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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Bill Maher Goes to Hell

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 3, 2009

            Did you know that when you combine two words together to form a new one, that it’s called a “portmanteau? (I always knew that “portmanteau” was an old-fashioned kind of suitcase. But I never knew you could apply it to words, as well.) Well, that’s what Bill Maher does for the title of his recent film: he combines “religion” with “ridiculous” and creates Religulous.


            To which, I say, one can also create a different portmanteau and combine “malarkey” and “documentary” and come up with “malarkumentary”.


            Both of which portmanteaus (that is our word du jour, I think) give you some indication of:


1. What Bill Maher thinks of religion; and


2. What I think of this movie.


If Mr. Maher was just taking on “ridiculous religion” here, I wouldn’t have a problem. I am as fond of shooting fish in a barrel as the next guy.


If he just wanted to spend 101 minutes pointing out to us some of the most blatant examples of absurd religious practices and practitioners, I could go along with it. There is certainly plenty there that is good for a laugh (and I am all for laughing, and my sense of humor is best described, I think, as “wide-ranging”; I mean, I watch South Park, for God’s sake). Maher’s director here is Larry Charles, who is best known for bringing us that most enlightening and edifying film, Borat, in 2006. So, while you may need a shower after seeing one of his films, you can at least expect to emerge from it amused.


If Maher had just wanted to satirize ridiculous religion, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with this movie:


If he simply wanted to talk with Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas about his belief in the End Times, and watch him squirm as he attempts to reconcile that with U.S. domestic and foreign policy.


If he wants to poke fun at Rev. Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a Miami preacher who claims he is the Second Coming of Christ (actually, the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Jesus, or something like that, through his marriage with Mary Magdalene), who defends his own fancy clothes and shiny shoes by saying things like, “Jesus had nice clothes, too.”—well, so be it. (Though there’s hardly anything new about pointing out Bible-thumping preachers who aggrandize themselves at the expense of their flocks. You might just want to dust off an old copy of Elmer Gantry instead.)


If he want to take us to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida (where he talks with the actor who plays Jesus, a pleasant-enough chap), or if he wants to take us to Habibi Ana, Amsterdam’s only “Muslim gay bar” (where he talks with the full house of two customers), what the heck, I’d be willing to go along for the ride.


Likewise, if Maher wanted to join the bandwagon in heaping scorn on the former Evangelical preacher Ted Haggard (whom Maher interviews in Religulous), who made a career out of homosexual-bashing and self-righteous preachifying-- until he got caught buying crystal meth from a male prostitute he frequented—then I’d probably be willing to climb onboard, too. (Obvious hypocrites like Haggard make such handy sitting ducks; they help us feel so much better about ourselves sometimes. Whatever our sins, we can always say: “We’ll never be that bad!”)


Or, if Maher had wanted to do something more serious—and more important—and chronicle the sad litany of murder and mayhem that untrammeled, fanatical religion has released on the world throughout history—and that it unleashes still in our own day—that would be something worth listening to and watching.


If, like James Carroll in Constantine’s Sword, he set out to present the sad legacy of anti-Semitism within the Christian tradition, that would be something to which we ought to pay attention.


If he wanted to open our eyes to the heinous crimes of the Taliban and other Islamo-fascist movements; if he wanted to use his talent and resources to stir up world opinion against those in the Muslim world who advocate “mercy killings” of women who have been raped; if he wanted to rally the public against those of all religions who spew hatred and say that their crimes against humankind are “inspired” by God, then I’d say, “Bill Maher-- may his name be praised.”


Or if Bill Maher had tackled the insidious cancer of Holocaust denial—that evil many-headed Hydra that continues to spew out its venom into our world—then I’d say, “May his name be inscribed on the Tree of Life!”. If Maher had turned a more-focused assault on characters like Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then these 101 minutes would certainly have been better spent. (Indeed, one of the most chilling parts of Religilous deals with Yisroel Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist, anti-Israel rabbi from New York, who says that Ahmadinejad is not such a bad guy, not anti-Semitic at all.)


In one sense, there is nothing sacred about religion.


What I mean by that is that religion deserves the same scrutiny, the same critical thinking, the same discernment we utilize in looking at any other aspect of our human endeavor. As in any other aspect of that endeavor, there are going to be things which amuse us, depress us, infuriate us, and (hopefully) which energize us to do something against injustice.


My study of history, religious and otherwise, as well as my experience in the ministry, has led me to the firm conclusion that religion brings out both the best and the worst in men and women.


Honest scrutiny means casting both eyes on both the best and the worst. Real discernment means balancing the good with the bad. It means choosing the right-sized brush with which to paint. And there, Religulous fails badly.


Because Maher (like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and all of the other militant atheists we’ve heard from in recent years) paint with a brush that is just too broad. It’s not enough for Maher merely to tar and feather ridiculous religion—or even to paint a picture of that within religion which is ridiculous (or murderous or unjust or hypocritical or homophobic or mysoginist). If either of those were his goal, then perhaps we could forgive his blatant one-sidedness, his fast and loose editing, his inserting comments into interviews after the fact.


But Maher himself states that he is out to do something more here, something bigger, something broader: He is out to denigrate religion in general, religion as part of who we are as human beings. He is saying that all religion is ridiculous. Not just myopic, narrow-minded, authoritarian, exploitive, greedy, covetous, prideful, arrogant religion (there’s plenty of those!). Not just religion when it fails to do justice, when it fails to live up to its creed, when it divides people against people, and hurts and does not heal (that happens often enough)—but all religion, because it is religion that  is ridiculous, Maher says, and worthy of repudiation by modern women and men.


            That, sadly, is where Maher becomes the thing he hates, and his film crosses the line from documentary into the neverland of malarkumentary.


            Why is Maher wrong to disparage all religion this way? Why does religion deserve to be defended?


            Because not all religions inevitably lead to intolerance toward people who have come to other conclusions. “My study of religion has taught me three things,” Gandhi once said (Maher never mentions Gandhi in his movie.) “It has taught me that all religions have some truth in them; that all religions have some falsehood in them; that all religions should be almost as dear to me as my own Hindu religion is.”


            Gandhi’s simple dictum presents a much more healthy and balanced way to look at religion than all the venom that Maher spews forth. There’s good; there’s bad; we need to respect one another. Period.


            Maher asserts that religion (all religion, remember) because it is intolerant, also breeds violence.

            Has the cross too often been turned on its side to become a sword? Of course it has!


            Do some proponents of radical Islam today bear an uncanny resemblance to the Christian marauders of the 14th century? Of course they do!


            When politics becomes mixed with religion, then deadly things can happen. It may well be one of the great tragedies of Western civilization when the Christian faith became wedded to the Empire back in the 4th century. But isn’t that the fault of the political authorities who exploit religion to their own purposes, and not of religious belief itself?


            What of the long list of Christian saints and martyrs—from Saint Francis down to the Berrigan brothers—who were peacemakers—radical pacificists-- down to their core, because of their religious belief, and not in spite of it?


            Religulous doesn’t mention Saint Francis—or the Berrigans—or Dorothy Day or Saint Edith Stein. The men and women of faith were hardly ridiculous. These shining exemplars of our humanity were religious too, through and through.


            Nor does Bill Maher mention Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King, whose calling to lead the Civil Rights movement evolved directly from his calling as a Baptist minister. If you don’t understand Martin Luther King’s religion, then you don’t understand Martin Luther King. We would not have had Dr. King’s prophethood without his faith.


            “I would rather have a committed atheist than a lukewarm Christian any day,” Dr. King once said.


            Apparently, in Bill Maher’s view, it is better to be a lukewarm atheist than a Christian who lives out the deepest tenets of his or her faith.


            Maher asserts that religion (all religion, remember) deserves to be damned because it is close-minded, never open to new evidence, that it substitutes blind certainty for open inquiry.


            Well, quite aside from the fact that we have a whole religious right here founded on freedom, reason, and tolerance (Maher never mentions Unitarian Universalism in his film)—there are many people, in many faiths, for whom the spiritual search is a journey, and not a destination. Two of the most interesting (and least caricature-like) people that Maher speaks with in Religulous are two Catholic priests: one is Father George Coyne, former director of the Vatican observatory, who tells how the Catholic faith (right up to the Pope himself) has come to embrace the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. The other is Father Reginald Foster, for many years the Vatican’s chief Latin scholar, who openly admits that many of the traditional stories of Christianity are “just stories”— myths-- remnants of an older form of religion.

            But Maher never questions Father Coyne on his views of the intersection of science and religion, or of how one might complement and inform the other. He never asks Father Foster how these “old stories” fit into faith that needs to be lived in the modern world. These might have been intelligent, interesting conversations, but we’ll never know. There are more laughs (and more money), probably, in ridiculing that which is patently ridiculous than in engaging in intelligent discourse. And it’s always easier to shoot fish in a barrel than to do the hard work of genuine dialogue.


Indeed, Bill Maher doesn’t seem terribly interested in speaking with intelligent, interesting people at any real length or in any real depth. Think of all the intelligent, interesting people he could have talked to—people who have refused to check their brains (or their imaginations or their sense of humor or their compassion) at the church door. He could have talked to the modern witch, Starhawk, and gotten some sense of what it means to bring an ancient religious tradition into the modern world. He could have talked to Father Matthew Fox, once a Dominican, now an Episcopalian, and heard his vision of what “creation-centered spirituality” means to a world yearning to be made one. He could have talked to Sister Wendy Beckett, the famed art historian, and sensed how a life of faith and prayer can fan the flames of imagination and creativity. He could have talked to the actor Martin Sheen and heard about his life work as a Catholic social activist. He could have talked to Rabbi Michael Lerner about his movement, Tikkun, which seeks interfaith reconciliation and healing. He could have talked with Irshad Manji, a television personality from Canada, whose Islamic faith adds to her own self-understanding as a lesbian, progressive, educated, professional woman. Heck, he could have talked to Bill Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, if he wanted to be enlightened on the ways of “faith without fanaticism”. He could have talked to me. He could have talked to any of you!


Is religion all sweetness and light, and the ways of religion always pure and just? Of course not! Only someone blind (or stupid) could suggest such a thing.


But is, then, the reverse true (as Bill Maher suggests): that is, that the ways of religion are always bitter and dark, that its path inevitably leads to murder, rape, and pillage.


An honest reading of history shows that such is an equally untenable position. But it is the position Bill Maher takes in Religulous. And Bill Maher is neither blind nor stupid. He is merely intellectually dishonest—and exploiting the deep confusion of these difficult times in which we live.


Sometimes—oftentimes-- people choose the wrong path; people of faith, no less than those without it. There have been, throughout history, evil holy men (and women, too, I guess) of every persuasion—blood-thirsty imams, mad monks, conniving bishops, evil popes, misanthropic ministers and priests and even rabbis. You’d have to blind not to notice them.


But just as often, evil wear no religious garb whatsoever, and spouts no particular religious creed. Certainly, the anti-Semitism that infected Germany played a large role in Hitler’s rise, but did Hitler act as he did because he had been born and baptized a Catholic? Hardly. Nor did Stalin kill millions because he had studied in a Russian Orthodox seminary for a few months as a boy.


The Black Book of Communism, authored by a group of European academics in 1997, places the total number of men and women killed by godless, atheist Communist regimes in the 20th century at somewhere between 95 and 100 million people.


I guess you don’t have to be religious to be a murderous tyrant.


Let us place the blame for evil where it belongs: in the practice of religious intolerance, yes; in any religious movement that would divide the children of humankind from one another. But not only in the practice of faith, but in its absence, too; not in the heart of God, but in the cold and tortured hearts of men and women who have turned their backs on their God, who have turned their backs on their deeper humanity, and who have exalted their own small human abilities as the hope of the world.


Maher is right, though, when he reminds us to be honest in our doubts. For doubt can be a good thing, even in the realm of faith—because doubt keeps us humble: it keeps us open to new insights; it keeps us listening to one another. “Doubt is the handmaiden of truth,” a poet once said. It is also the harbinger of a deeper, more genuinely internalized and actualized faith. Belief without humility is a dangerous thing: for people of faith and non-believers alike.


For on this earthly coil, we can believe a whole host of different things about God, and faith, and the worlds that may or may not lie beyond (and within) this one.


What matters most—right now—is that we are here, together, on this tortured planet, on this good earth. Let us leave Infinity to the Infinite, and let us join hands—in humility, in mutual respect, in compassion and love—with men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit everywhere, calling upon whatever powers we need, to bind up the broken and heal this world’s deep wounds.


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