I am also happy to report that yesterday, as I took some out-of-towners on a tour of Manhattan, I saw a booth of the NY City Atheists in front of the Time Warner Center. I had no time to stop and chat, but I was happy to see them conversing with a curious young man. They even have literature now, they are evangelizing. Weird, but whatever works.
Anyway, in my fantasy world, even though it seems that this country is going to the gods (Bush, Palin, people who don't believe in evolution, etc), at the same time there seems to be a healthy counter-reaction to all this nonsense. Bill Maher, bless him, is one guy who really has a hair up his ass about religion and has decided to do something about it. Good for him.
I was looking forward to this movie like some people expect the Second Coming of Christ. I am sorry to say I was underwhelmed.
The movie is funny, but I think it is intellectually dishonest. I know it's supposed to be comic and that is why Maher skewers the silliest, most outrageous representatives of some of the religions. He finds mostly easy targets. I think you can make a point about some of the most ridiculous aspects of organized religion without going to the most extreme nutcases. For instance, he interviews this ultra-ultraorthodox putz rabbi who is against the existence of the State of Israel. Yes, the one who wears the Palestinian flag on his lapel and who is best friends with Ahmadinejad. The one who went to Iran for the Holocaust denial conference. That one. This guy and the three idiots who follow him are really the fringe lunatics of the lunatic fringe. I can understand that he is a good example of how faith can distort everything to extremes, but I like much better Maher's visit to the place in Israel where they invent contraptions so that Jews can dial a phone on the Sabbath. That is also as loony, but it is much more mainstream. Religion needs to be challenged in what is commonplace, not in the fringe.
But my main beef with Maher's point of view is that it is very simplistic. He ridicules faith as being illogical and impossible and absurd, which is exactly what it is. Faith is by nature the opposite of fact or science. Theologians know it. Nobody denies it. That is it's raison d'etre, to believe in something more powerful, more miraculous, more ineffable than what reason or the eye can see. The nature of faith is precisely a belief not grounded on evidence, but on belief itself. Making fun of faith is useless. There is nothing wrong with having faith, as long as you don't confuse it with fact.
Maher makes fun of the Bible and the Koran, and he does not allow himself to think that there is anything of value in these books. I strongly disagree. I think the Old Testament is a fundamentally civilizing book, let alone a major work of literature, law and ethics. I'm sure there is plenty of that in the Koran as well. There may be a lot in these books that does not make sense in this day and age, and a lot that is the product of ancient mindsets, but I think that it behooves Maher to separate the merit of the books from the people who interpret them literally. It is not Genesis' fault that people like Sarah Palin think the world was made in seven days. Genesis is an amazing interpretation of the origins and the nature of man, it's not just a story about a snake that talks, like Maher puts it. Not acknowledging the symbolic, ethical, literary power of the Bible seems unfair and limited to me. Even worse is his comparing the tenets of Scientology to the Bible. Scientology is a cult. Nothing in it has anything of literary, cultural or ethical merit or value. It's like a ponzi scheme. To compare the ridiculousness of Scientology myths to that of the Bible is a gross oversimplification and it is spurious.
Maher tries to prove to evangelical Christians that the story of Jesus is not original. There are many prophetic myths in ancient cultures that resemble the Jesus myth. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that many creation myths echo across cultures, and the fact that the Egyptian god Horus is a forerunner of Jesus doesn't make faith in Jesus any less relevant to those who believe in him. So what?
As for Islam, it is really the weakest part of the film. I heard a member of the audience, one who I assume by her accent may have been Muslim, complaining that Maher's portrayal of Islam as a violent religion is totally unfair. Again, I don't know enough about Islam to agree or disagree, but I do know that not all Muslims can be equated with fundamentalist Muslims, as not all Jews are ultra-orthodox.
Where I do agree with Maher is on the abuse of religion by the people who rule it and even by those who follow it. Had he made a clear distinction between organized religion and faith, he'd have made a more convincing argument for our need to separate religion from politics and from public life. Faith and religion should be deeply private choices that nobody should try to impose on other people, much less through political coercion.
The best parts of the movie are those in which he bemoans what is happening in America today. Mainly, that the religious right is dangerously dumbing down this country. He reminds us that many of the Founding Fathers (John Adams, Jefferson, Ben Franklin) were fiercely anti-religious. He says that 16% of Americans are not affiliated with any religion. I think the number is much higher if you include secular catholics, protestants and Jews; people who are in touch with their religious background but don't really practice religion. I agree with Maher that it is time that Americans demand total separation of church and state.
But if you are going to fight religion, you need better arguments.