Posted on February 17, 2009 at 8:00 am

The most important moment in Bill Maher’s new documentary about the dangers and hypocrisy of religion is at the conclusion of his visit to a tiny trucker’s chapel. As he does throughout the movie Maher challenges the very notion of faith. One of the worshipers is so offended he walks out. But another explains he had once worshiped Satan and lived a life of carnal pleasures until he found Jesus. Maher of course shakes his head in disbelief that anyone would find that an improvement. But they pray together, or at least Maher stands in a prayer circle and listens as the others pray, thanking God for Maher’s visit, for allowing them to hear the voices of others. And then, as they say goodbye, Maher says, “Thank you for being Christ-like and not just Christian.”

Maher, the trenchant, provocative, sometimes outrageous stand-up comic turned political commentator, believes weapons of mass destruction have made humanity more powerful than we are wise (no argument there) and that religion, specifically the aspect of religion that relies on faith rather than reason, is more likely to catapult us into destroying ourselves than it is to inspiring us to listen to what Maher would probably not refer to as our better angels. Maher and his sister were raised Catholic by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, going to church every Sunday until it abruptly stopped when he was a young teenager. He continued to believe somewhat half-heartedly, even bargaining with God in a dire circumstance at age 40. But now he is not only a non-believer, he is an evangelical one. He advocates non-belief. One of the most unintentionally amusing elements of the film is how much in structure it resembles Christian testimony. In his own way, he is saying, “I was blind, but now I see.”

Despite his deep commitment to logic and reason (one might say he has a lot of faith in it), Maher never really makes his case. Instead of doing serious and thoughtful research, instead of presenting us with (admittedly less entertaining) data about the influence of particular religious beliefs or institutions, instead of investigating the good works of people inspired by religion or the benefits of faith-based programs, instead of trying to understand the appeal of religious faith, he seeks out the people on the fringes and pretty much makes fun of them. There is certainly plenty to expose in the hypocrisy and virulent influence of various religious groups and practitioners, but he stays away from that for the admittedly more entertaining selection of fringe people and groups. At least he is even-handed. He goes after Christians, Catholics, Scientologists, Mormons, Muslims, and Jews. And he is wide-ranging. He visits (and is escorted off the premises of) the Vatican, the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall, and the Holy Land Experience (that’s the theme park in Orlando, Florida, not the Mid-East).

And so the movie works far better as anthropology than argument, just because some of the people and places are fascinating and exotic. But it is filled with cheap shots and low blows. It is easy to make an obvious charlatan who sells himself to his followers as the literal messiah look like a con man. It is easy to make a couple of Orthodox Jews look silly for trying to create inventions to help people comply with the strict limits of Shabbat. And it is easy to try to trap believers with the Bible’s inconsistencies (especially when you have the final edit) about the differences between coincidences and miracles or the relevance of some Biblical references more than 5000 years later. Maher finds a scientist who (unlike 93% of his colleagues) believes in God and another one who says he can prove that religious belief is a neurological disorder.

Of course, Maher is preaching to his choir. Even if he was able to put together a very linear and thoroughly documented argument he would not persuade anyone because faith is not about persuasion. It is always worthwhile to consider challenges to belief because by helping define what we don’t believe we better define what we do believe. The strength and value of our faith is best proved when it is unafraid of heresy.

The film’s message is most that on a sign one character holds: “Don’t believe anyone. Including me.” And Maher is like the assimilated atheistic Jew in a story I heard recently from a rabbi. It seems the Jew sent his son to a school called Trinity because it had an excellent reputation and a secular curriculum. But the son came home and said, “Do you know what Trinity means, Dad? It means the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The father was furious. “Now listen to me, because I want you to remember this. There is just ONE God! And we don’t believe in Him!”

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