberals even bother with the Bible. Why not the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, or Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures? This is also the atheist criticism. Professor Avalos has shown us that the liberal deconstruction of the Bible has put an end to Biblical studies. So why bother with it at all? If someone no longer accepts the historical underpinnings of her faith she should look for a different one, or none at all. It’s the intellectually honest thing to do. To me, liberalism is like a pretend game much like M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, The Village. In my opinion they should stop pretending.

Let me remind the liberals that they did not come to their conclusions gleefully. No, they were forced against their prior preferences into accepting what science and Biblical criticism led them to think. Now all they do is pick and choose what parts of the Bible to believe with no solid criteria for distinguishing the believable parts from the unbelievable parts except their shared evolving consensus. God is love, it says, but it also says God is a vengeful warrior who commanded genocide and was pleased with impregnatory prayers for babies to be dashed against the rocks. Liberals don’t accept anything the Bible says just because it says it, so they can quite easily dispense with it altogether as irrelevant for their lives.

Professor MacDonald argues that “one learns as much about religion watching Larry Charles’ “Religulous” as one learns about the American family by watching ‘The Simpsons.’” I think differently. Why are we here in the first place if Religulous doesn’t teach us something important about religion? He claims Maher is ignorant about religion because true religion has beauty, flexibility, and humility in it. While I do agree there are benign religions, at least non-violent ones, I don’t think Maher is that ignorant, nor are any of the other New Atheists. I respectfully challenge anyone to demonstrate otherwise. Maher even interviewed liberal Catholics. Perhaps they just don’t know how to respond to people who continually undercut the historical foundations for their beliefs and yet continue to affirm them anyway.

MacDonald argued that “Maher and Charles share a fundamental misunderstanding of religion insofar as they equate religious people as those who hear the voice of God or those who trust those who claim to have done so as the sine qua non of religion.” But the Abrahamic faiths ALL started out this way. Without people who claimed to hear the voice of God the three great monotheistic faiths would not even exist in the first place! Without people claiming to hear the voice of God there would be no canonized Biblical texts to study and consequently no Biblical studies departments in the universities.

Professors Exum, MacDonald, Haught and Karen Armstrong all fault both sides in this war of words and bombs. They claim to stand in the gap between them with the voice of reason. “Come see,” they argue, “a properly understood religion is benign and filled with wonder.” Armstrong argues against both sides by claiming religion is not a set of doctrines to be believed but rather something practiced in ritual and experienced through introspection, art, and music. Haught argues the essence of religion is Tillich’s “ultimate concern" which for Exum, is her feminism.

But I find it inconsistent for liberals like Armstrong to fault the New Atheists for treating religion as a scientific hypothesis who then turn around and use the scientific findings of archaeology and Biblical criticism when deconstructing the Biblical texts. Can they really have it both ways? I think not. Even so, what method does religion offer us? Introspection? Art? Music? What kind of method is that? Such a method would never have allowed Armstrong to come to the conclusions she's reached about religion in general, and of Christian fundamentalism in particular.

Suffice it for me to say that I find liberalism metaphysically unfulfilling and deeply inadequate. At best this god is a distant god, and as such, can be safely ignored as having no relevance for one's life, and at worst an unnecessary hypothesis we can do without. Feminism, for instance, needs no goddess. They’re all practically atheists. With an irrelevant Bible and an irrelevant god why not just give up on the pretense of faith as irrelevant as well? Why not admit they rely entirely on reason and science?

Even if the liberals are correct about religion I think theirs is a misplaced concern when they attack the New Atheists. There is nothing to fear from the New Atheist’s when compared to the fundamentalists in our world. We strongly affirm the separation of church and state in a free democracy, something all reasonable people should embrace. The New Atheists do not advocate the use of violence against people who oppose them. That’s the difference between us, and it’s a huge one. Despite all claims to the contrary, Maher does not want to forcibly ban religion. He simply wants to laugh it into the backwaters of our social and political life. How much harm is laughter by comparison to bombs?

Take fundamentalist Christianity for instance. A Gallup poll shows that 44% of Americans deny that humans evolved from other animals, and who believe instead we were all created as distinct species not more than 10,000 years ago [“Evolution, Creation, Intelligent Design” at; a 2008 Pew Forum poll had similar results at 42%; see “Public Divided on origins of life”]. Fundamentalism is the greatest hindrance to science, tolerance, and social progress, and it’s also the most prevalent form of Christianity to be found in America. It’s the religious right that holds the reigns of the Republican Party, if you haven’t noticed. It’s this brand of Christianity that makes the loudest, most obnoxious, most dangerous impact on the world today, giving us plenty of good reasons to direct the brunt of our attacks in its vicinity.

So who really cares if the New Atheists are attacking what liberal scholars don't consider true religion or true Christianity? They are attacking a real threat to world peace regardless! And who really cares if religion doesn't poison everything as Hitchens’ extreme rhetoric proclaims? Religion causes a great deal of suffering.

Bill Maher calls on moderates to resign in protest. To do otherwise “is to be an enabler.”

I agree.

In fact, as a former conservative, turned moderate, turned liberal, this is exactly what I did. Given the non-historical nature of much of the Bible, the barbaric God it reveals, the massive amount of suffering in the world, the advancement of science, and the history of an abusive church, it’s the reasonable thing to do.

I call on others to do likewise.