Legend has it that the ancient Cynic Diogenes used to roam the streets of Athens during the day carrying a lantern and searching for an honest man. The aim of Cynicism was to strip away the conventions and customs from life to lay bear the truth of nature. Diogenes repudiated social values and institutions and once even defaced currency which led to his exile from his hometown of Sinope. Bill Maher assumes a Diogenic role in the documentary Religulous and searches for an answer to his questions about religion. However, his search is selective and his questions are like sinister Halloween candy concealing a critique of razor blades and glass.
While I watched Religulous I found myself both amused and disappointed at Maher’s attack on a host of religious straw-men. There are plenty of fundamentalist truckers, creation scientists, converted homosexuals, fundamentalist Imams, cannabis devotees, and people claiming to be the second coming of Christ. But, curiously absent are the philosophers and theologians who have spent the majority of their lives working through the thorny issues Maher wants to shine the light of his lantern upon. It would have been nice to see Maher interview Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, or Houston Smith. Perhaps Maher wasn’t really looking for answers but merely an army of straw men to knock down in triumph. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message” reveals that the sources you use will determine the answers you receive. Maher’s interlucutors are incapable of providing him with the answers he seeks and this lends support to his overal critique.
On the one hand, the documentary makes a good point: religion, like fire, can be dangerous in spite of its benefits. But, Rama Krishna’s reversal of this notion is instructive as well: “religion is like a cow: it kicks, but it gives milk too.” Maher offers a rational and cynical critique of religion by exposing its weaknesses through its most extreme representatives. Unwittingly, in his vitriolic critique of religion he ends up constructing his own religion. When it comes down to it, human beings are governed by a cognitive imperative which imposes order on reality in an effort to bind all of the disparate parts of life together and derive meaning from it. Religion (Latin religare: to tie back, to bind together) is the way human beings do that. Whether it is fundamentalist truckers explaining how the Shroud of Turin proves the virgin birth or a cynical comedian demonstrating the bankruptcy of religion through its most extreme caricatures, human beings are fundamentally religious. Religion is inescapable for human beings and Maher’s recommendation for its abandonment will only result in its transmutation.