I recently watched Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous. I had been interested in it for a while because I have a good deal of respect for Maher and both of his TV series (Politically Incorrect and Real Time). In one aspect, this show did a great analysis of the fundamentalist variety of religion. However, Maher also extends this analysis to all varieties of religion; and this argument follows the same reasoning that he criticises.
I take the main focus of the film to be that religious faith and objective science is incompatible. In fact, religious faith is now an absurdity in these modern times. Maher travels quite a bit throughout the US, Europe, and Israel interviewing people who would generally be classified as fundamentalists in their approaches to theology. At one point, he is interviewing Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis and its Creation Museum fame). He takes Ham to task in resolving huge differences between scientific evidence and the “common sense” literal reading of creation espoused by young Earth creationism. From my perspective, Ham’s creationism here has already lost its sense of direction by adopting the language and system of scienctific observation that negates the teleological goal of creationism. In oversimplified terms, Ham’s creation science is much like trying to raise freshwater fish in salt water; the freshwater fish behave at the cellular/organic level differently than saltwater fish. The language and goals of the creation story in Genesis, much like the stories of Christ in the Gospels, are not meant to adhere to modern-day scientific (or biographical) literature. In this respect, Maher is spot on with his critique of faith. If one holds religious faith to be coterminal with empirical science, faith will always lose because it centers on phenomena that exceed the bounds empirical science has made for itself.
On the other hand, Maher’s critique is the the “atheist version” of the very thing he critiques. In one segment, he is asking a few Muslims (including an imam) about the Qur’an. His questions fall along the lines of “the Qur’an says to kill infidels, is this true?” Every Muslim asked answers the question along the lines of “that is not how we interpret that text because it was linked to a particular historical context that no longer exists.” Maher pushes his point by denying the possibility of interpretation, setting himself up as the more accurate interpreter than the believers who study the text! This is the same thing that he critiques people such as Ken Ham (and others). In other words, Maher wants religious/theological hermeneutics to be a closed event ripped from any context and made into an absolute ideological framework in order to reject religion. He then rationalises his work by claiming its standpoint of doubt is the best position.
Ironically, it is here that Maher again falls prey to the very thing he criticises. If doubt is the best place to stand, he hasn’t doubted enough! The “true” sceptic is the one that doubts everything, not just what one is prejudiced against. Maher emphasis empirical science as the strongest evidence for his position, yet he never doubts the framework of assumptions that undergird the empirical sciences. He never suggests that empirical evidence itself may be already tainted by a predisposition to certain beliefs (namely, that an external world exists and is discernable). Obviously, then, Maher should insist that some kind of belief is “acceptable” without entering into fundamentalism or scepticism. It seems, then, that the rational position is somewhere between the fundamentalism he decries while using and the scepticism he touts while evading.
One last thing of interesting note is that Maher suggests in his film that science has discovered a gene that is linked to belief in God. Ironically, the original researcher said that it was linked to spirituality and “feeling God’s presense” and not to simple belief in God. Further, these findings were never published in peer-reviewed literature. Even more striking is that this gene can also be associated with the feeling of beloning to a political party. In other words, it isn’t a very strong theory and it doesn’t suggest that belief in God is a genetic trait. Perhaps if Maher had utilised more of his “scepticism,” he would have noticed that.