I was going through Amazon Prime’s new movies section last night. As I did, I came across this film:
That’s Religulous (a portmanteau of religious and ridiculous), a 2008 documentary by HBO’s Bill Maher.
I am aware of this film. I have been aware of it ever since it was released. I saw some trailer or TV spot for it back then. I have never seen the film, though. I detected its major premise from the trailer/TV spot I saw (something like “Religion is ridiculous”, I suppose; I don’t want to put words in Maher’s mouth, but based on the title and what I saw in the trailer/spot, that seems to be what he is saying) and I accordingly declined to watch it. I did so not because I was afraid it would shake my faith (which at this point in my life is a very hard thing to do; I know what I believe and why I believe it, so it would take a whole lot more than a film like this to shake my faith). I did so because I recognized that the logic of this film was terribly flawed.
I was not the only one to come to this conclusion about the logic of this film. Back when the film was released, one of my church members told me he had a discussion with a coworker about it. The coworker apparently said that this film really opened his eyes to the ridiculousness of Christians and other people of faith and thus faith itself (which was, I assume, Maher’s hope). The church member told the coworker that this was not the case at all, that not all or even most Christians were as ridiculous as the one’s Maher depicted (which is undeniably true; I know more Christians than Maher does and none of them are like the ones Maher depicts in his movie). The church member went on to say that Maher had found the worst Christians he could and put them forward to the world as if they were the best example of Christianity, which is not a right thing to do.
So this church member, who is not overly experienced in Scripture or apologetics, could see the illogic of Maher’s movie, and I could see it too. Maher did indeed dredge up the worst of all Christians and inaccurately portray them as the representative of all Christians. He put forth a “straw man”, to use the logical term.
Recognizing that, I felt no need to subject myself to that illogic or the film it was contained in. (And if you have a problem with that, consider this: I’ve had many atheists tell me they aren’t going to read “Christian propaganda” like The Case for Christ or Evidence that Demands a Verdict; fair enough, but what is good for the goose is good for the gander; if atheists don’t want to read what they consider to be propaganda, I shouldn’t have to, either.)
I realized there was another problem with this movie when it popped up in Amazon Prime last night, though. I realized that it was not only a straw man/blatant misrepresentation. I realized it is also based on an unstated and maybe even unacknowledged but very real premise. For Maher (or anyone else) to call religion (or anything else) ridiculous, he must be operating from some standard. There must be something somewhere which he regards as reasonable. A thing can only by ridiculous if 1) there is that which is reasonable and 2) the thing in question violates that which is reasonable. The absurd only exists when there is a reality which makes it absurd.
By doing nothing more than calling religion (or, in my case, faith) ridiculous, then, Maher is asserting a reality which he regards as reasonable, a reality which is “the real”. What is that reasonableness/reality? I don’t know, and I again don’t want to put words into his mouth.
But I do know what it was for me. I know that when I was younger, I likewise thought certain expressions of “religion” (and many other things as well) were ridiculous. I realized I was going to die and I wanted to “go to heaven” when I died (something I now realize is not the core of The Faith, not what Jesus came to offer us), but I still regarded the greater bulk of religion, even my own faith, as ridiculous. I did so because I thought that religion/those expressions of religion violated “real life”. This “real life” was the secular lifestyle of the ’80s. I thought real life was video games, movies, having friends and fun, getting money and possessions (and, yes, we had great possessions in the ’80s): all the things a teenager was attracted to. That was reality/real life to me. When I saw, then, that some religious people were sacrificing those things for their religion, I therefore concluded they were missing real life and were thus “ridiculous” (or stupid or any number of similar accusations). That’s the thought process (if you can call it that) I went through at the time. That was my (il)logical progression. It was that simple. It was that shallow.
That is exactly what I believe Maher (and those who agree with him) have done/are doing. They have that which they think is reality or prefer to be the reality. It could be materialism. It could be what I call “the Starbucks religion”, which is the pursuit of physical pleasures. It could be something else I can’t identify. But they clearly have that. We all do. And as religion of any committed sort violates that to some lesser or greater degree, so they, like teenage me, conclude it is ridiculous.
If you need further proof of concept, consider the book Out of Africa. In that book, Isac Dinesen records her conversation with some African girls who will be sold into marriage. While most Americans would see that as ridiculous if not barbaric, the African girls saw it the other way around. They couldn’t believe American girls gave themselves away for free, and they were proud of the “bride prices” they would bring. Their reality (or what they perceived as reality) was different from ours, and they reacted to life and interpreted life accordingly.
There you have it again: ridiculousness defined by reality; one’s understanding of what is ridiculous defined by one’s understanding of reality.
The crucial question, then, becomes, “What is reality?” If ridiculousness is defined by reality, then we must know what reality is for us to identify anything as ridiculous. Is materialism reality? Is reality nothing other than matter. Maybe so. And if it is, then religion or any other spiritual pursuit is indeed ridiculous. Of course, if it is, then everything else is ridiculous as well. Not only is religion ridiculous, but fighting against religion is ridiculous. Why would you waste the time you have, a time which is all you will ever have and severely limited in the grand scheme of things and could possibly end at any moment, to fight something like religion? Learning is ridiculous. Why learn anything? It can’t stop you from dying. Building is ridiculous. Doing good is ridiculous. Pleasure might not be as ridiculous as everything else (there is some value in pleasure; you can actually feel it), but it is largely ridiculous as well. If the materialistic view of reality is correct, then we are all Shelley’s Ozymandias:
I could go on about that for awhile, but let’s consider the alternative. The alternative is that materialism is not reality, that there is a God in heaven. If that is reality, then the pursuit of such a God (whom I believe to be the God of the Bible, the Father revealed by Jesus Christ) is not ridiculous at all. Sure, the way some people pursue Him might be ridiculous. That’s because people are ridiculous by nature. All people are childish at their core (I think this is what Washington Irving is arguing in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; if so, I agree with and accept his argument), and that childishness appears in everything they do, even the pursuit of God. Maher is not going to have a lack of ridiculous people to put in his movie not because religion is ridiculous but because ridiculousness abounds in every area of life.
The pursuit itself is not ridiculous, though. In fact, if there is God who created us for relationship with Him, then the pursuit of Him is the least ridiculous thing we can do. It is the most reasonable thing we can do, the most rational response to reality. And we may realize this one day. We will, in fact, if materialism is false and God is true. In that case, we will all one day be like Bart Simpson here:
What we once perceived as “stupid” (or ridiculous) will be revealed to be anything but, and what we once perceived as “wise” (or cool or fun or what have you) will be revealed to be empty.
Or, if you don’t like Bart and Lisa, consider what Paul says about the relative ridiculousness of spiritual pursuits versus material ones:
I would suggest that what is true of the widow is true for all. Living for physical/material pleasure, which seems to be what most of us are doing (including teenage me), is a living death. Not wise, not cool, not fun, not a rational, reasonable, non-ridiculous response to reality. A living death.
As is so often the case, what we are doing here is arguing about the fifth floor when we need to be examining the foundation. This is a matter of foundation, of assumption and presumption, and that is where this matter needs to be resolved. When we address it that way, we realize that it is not religion which is ridiculous. It is irreligion that is really ridiculous. That’s how Paul saw it. That’s how I see it now. That’s how we all will see it one day. We won’t see religulous on that day. We’ll see irreligulous.