FreeThought Fort Wayne

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Religulous: mean-spirited or a champion of truth?

Posted by Andy Welfle on September 30, 2008

I just heard Bill Maher interviewed on Fresh Air on NPR today. He, along with director Larry Charles, talked about Religulous, the controversial documentary lampooning religionists and their beliefs. (Check out the trailer here.)

What I want to know is, as a social group trying to be good community members while communicating our message, does this documentary help or hinder our cause?

Personally, I think Bill Maher is an ass. Having occasionally watched Politically Incorrect, I never cared for his permanent sneering face and pseudo-intellectual speech. He’s a smart guy, yes, but he has a holier-than-thou attitude (ironic!) which just rubs me the wrong way.

I’m glad that he has taken on the mission to expose religion as the ultimate “hustle” as the website’s language puts it, but does he really need to do it by directly ridiculing people and their beliefs?

I realize that many freethinkers would answer “yes” to this question. But doesn’t this just add fuel to Christians’ fire? They would have an easier time dismissing the atheist cause by just pointing out that this film is pointing fingers and laughing, a la six-year-old humor.

Now, granted, I haven’t seen this movie yet. There may be some intelligent debate, and some discourse with the theist community. But I think it is safe to say that the majority of the film kinda does a Jay Leno-style “man on the street” interview, where they get people to say ridiculous things. At least that’s what the trailer says about the film, and what Terry Gross talked about.

I think the best way to further our cause is to have an open, friendly, line of communication with the theist community. Let them initiate debate, and then methodically counter their arguments, point by point. That’s how my deconversion happened (Well, that, and a natural distrust of what I was being taught).

Nevertheless, I do plan to see the film, and would like to know what others might thing about this. Please feel free to use the comments of this post as a forum.


15 Responses to “Religulous: mean-spirited or a champion of truth?”

  1. Butter said

    Your title’s a bit inaccurate: Not only is it a false dichotomy, but also neither the truth of the film’s thesis, such as it is–that religious people say and believe dumb shit–nor the accuracy of the description of it as mean-spirited is being seriously challenged.

    I agree that if it is all just JayWalking skits, it’s repugnant. Not because of any appeal to consequences–I think they’ll hate us anyway–but because being a bully and treating people as sideshows is wrong. Categorical imperative, and all that. But that’s an if; I want to see the movie first.

    There’s some truth to the “making nice overtures” idea, but you have the target wrong. We shouldn’t make overtures to institutions or communities of believers, because it’s futile. These are groups which are committed to rooting out and eliminating free thought, and we’re a community based on free thought. They’re organizations in which the pernicious self-reinforcing defense mechanisms of the faith meme can work their magic. We ain’t gonna make a dent.

    What we can do, and what I think actually happened to you, is make those nice embassies to individual people. It’s more true that the atheists you knew made appeals to you as a thinking person or curious student, than that they made appeals to your church or home-school group as a whole, isn’t it? Addressing people as individuals capable of thinking for themselves, rather than as representatives of some cultural or religious group, is the honest way to appeal to their native intelligence.

    Did I ever show you those video clips from the Beyond Belief conference from a couple years ago? It was a symposium of scientists and educators (Dawkins, deGrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, etc.) devoted to this exact topic. Lawrence Krauss (the Physics of Star Trek guy) was also there, and he advocated meeting people in discussion “where they are”; i.e., acceding to their biases, superstitions, and warped mental constructs of how the world works for the sake of beginning a conversation. Dawkins reamed him for wasting time doing things like cramming Big Bang theory into ill-fitting New-Testament metaphors, and advocated instead just being forthright and, you know, honest. It was a treat to see.

  2. Unlike Ben Stein’s movie my wife and I will probably see this. I’m with Andy and don’t hold out much hope that it will be much more than a 90 minute JayWalking series with Bill Maher doing the voice-over.

    The question in any debate/contest/whatever is not “How do I win over the other side?” You can’t, give up. The question is “How do you win over the people on the fence?” They’ve already, for reasons entirely their own, made some choice/had doubts and are looking for clarity/explanation of viewpoints they may never have entertained before.

    I like Butter’s idea of “[making] those nice embassies to individual people”. We are here in Fort Wayne, Indiana as an embassy for those who seek sanctuary. Maybe that comes across as a bit sanctimonious, probably does. Anyway I like the metaphor.

    Sorry back to Bill Maher. There are people like Dennett who have come to an atheism that is a conclusion of a rational line of thought. There are those who come to atheism for other reasons. Either way atheism (for me) isn’t a destination because it does nothing to provide for a moral framework or even a rational framework. It’s got nothing by definition in it. Among other reasons that is why I finished god is not great and The God Delusion unsatisfied. Atheism Yea! Religion Bad. Ok fine great thanx.

    Bill Maher is someone who comes to his atheism not out of a rational train of thought but within this sort of AntiEstablishment, psuedo-Libertarian ideology. He’s a anti-vaccine proponent, anti-western medicine and pro-homeopathy. These are not indicative of someone who comes to his conclusions based on evidence or reason.

    I see alot of atheist commenters that suck Bill Mahers dick and say things like “Surprisingly for a libertarian and an atheist, Maher seems to be falling into old lapses against science sometimes” (that’s from the first comment not Skeptico hisself).

    Really commenter #1 what part of being an atheist precludes you from being irrational, my dictionary seems to be missing that definition. It’s like saying, “For being a plumber I’m surprised he’d go to McDonald’s for lunch”.

    I’ll quit ranting. I’ll save it for why atheists piss me off sometimes.

  3. Theo Doersing said

    It’s encouraging to me to see films like this made. It means dissent and questioning are becoming more mainstream and acceptable.

    As far as religion bashing goes, it is a sometimes necessary part of rational thinkers to point out the absurdities of religion and all other damaging misinformation that’s out there.

    We are subject to ridicule and bashing all of the time. Interestingly, I find many of the things we see in our society are reflections of the problems. Conservatives complain of a liberal media when it is the exact opposite. Republicans complain of flip-flopping when we see them do it all the time. Atheists are seen as immoral monsters while the pious rape, steal and plunder. Uber patriots are scoundrels while those that dare speak out against government corruption are seen as anti-American. The list goes on and on…
    If we are ridiculed, perhaps a mirror-image is in order. I don’t stoop to that level all of the time, but there are definitely occasions where it would be more than appropriate to use ridicule as a tool for education and entertainment.

  4. dystressed said

    Just from the trailer and the Conan appearance, the article in the latest issue of RADAR, I think this movie is going to be overall beneficial. The ancillary discussion it generates on blogs already has got a lot of people thinking about the best ways to open dialogues with the faithful.

    On a skeptical note though, I don’t know if the tone of the movie is going to be good or effective in reaching any religious people who teeter on the brink of rationality. The trailer says it’s from “the studio that brought you Fahrenheit 9/11” which will turn a LOT of people off.

    I’m still probably going to see it because it looks a lot better than “The Women.”

  5. agnohumanist said

    Great thoughts, Theo. I agree that a little ridicule is appropriate at times. I hate it when people say you can’t make fun of people’s religious beliefs because it’s disrespectful. (I respect someone’s RIGHT to his/her own beliefs, but I don’t have to respect the actual belief–big difference.)What else can you do when someone in this century thinks, despite iron-clad evidence from many branches of science, that the earth is less than 10,000 years old? And I’ve noticed that the religious generally have no problem disrespecting nonbelievers. I mean, how much more disrespectful can you get than to say that someone who doesn’t believe the absurdities of the Bible (or whatever “sacred” book they believe in) will be eternally punished! They can’t take some ridicule of illogical beliefs, but we are supposed to take that kind of crap?

  6. I’m kind of on the opposite side of the spectrum. IMHO this is exactly what we(atheists)need. It could have been a different person, I’ll give you that, but we need mainstream psuedo-celeb type people expressing to people the ignorance and the possible harm that could come from the absurdities of beleiving sky gods and other super natural deities. Bill Maher is pretty much one of the biggest tools I’ve seen on television, but hes controversial, well known, and has a large audiance.

    In some of the interviews he has done regarding the movie, he’s pointed out that this movie was not made aimed at religious-type people. Instead it was made for atheists and on the fence atheists. It was made to show people that it’s ok to come out of the closet and show people the error of their ways.

    “If liberty means anything at all, It means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell

  7. littlejohn said

    I don’t mean to throw a bucket of water on you guys, but maybe we should all agree to see the movie before we comment on it. We could agree to meet somewhere afterwards (not Henry’s for god’s sake, I can’t hear myself think in there.) and discuss it.
    For what it’s worth, Maher is a bit of a nut on issues like medicine and especially nutrition (Never eat meat! What does he think caused the evolution of large brains?).
    Dicky’s Wild Hare has a large outdoor and quiet deck. Anybody with me? Pretty soon it will be too cold.

  8. AnalogKid9 said

    You are all acting like a bunch of crazy Fundies. Lets all see it and then you have the right to be critical of it. I give 0% credibility to religious believrs critical of movies they have never seen.

    So far all of you have the same regarding this movie.

    I saw the Ben Stein movie then I criticized it.

    Who would like to join me tomorrow in actually seeing the movie.

  9. awelfle said


    I’d love to — do you know of any place in Fort Wayne that will begin showing it tomorrow? I can’t seem to find any listings.

    And by the way, I disagree. I think that if they are going to market their movie as just making fun of religionists, they should expect and, well, deserve criticism like I am giving them.

    Would you tell critics of Sarah Palin to reserve their judgment until she becomes the Vice-President? I think that the little bit of her political career that we can see so far gives plenty cause for criticism.

  10. Andy S. said

    Looks like the movie is playing at the RAVE in Jefferson Pointe:

  11. also playing at Regal on Coldwater

  12. Magnulus said

    I’m a religious person (I consider myself both Buddhist and Christian at the moment).

    I have nothing against people who honestly doubt, or don’t see the need for God or any kind of Absolute Reality. OK, that’s fine. But trying to force your lack of belief on other people, or to ridicule peoples sincere beliefs, is crass and tasteless. Many atheists just don’t get it. There is a dimension to reality that transcends science. Science can never speak of this reality, because it by its nature only studies the manifest reality where the world appears to be a logical and rational place. It does not speak to the human heart.

  13. […] Religulous: mean-spirited or a champion of truth? […]

  14. Butter said

    I’m a religious person (I consider myself both Buddhist and Christian at the moment).

    “And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.” (Leviticus 20:6)

    “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Deuteronomy 5:7)

    “And the people answered and said, God forbid that we should forsake the LORD, to serve other gods. . .” (Joshua 24:16)

    &c. I don’t think this Yahweh character would really be too happy about you going a-whoring with other faiths. Jealous god, and all that. And just to preempt the “That’s just the Old Testament; it doesn’t apply after the New Covenant of Jesus Christ!” cop-out:

    “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:18)

    Unless you can convince me that your Buddhism is bereft of supernaturalism or any belief in revealed wisdom, and is merely rational philosophy that can be arrived at by other means (and that may be possible, but I doubt you’ve thought the matter through to that extent), I think you might have a case of child-of-Yahweh FAIL.

    I have nothing against people who honestly doubt, or don’t see the need for God or any kind of Absolute Reality. OK, that’s fine.

    Christ had something against us. Lake of fire, and so forth. You know better than Christ?

    At any rate, no one here needs your permission to think rationally or form independent opinions about metaphysical or epistemological matters, and I don’t give a horse’s ass whether I have it. That’s sweet of you to think of us, though.

    But trying to force your lack of belief on other people,

    Who has done this? Be specific.

    or to ridicule peoples sincere beliefs, is crass and tasteless.

    Why? Is it crass and tasteless to ridicule the beliefs of the man wearing the tin-foil hat shouting at cars downtown all day?

    A healthy society is willing to examine its own cultural beliefs and mores. Ideas can be critiqued, and even ridiculed, if they’re found wanting. More than likely you feel this way about other “beliefs,” e.g., others’ political
    opinions. Why should religious beliefs be shielded from such criticism?

    Many atheists just don’t get it.

    “We don’t agree with you” ≠ “We don’t understand you.” We understand your point just fine; we just think it involves pathetic special pleading.

    There is a dimension to reality that transcends science. Science can never speak of this reality, because it by its nature only studies the manifest reality where the world appears to be a logical and rational place.

    This is what we mean by “special pleading”. What evidence do you have for this “dimension”? If it is somehow manifest in reality, what prevents empirical observations being made of it?

    What would you say to a believer who thought this other plane was populated by transcendental dragons who like ice cream? Or genies who want to fool us into thinking they don’t exist? What if the person claims that this was personally revealed to them?

    It does not speak to the human heart.

    My heart pumps blood, but if you’re talking about my subjective emotional perceptions, they most likely have a proximate cause in the physics and chemistry of the organs that give rise to them, and an “ultimate” cause in the evolutionary algorithms that were biased toward the survival of those organs. Burden’s on you to demonstrate supernatural involvement.

    You’re probably not used to people hacking and burning through your premises, but welcome to adult land.

  15. Anyone see this article?:

    I don’t know how long till anyone has real results, but it will be interesting. Butter and Magnulus, maybe you should spice things up a bit more and make a bet on this.

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