Maher’s new movie, “Religulous,” paints a portrait that makes religious believers look absurd, and in some cases, dangerous. Maher criticizes them because they are fervent, dedicated, and closed-minded.
They see the world in terms of us-versus-them. They are sure they are right. Those who criticize them are wrong.
The really funny thing is that Maher himself fits all of these descriptions. He is a fundamentalist of the secular kind.
Fundamentalism is a rigid adherence to a set of principles that everyone should accept as truth. Those who share these principles are right, and those who do not should be denounced. Fundamentalists rarely display a willingness to learn from others or change their minds.
Maher states in the film that his approach is one of doubt, not certainty, but his film is chock-full of sweeping, definitive statements, most notably that “religion must die for mankind to live.”
The problem with Maher’s approach is that he sets out to find religious people who are easy to mock or despise. And he succeeds in finding them, and then mocking and despising them. There’s the performer playing Jesus at the Holy Land theme park in Florida who appears out of touch with reality; the shouting radicals who heap damnation upon America; and the dedicated worshipers in the truckers’ chapel and a U.S. senator who all seem easily confused by their own theology.
If anyone takes offense at Maher’s caricatures or insults, he can say, “I don’t mean any harm; I’m just a comedian.” But Maher wants us to see him as a social critic. Despite his penchant to say whatever will have the most shock value, he wants people to be convinced by his arguments. He wants us to understand his critique of religion to be more than just comedy.
I am a person of faith, a Christian and even an ordained Presbyterian minister. Contrary to the picture of religious people that Maher paints in “Religulous,” I do not believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth with Adam and Eve, and I am not expecting to be raptured anytime during this news cycle. I do not believe that Maher is crazy, and I do not appreciate the insinuation that because I believe in God, I am crazy. (You don’t have to be crazy to believe in God, and you don’t have to believe in God to be crazy.) The simple message that Maher fails to acknowledge is that not all religious people are fundamentalists.
We live in a country that is both devout and diverse. I am as concerned as Maher is when people from one religious group (whether mine or anyone else’s) think that they have a monopoly on the truth.
Likewise, we should all resist when people draw direct lines between religious ideas and public policies, without any attention to context, or history, or alternative viewpoints.
But we should be equally troubled when Maher proclaims that all religious people are irrational and their beliefs should not be welcome in our public life. Religious ideas can make public life more complicated, but they can also offer resources for solving common problems.
We need a public life with fewer fundamentalists — religious or secular. Fundamentalists should be allowed to speak, but the rest of us should call them out for their dogmatism. The answer is not less religion but less rigidity and more humility.
Douglas A. Hicks is associate professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond, Richmond, Va. His new book, With God on All Sides, will be published in January.