Faith is a tricky thing. No rational thought is involved, and I'm obliged to suspend my logical abilities while unconditionally accepting anything without tangible proof. As a Catholic, that basically means anything. I'm expected to believe in virgin births, four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and that people fluent in gibberish are actually speaking in tongues.
Thus, like any doubting Thomas or anyone inclined to question their religious origins, I checked out Religulous. The movie doesn't pull punches or lacks for laughs. Bill Maher questions people from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish origins; colorful characters such as disgruntled Mormons, a U.S. Senator, and various red-state Christians are each given a completely fair opportunity to huff his or her way right into a corner. Maher's talks with a theme-park Jesus and an Amsterdam-based reverend with a cannabis-related fellowship are hilariously noteworthy, making Religulous resemble one of his HBO comedy specials.
However, Maher seems to have a more profound goal in mind. He doesn't entirely play Religulous for laughs, but injects social commentary alongside comedy by exploring the consequences of religion combined with nationalism. Stating that religion and politics makes for one hell of a Molotov cocktail is nothing new, but Maher's social commentary is enjoyable and on point, especially in regard to the outcry regarding the infamous Prophet cartoons. And, as somebody who grew up in a culture that combines church and state, I always appreciate anyone who attempts to address the matter with logic and general sanity.
Though his political humor is engaging, where Maher scores the most biting points with me is by nitpicking fanciful aspects of religious beliefs in Religulous. Blind faith in miracles isn't sacred in Religulous; some of the most entertaining parts of the movie arrive in the form of Maher questioning a Jew For Jesus over why he continues to define spontaneous rain as anything more than a coincidence. Maher remains adamant as his subject hits a logical impasse and struggles to find his answer. As someone who once watched other people start speaking in gibberish-sounding tongues at an alleged presence of the Holy Spirit while stuck at a college retreat (and contemplated babbling to make a teacher happy), I understand Maher's curious reasons for giving a Jew For Jesus a chance to explain himself.
Another aspect of Religulous I enjoyed was in seeing how extremism is set up for scrutiny. Bill Maher interrogates an anti-Zionist Jewish Orthodox rabbi and a former homosexual man who contends that all gay folk are merely unhappy beings to good measure. But, Maher hits paydirt when he interviews Muslim rapper Propa-Ghandi, who adamantly defends the 19-year-old fatwa against Salman Rushdie for "The Satanic Verses" and praises the actions of suicide bombers. Remembering Ghandi defend his perspective still gives me shivers; his advocacy reminds me of my revulsion towards fanatic devotees of The Passion of the Christ and live re-enactments of crucifixions. Given that I've been unfortunate enough to see the latter at the age of five, I'm glad Religulous takes a stance against extremity, even if it's laced with snark.
However, as much as I appreciate a stance against extremism, Maher's Religulous doesn't completely do it for me. In questioning all aspects of religion, the movie clashes with the kinder, gentler aspects of general faith I still follow. Years ago in a classroom, I learned a mellower concept of God that isn't extreme, reliant on rain, or a polarizing political grenade a diehard can lob at Bill Maher. According to Father James and Father Flavian, God didn't want people to really die on a cross for Him; instead of voluntary martyrdom, He preferred plenty of conscientious effort into not screwing up. God forgave imperfections, and no flogging was necessary. (Best of all, He was perfectly okay with anyone who cheered for the San Francisco 49ers, especially on Superbowl Sundays with Father Flavian and Father James.)
Thus, the heart of Religulous goes against mine. Where Maher advocates questioning religion in all forms big and small, I can't get away from believing that some sort of faith is required of me, even if I don't agree with the big picture my Church paints. I'm fine with forgetting about gibberish and crucifixion gore, but I can't surrender what I've learned from my teachers.
Or, more accurately, I'd rather not.
Even as I choose to retain my faith in the face of Religulous circumstance, I know Bill Maher's points are pretty relevant. After all, the very essence of religious and spiritual faith is requires belief without proof. No archaeological evidence exists to prove that Cain and Abel had a little fight. One of the few clear facts about the four Gospels of the New Testament is that they were written by four different people for separate audiences and with varying states of duress; one only has to read John's chapter of Revelation to notice that it looks like the Biblical equivalent of an acid trip. And, for all I know, there may actually have been fifteen commandments, just like Mel Brooks says in History of the World.
So, it's pretty clear why Religulous advocates questioning faith, especially its extreme forms. But, even as Bill Maher pokes holes in my basic faith's drawers, I'm all right with holding on to it. I'm not the kind who needs a vacation to the Creation Museum, but I need a little faith. My concept of it isn't a George Michael song recycled on "Eli Stone" or a rogue Slayer, but faith makes my day a little brighter, my hopes just a bit wider, and my so-called life carry that extra silver lining of meaning when I wonder if it's insignificant. Faith is intangible and cannot be proven, but without it, my life lacks a heart.
All in all, in spite of my disagreements with the movie, I believe that Religulous deserves to be seen, laughed at, and laughed with. Unfortunately, just as I can't stop Saved! junkies from freaking out or picking on generally happy, gay folk, I know people will shun Maher's film or picket it. Lord only knows that some people need to believe something so badly that they'll gladly take out their frustrations on Bill Maher, and religious people get a little noisy.
But, even if the Religulous squawking becomes a little loud, I hope people check it out. Because no matter what I, Bill Maher, or anybody else believes in, faith is absolutely worth thinking about, and it's fine to do it with a sense of humor.
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An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.
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10.13.08 @ 1:35p
As one who was excommunicated by a tribunal of three priests who examined me on my "faith and morals" at the age of 19, for heresey because of an editorial I wrote in my college newspaper in favour of birth control and family planning, I have a slightly different view of the Catholic Church. I had a choice. I could go to daily mass and communion for a year and recant publicly what I had written and thereby undo the excommunication or I could examine my conscience myself and decide on another path. I did the latter. As I was standing for the gospel one morning about a month after my "sentence," I suddenly thought, "What the fuck am I doing here? I don't believe in any of this stuff aymore." I laid my daily missle full of holy cards down on the pew and walked out of the church, never to return except for baptisms, weddings and funerals. As a woman I wasn't really all that welcome in theological discussions, and could never aspire to being pope. I don't have much faith in institutions with built-in sexism on that scale. I've heard people talk and write about their conversions as "religious experiences." I think my "conversion" in the church that morning was analagous to that, and it was every bit as profound. Having been brought up by a grandmother who believed that organized religion was the greatest evil in the world didn't help in the matter of retaining any semblence of "faith" in something, anything, I couldn't defend logically and scientifically. Since seeing all the evil promulgated by extremists in several religions I am no longer prepared to defend anybody's right to freedom of religion. If somebody wants that freedom they're going to have to fight for it themselves. I'll fight for speech, press, assembly, petition, and even for bearing arms, but not religion. I "fought" for civil rights in Alabama in the summer of 1964, which was as close as I hope I'll ever get to a shooting war, but I've washed my hands of the whole religious issue. I'll fight for freedom of thought, which some might say is the same as freedom of religion. Well, okay, go split the hairs and pick the nits.
10.13.08 @ 4:29p
Holy crap Sandra, I've always looked at excommunication as something that the Church dangles as the ultimate threat to a threatening follower. It's refreshing to read that instead of adhering to the biggest idiot detention possible, you found you. You found your own conscience, and it wasn't under the Church's direction. I'm not here to specifically advocate the Church, but just glad to talk to another person about religion and faith.
Freedom of thought definitely seems related to freedom of religion. I'd say the former relates to belief, while the latter is a question of how to execute belief and is about worship. I figure that I'm good as long as I can keep an open conscience, and that's all one really needs.
Now, for small-thinking minds inclined to vote the wrong person President, I think we just need a whole separate body of laws :-)
10.13.08 @ 9:53p
I can't imagine my life without faith. I'm Muslim, and my beliefs are based on this religion, but in the end I have faith in one God, who is merciful, but expects you to do the work to earn His mercy. The work is at times hard, and cumbersome, but for the most part it just means you being a good person. I don't think that clashes with any other religion out there... it's just the means which we conduct our relationship with God that are different. Great column! I'm showin' loooooove!
10.13.08 @ 11:05p
Are you kidding me?
I come from the "there's a huge difference between religion and faith" camp, with a nice warm fire I'm sure I'll roast over later. But it's comforting now.
10.14.08 @ 1:28a
As a practicing Pagan I believe I am part of the universe, thus part of God/dess, and God/dess is part of me. Everything is one. I have complete faith in that aspect. Just as I believe everything happens for a reason, and the way it is supposed to happen. I don't particularly like everything, but it happenes anyway.
Perhaps believing I am part of it, and it is part of me, makes things much easier for me to accept. I never bought into the whole superior being.
10.14.08 @ 2:15a
Heh, Reem, thanks for the loooooove! Anyone who exercises their beliefs responsibly when it comes organized religion is fine by me. I don't care if you're Jewish, Christian, or Muslim; I care that you're not individually out there bombing things, and I like knowing that you're looking to understand something without programmed prejudice. Keeping an attitude about God that isn't extreme takes work to maintain these days, that's for damn sure.
Tracey, there are some nutjobs out there, and Propa-Ghandi earns his spot easily among them. It's bad enough people justify extremes like suicide bombings and carry them out, but guys like Propa-Ghandi popularize it for their own gain. He puts gas in the flame, and in the process, carves out a living.
And, I'm basically from the same camp. Sometimes, I think my Church would book me straight to Hell's VIP Lounge for some of the things I've done. But most of the time, I think I'm just being honest and am okay with myself.
Robert, your belief system is a lovely thing. Maybe it's because I've grown up with the whole superior being thing that I think your system looks poetic. How does the concept of doubt exist in it? Is your God/dess okay with asking questions? In my Church, an inkling of doubt gets interpreted by authorities as immediate mutiny. How does the concept of doubt exist in a Pagan universe?
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