Damon Linker reviews Religulous for The New Republic.
Let’s see, TNR is a left-leaning publication, so they will tend to be sympathetic to Maher’s message. But they also fancy themselves very high-brow, which means they have to be turned off by Maher’s in-your-face tactics.
The review practically writes itself. Let’s start at the end:
Not only is this approach to religion intellectually fraudulent and morally sloppy–equating as it does scientifically literate believers with God-intoxicated scriptural literalists–but it is also asinine as a practical strategy. In the early 18th century, with the Enlightenment just getting underway, it might have been sensible to dream that religion would eventually wither away, its roots strangled by the spread of scientific education, economic dynamism, and social pluralism. But hundreds of years later, with religion still thriving around the globe, such hopes seem rather quaint.
Instead of hurling insults and indiscriminate denunciations at religion-in-general, Maher and his fellow atheists could do far more good by encouraging the growth and flourishing of open-minded belief–the kind of belief that lives in productive tension with modern science and cultural pluralism. In doing so, they would be following the example of Thomas Jefferson and several of the American constitutional framers, who advocated a liberal, skeptical form of piety as the kind of religion best suited to a free society.
Just once I’d like to see a purveyor of this attitude back it up with even a shred of evidence. How does Linker know it would be more productive to encourage a more “open-minded belief ” than to attack the validity of religious faith in general? The trend in American religion over the last few decades has been away from more liberal faiths and towards more conservative ones. Where is the evidence that Maher (and Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris) could help reverse this trend by encouraging people to believe a higher-grade of fairy-tale, as opposed to attacking fairy-tale belief in its entirety?
Regarding the dream of religion withering away, that is precisely what has happened in most of Western Europe. Why is it so unreasonable to hope for it to happen here as well? But it certainly will not happen if we insist on walling off religion from serious criticism. Or if we constantly wring our hands trying to distinguish good faith from bad faith.
As for intellectual fraud, spare me. In terms of intellectual respectibility there is little to distinguish between the Bible thumping fundamentalist and the more scientifically literate believer. Grafting an evidence-free network of supernatural beliefs onto a body of scientific knowledge having no need of those hypotheses is scarcely an improvement over regarding the Bible as the holy word of God, inerrant and perspicuous, and using that as a yardstick by which all other hypotheses are measured.
Linker also writes this:
Yet Maher has loftier ambitions than laughs. He wants to save the world from the idiocy he unearths in the American heartland, and he believes the best way to fulfill this aim is to mercilessly attack religion and all those who adhere to it. And that’s why the film, like so much written by critics of religion in recent years, must ultimately be judged a failure.
Judged a failure by what standard?
Religulous had a very successful opening weekend, especially considering the relatively small number of screens on which it was shown. I will focus instead on the “new atheist” books, since Linker brings them up as well.
The books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have all become major bestsellers. Harris, a complete unknown, sold over 500,000 copies of his book and recieved a PEN award. Dawkins has sold well over a million. I don’t have figures for Hitchens, but would guess they are of the same order of magnitude. Granted, Dawkins and Hitchens were known figures before their books were published, but the fact remains that none of their previous books put up anywhere close to these kinds of numbers.
As a result of all this publicity virtually every major media outlet has done major stories about atheism and religion. All three gentlemen have travelled the country debating and speaking, and nearly always attracting huge crowds. Becuase of them atheism is now out of the closet and in the air. It is now a mainstream topic of conversation, and not a view that can be marginalized. Not as easily as previously, at any rate. To a greater extent than before the younger generation will grow up in an environment in which atheism is unavoidable. It will be part of their zeitgeist.
I call that major progress. If there is evidence of a major backlash against atheists, or that even more Americans are being pushed to an extreme religious faith as a result of this work, I have not seen it.
While all this was going on Oxford University Press published a book called Philosophers Without Gods. It was an anthology of twenty essays addressing various aspects of religion and life without it. It was precisely the sort of high-minded, respectful, impressively erudite writing people like Linker are always encouraging atheists to adopt.
(Short Review: Well worth reading, though with twenty contributors it is unsurprising that some of the essays are better than others. Many of the essays, especially in the first half of the book, are brisk and engaging. Many others were — how shall I put this? — obviously written by philosophers. (Why did so many of the contributors feel compelled to instruct me as to Aristotle’s view of the matter?))
What’s that you say? Never heard of this book? Didn’t see any big stories in Time or Newsweek about it? Haven’t seen its contributors on C-Span presenting their views to standing-room only crowds? I wonder why that is.
It sure looks to me like the way you call attention to your ideas is by screaming and yelling a bit, and by not worrying too much about bits of theological esoterica rotting away in university libraries, almost totally irrelevant to modern religion as it is typically practiced. This bizarre idea that there is a rich and fruitful body of theological literature that must be imbibed before criticizing America’s infatuation with magical thinking really ought to be put to rest.
Linker does also have some praise for Maher, so why not go on over and read the whole thing. Just be warned it will be familiar and tedious fare to people who follow this issue.