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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Imagine no Religulous

This was my most recent ChristianWeek column (December 15, 2008), on Bill Maher's anti-traditional religion film, Religulous:

Tuesday, I taped an iChannel @issue program about Bill Maher's new film Religulous (religion = ridiculous). The other guests were Chad Derrick, an Orthodox Jew who is W-5's assistant producer and Farzana Hassan, president of the Canadian Muslim Congress.

Our host, Kevin O'Keefe (scroll down), recruited me in part to address science issues the film raises. (Note: Kevin has written to advise me (December 18, 2008) that the show will air on Monday, February 2, and Friday, February 6, at both 8:00 pm and 11:00 pm, Eastern Standard Time.)

Unfortunately, the film raises few science issues. Essentially, Maher wasted the time of a number of Christians in science. He gave astronomer George Coyne and geneticist Francis Collins very little opportunity to explain how they so easily reconcile their faith with their science, preferring to focus on a guy who plays Jesus at a Florida attraction and another guy who thinks he is Jesus. Nothing like shooting fish in a barrel and then awarding oneself a prize for a good aim ...

Similarly, when interviewing non-materialist neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, Maher did not trouble his audience with the information that Newberg, the author of several books on neuroscience and spirituality—and a colleague of my lead author on The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard —does not agree with Maher's perspective. I can't begin to calculate the volume of the outcry I'd be hearing if Ben Stein's Expelled film about the intelligent design guys had similarly made it sound as though British atheist Richard Dawkins had the least sympathy for them.

Yes, Dawkins told The New York Times that Expelled was misrepresented to him, and that he would not have taken part, had he known Ben Stein's sympathies. But Dawkins might have turned that information up, had he done a modest amount of research. In any event, as anyone who has seen Expelled knows, he gets the opportunity to make his position quite clear. Not so Andrew Newberg, who is filmed running through Grand Central Station, saying something ambiguous ...

By now, you are probably getting the impression that I didn't like the film, which is a correct impression. Contrary to stereotype, I am not outraged by it; I would say only that if you want to see a film that points out the real problems in traditional religion, save your money; this isn't the one. Anyone can waste the time of smart people and make fun of simple people. As Indian-born American Christian commentator Dinesh D'Souza has pointed out, this backfires when the truckers Maher is ridiculing begin to pray for him. We suddenly realize what a vain egotist he is, when he is accidentally contrasted with humble and sympathetic people whose lives have been transformed by their faith in Jesus.

D'Souza, incidentally has offered to debate Maher, just as he has debated other famous atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. If Maher accepts (so far he hasn't), he had better do some homework. D'Souza, author of What's So Great About Christianity?, is one of the sharpest young policy analysts in the United States today.

The film is also full of dropped balls. Maher, for example, interviews Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis (a young earth creationist ministry). Ham makes clear that he considers biblical literalism (= a six-day creation) the only correct way of reading the Book of Genesis. Now, not only do Christian convert Francis Collins and Jesuit priest George Coyne disagree with him, but they have made a point of saying so in print. The obvious film strategy would be to try to get them all together to discuss it. But that wouldn't suit Maher because it would quickly become obvious that a range of interpretations is considered orthodox among Christians. As I reassured Farzana on @issue, the only thing an orthodox Christian cannot believe in good faith is that God is not in control of what happens in the universe. All the rest must be determined on the basis of evidence.

One thing that troubles me about a film like this is its witness to the decline in the quality of discourse in our society. Suppose I hired a crew and made a film about atheism: I dwell at length on the views of a mass murderer serving life in a federal prison, a homeless crack addict, a vegan hermit who invented his own no-God religion based on flying saucers, and so forth.

Oh, and I offer mere cameo appearances to top intellectual atheists of our time, just enough to claim to have been "fair." What have I proven except that it is just as easy to belittle atheists as Christians? But I would hardly deserve much thanks for demonstrating what no reasonable person can doubt.

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