Grow up and try again

Religulous asks the wrong questions. So do most of the rest of us.

Not Jesus on toast. Bill Maher is snark on cheese sandwich.

Not Jesus on toast. Bill Maher is snark on cheese sandwich.

“Grow up or die.”

Those are the choices Bill Maher leaves us with in the final, mushroom-cloud-laden frames of his new film, Religulous. Directed by Larry Charles of Borat fame, it’s every bit as offensive—and honest—as one might expect.

It’s also got Maher’s usual problems: an excessive fascination with his own snarkiness and a know-it-all attitude. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong.

Nor does it mean that he’s made an enduring contribution to the discussion of the place of religious belief in civic discourse. While Maher’s film is exceptionally good at pointing out absurdities (and really, whose religious beliefs wouldn’t sound insane if they were shouted from a free-speech corner in Hyde Park?), he’s not so good at noticing how his demands for people to exchange their religious beliefs for his “doubt” rings with the certainty of religious fervor.

Religulous is really good at demonstrating what we already know: There are far too many people out there who believe without reason, who cling to “God said it; I believe it; end of discussion.” But instead of engaging these people in a conversation about respecting others’ right not to believe, Maher has the sort of nondiscussions with believers in which he counters belief with fact and is disappointed that he’s failed to convert the rational equivalent of heathens.

We’ve all seen these nondiscussions. For instance, the progressive believer tries to explain to the fundamentalist that the Bible’s tale of the destruction of Sodom isn’t really about homosexuality; it’s about hospitality. The conversation never gets off the ground for one simple reason: If one party comes from the premise that what it says in the Bible is the unerring and inerrant word of God, there can be no discussion.

Really, what kind of idiot argues with God?

And if the other party comes from the premise that God may have inspired people to write down ethical concepts and tales with deeper spiritual meaning, but He/She/It certainly did not dictate those words directly and has no interest in seeing them enforced literally, there can also be no discussion.

Really, what kind of idiot patterns their life on rules from the Bronze Age?

That’s the crux of the problem, both in Maher’s film and in the culture. A prime example was offered recently by the emotion- and epithet-laden student association meeting at American River College, when true believers on both sides talked past each other for a couple of hours and nothing was resolved.

At ARC, the discussion over whether or not to endorse Proposition 8 (which would eliminate marriage equality in California) was divided between those who identified themselves by their religious affiliation and those who did not. The ones who identified themselves by their religious beliefs could not understand how anyone could possibly defy what to them is so obviously God’s will. And those who did not identify themselves as Christians of some sort simply couldn’t comprehend that anyone would be so certain of God’s will that they’d be happy to enforce it on nonbelievers.

As in Maher’s film, what’s missing is an agreement on a premise from which the discussion can proceed. Instead of asking anyone to abandon her beliefs, we might start by simply asking where reasonable boundaries might be. If the question is defining marriage, can we agree that it’s possible for the church and the state to have different definitions? As long as people feel threatened at the core of identity, we’ll never get to ask.

Instead of comforting the fearful and finding common ground, Maher seems to want to create a unified agnostic world. How is that different than a unified Christian, Muslim or Scientologist world?

Maher’s asking the wrong question. Instead of “Why do you believe?” he might try asking, “How can you make room for other beliefs in the public square, in civic life? How can other beliefs make room for you?” Then we might have a discussion.