Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Religulous: I do not think it means, what you think it means, Bill Maher

I've been doing a bit of research on religious differences and conflict recently, and came across a couple of documentaries on the subject. One of them made me quite angry. Here’s why.


Bill Maher's film about religion is so bad it's actually very funny. Just not for the reasons Maher seems to want. Made in 2006, it's full of the kind of extremist-bating stuff that Louis Theroux got bored with 10 years ago. You know the drill: find some inarticulate and/or hardline people with extreme or rigid views on some doctrinal matter, then take the piss. The only difference here in terms of format is that whilst Louis took the time to actually live in his subjects' world and was careful to keep his incredulity as hidden as possible, so that we got at least a fuller portrait of them and their lives, Maher just turns up and insults people to their faces, talks over them with his own equally strident but better articulated (and crucially louder) opinions, with occasional mugs to the camera to demonstrate how loony these people are. Then the camera can film people getting angry or defensive or begin to stutter or stumble over their words. Thus God is a LIE, sheeple!

Maher is opposed to religion, in a sub-Dawkins -Hitchens -Humphrys kind of a way and makes no bones about this. Well, that's fine. I've been a lifelong atheist and have never felt the pull of God or religion to be an important force in my life, and I once felt angry about how stupid religion obviously was. Of course, I was 16 at the time*, and didn't use my years of experience as a stand-up comedian who works rooms for a living to bully people into looking stupid for a documentary.

So I don’t object to an atheist making a documentary about religion per se, it’s just one as poorly made and thought-out as this one. Part of the problem is the obviousness of his targets, and a big part of it is the sheer pointlessness of the format. Maher goes around the world** doing his look-at-the-loony shtick but despite most of the screen time being a series of ‘interviews’, in reality they are monologues. The interviewees are just there to hear The Amazing Wit of Bill Maher and either agree with him on the spot or look offended. Bill does not at any point seem to be under the impression that anyone he talks to has anything in particular to offer him, with the possible exception of his mother.

This approach leads to quite a lot of unintentional humour. There is a scene where he ‘interviews’ a Muslim woman about some of the more disturbing interpretations of Qur’anic verses (and I do mean interpretations – although Bill never mentions it, there are a variety of variant translations of the text, and the Qur’an is famously difficult to render in English, and guess what, Bill – these books are products of particular times and places and most believers are quite capable of understanding that), and when she tries to explain how she ‘reads the Qur’an’, Bill impatiently interrupts her: ‘That’s not how you read a Holy Book!’ he exclaims. The curious spectacle of an atheist telling a person of faith how they read their scriptures has a wonderful irony to it. It was a scene that returned to my mind at the end, when Bill tells us about the importance of being ‘humble’, which apparently only atheists are capable of.

Two other things stick out about this documentary as truly repellent, however. The first of these is Bill’s self-righteous and thoroughly underserved claiming of ‘reason’ for himself and fellow atheists alone, and the second is how his unacknowledged prejudices come to the fore when he talks about two issues in particular: Islam and Israel.

Bill is convinced that because he has spotted that religious texts can be contradictory or express unpleasant sentiments, and that the figure of Jesus has non-Christian historical antecedents (a truly astonishing insight that only someone engaged in the forefront of theological disputation could have unearthed – that or an AS Religious Studies student) therefore belief in God/religion (Maher frequently treats the two as identical) is fundamentally irrational and therefore wrong.

Of course, this childish level of analysis Has Teh Dumm. He repeatedly refuses to acknowledge a social, cultural, historical or political aspect of religious belief, as evidenced in his interviews regarding Israel and Islam, and evinces no ability to empathise with people whose cultural background is different from his own.***

Israel is a particularly fascinating example of his prejudices. He interviews an anti-Zionist rabbi, who begins to outline his theological justification for his stance, before the inevitable series of accusations and interruptions. The rabbi is pretty much accused of holocaust denial and wanting the destruction of all Israelis, and the hapless man is left looking somewhat bemused by the whole encounter when Bill does an O’Reilly, quitting the interview with a smirk on his face. So we never hear much about what the rabbi does think on the subject and the whole Ahmedinejad ‘Israel wiped from the face of the earth’ controversy is brought up, Maher doesn’t do anything to acknowledge the controversial way that the comment was twisted and reported in the media and uses it to discredit the rabbi. In fact he doesn’t investigate the political nature of the Israel/Palestine dispute at all, not mentioning the Naqba, the 1964 or 1967 wars, the Oslo Accords or the intifadas. A montage of angry Muslims and some bombing scenes are what we are offered. How insightful. No refugee camps, white phosphorous, ‘targeted killings’ or anything then, Bill? What about the UN GA resolutions condemning the occupation? No? Hmm.

This links directly to Maher’s characterisation of Islam. After his casual dismissal of anyone who opposes or criticises Israel as effectively in favour of suicide bombing, he decides to characterise Islam as a whole through a few of the high profile incidents of recent years – the Muhammad cartoons being a favourite, though he’s not above using 9/11 footage during the film’s epilogue. He says that when things start getting blown up, it’s usually Muslims behind it (which conveniently ignores the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions – presumably they’re hiding behind the huge elephant with ‘Israeli state terror’ written on it in fluorescent neon letters that’s already in the room) and actually goes so far as to say that his Muslim interviewees are only saying they’re peaceful because he’s an ‘outsider’ – that’s right, Bill’s implying that there’s some global Muslim club that is setting out deliberately to deceive people about their hidden agenda to take over the world, probably concealed in that funny ‘writing’ of theirs and that gibberish that so many of them speak. If they’ve got nothing to hide, why don’t they say everything in English, like the rest of us, eh? Tying everything back together, I particularly loved the bit when we see the Temple Mount, with subtitles helpfully informing us that ‘The Temple of Solomon is the holiest site in Judaism ... but Muslims built the Al-Aqsa mosque right on top of it’. Nice.

The end of the film has Maher standing in Megiddo, saying that unless we give up religion right this second we’ll all die in a nuclear holocaust. Because we’re not rational and unprejudiced like what he is.

In short then: thanks for flying the flag for atheists and reason there Bill, really appreciate it. You did everyone a service, really you did. Did you ever wonder exactly why those guys in the al-Aqsa mosque said they'd never found you funny?

*That's actually an exaggeration for comic effect. I used to get annoyed about it in a New Atheist way well into my early 20s. Eventually I grew up a bit though – my motto became encapsulated on a t-shirt you can get from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science store: ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’

**In that curiously American way where you go and see people around the world but never leave America in your head.

*** This got me thinking about exactly what Bill was missing out in his view on religion. Here is a rough list.
1. The idea that religious practice is part of your family life. By his own admission religion played only a limited part in his own childhood, but he seems not to be concerned enough to see how children incorporate their understandings about religion and practices – such as when to fast, when to pray, how divorce happens into their early experiences.
2. Social influences. If your religion is something practiced by family members, friends, authority figures, people you look up to, this will influence how you see your religion.
3. Political considerations. Religion, as Marx noted, is a reflection of and an expression of resistance to class society – it is a place where the unspoken or unspeakable desires of the oppressed and the solace and justification of the oppressors can find a voice. People look to their religion and their God for an expression of peace and justice that cannot be found in their own lives, as well as to express the right of the haves to their lot. The Church of England is a good example of this – at one level it is the state religion, represented in Parliament and led by the head of state, but internally split between a High and Low Church – one of the establishment and one of the People. Around the margins you have the denominations concerned with ecumenicalism and social justice – the Nonconformists, the Methodists, the Quakers, where so much progressive thinking and leadership has come from.
4. The ineffable. Whether Bill likes it or not, many people have an experience of something Other, alien to ourselves. This experience cannot be quantified, it seems to be entirely personal, and yet often intensely profound. This experience can be attributed to God, insofar as it can be named. If pressed, people often describe this as their conviction that ‘there is something greater than themselves’
The extent to which these factors and others I’m still ignorant of interact within an individual are entirely unpredictable. It certainly doesn’t make someone irrational because they are influenced by any of these.

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