Monday, 23 November 2009

Loftus defends Bill Maher's Religulous

Atheist John Loftus writes a thought-provoking defense of Bill Maher's Religulous, the 2008 documentary that pokes fun at religion, mostly through interviews with and about Christian fundamentalists.

Though I've watched the movie, I don't remember many of the specifics, truth be told. Perhaps that says something about its nature - it really isn't anything new, but a compilation of idiotic Christians saying and doing the same silly things we're used to hearing and seeing them say and do day in, day out.

I'm with Loftus in agreeing with Sam Harris for "calling upon thoughtful people to cease granting religion a free pass from criticism."

For the record, I generally agree with the atheist arguments against the existence of God, or rather I agree that the evidence for God is lacking, which I think amounts to the same thing. The best argument for atheism is simply the principle that if you're to believe something extraordinary, like the idea of God, you need some evidence - and it's just not there.

However, I think it's a mistake to jump from "God does not exist" to "therefore all religion is bad," as if it were self-evident. This is why I don't think I can let Dawkins off the hook as easily as Loftus does:
I myself question how much scholarship it really takes to reject any given religion. ... That best explains why Dawkins probably thought it was a waste of time researching into religion for his book. He already knew from the fact of evolution, his stock and trade, that religion is a delusion. Until someone can show him that evolution does not explain everything in the biological world, he has no need for the God hypothesis, and no need to put a great deal of time researching into it.
This more or less equates religion with God, and assumes that religion is only useful as long as theism is literally true. I'm not sure that is logical, and even if it is, surely it is primarily a social-scientific and philosophical question, and not one that Dawkins can presume to answer purely on the basis of biology?

What about about religion as metaphor? As a basis for philosophical thought and action, even apart from a literal interpretation? As a human creation that can nevertheless be a meaningful way for (some) people to connect to something sacred, but not supernatural? As a creative framework within which to explore, reflect on and bring meaning to the world around us, but again, apart from a literal interpretation? In other words, are the myths, language, values, rites and rituals of religion only of value if they describe a literal reality? Or can a religion still be a framework around which to structure life and thought, even a community?

I also think Loftus lets Maher off the hook too easily when dealing with the objection that the film deals only with the "fringes" of Christianity. Of this objection, Loftus writes:
This raises the question of “who speaks for Christianity?” There isn’t a consensus. There only seems to be a rabble number of voices each claiming to know the truth. The truth is that Christianity has evolved and will continue to evolve into the future. The Christianities practiced and believed by any denomination today are not something early Christianities would embrace. And future Christianities will be almost as different. The trouble we atheists have when attempting to debunk Christianity is that we have a moving and nebulous target which evolves in each generation. So how can any of us be faulted for not knowing which specific sect to take aim at if there is no consensus between believers on what best represents their views?
This strikes me as a little lazy: It's impossible to pick a single target; therefore no one can be blamed for picking any old target. There is an excluded middle here: we can at least strive for approximation. While Maher's targets represent a very large and disturbing swathe of religion, the extent to which it approximates religion in general is debatable.

Maher claims to adhere to the gospel of "I don't know," and I can agree with Loftus's protest at the suggestion that this makes Maher a dogmatist himself:
Professor MacDonald faults the movie for it’s own kind of dogmatism, especially the ending. But I think there is a huge epistemological difference between rejecting a metaphysical answer to the riddle of our existence, and affirming the correct one, since affirming an answer demands verifiable positive evidence that excludes other answers.
Here Loftus rightly identifies a fallacy frequently used by the religious to attack their critics.

I have mixed feelings about this final argument:
So who really cares if the New Atheists are attacking what liberal scholars don't consider true religion or true Christianity? They are attacking a real threat to world peace regardless! And who really cares if religion doesn't poison everything as Hitchens’ extreme rhetoric proclaims? Religion causes a great deal of suffering.
The first rhetorical question is fair enough. It is a ubiquitous, but unjustified trick of liberal Christians to argue that they alone should be allowed to define "true Christianity," thus insisting that any valid argument against the Christian religion should engage with their version alone. In terms of openness to critical scrutiny, in no other arena does (or should) one group have the unique privilege of representing the whole.

The second rhetorical question is more than a little blase, perhaps irresponsible. I would suggest that statements as strident as "Religion poisons everything," if false, are not harmless exaggerations, but as potentially dangerous as generalizations like "Homosexuality is destructive," and "Jews ruin everything."

Even if I do think there's a lot of danger lurking in religion, even if theistic arguments don't hold up, and even if a lot of people do a lot of bad in the name of religion, I don't think religion poisons everything. In fact - and I think this is a reasonable position that has no logical connection to the question of God's existence - I think religion motivates a lot of people to do a lot of good in the world.


  1. I posted an engagement with the film a few months ago (the top post in the 'film' category.

    I guess my response falls with the realm of the "ubiquitous, but unjustified trick of liberal christians" :-)

  2. Your response gave me a wry smile. I shall check it out.