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Religiously Assured Destruction

It’s interesting to think that, as the balance reports are being drawn up on multiple social and political fronts this week–race, feminism, the GOP, Aniston vs. Jolie–we’ve reached a point where we can almost include the New Atheism in that bunch.  With the release of Bill Maher’s Religulous, it looks like it may be time for the Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris) to saddle up another stallion for their deserving amigo.  Maher is politically a pretty hit-or-miss liberal, but the times he hits are almost always when he’s the most trenchant about religion.  That’s what makes Religulous something better than another entry into the vogue snooty political theater of the left.  Sure Maher is snooty, the message has political ramifications and it’s being shown in actual theaters.  But whereas it’s hardly novel to call Bush a weenie, decry the War in Iraq, or complain about the food industry, it is still relatively rare to see a well-known celebrity uncompromisingly skewer religion.  When Sarah Palin is announcing that her 2012 bid will have God’s stamp of approval, one Religulous is worth 750 billion Super Size Me‘s and Fahrenheit 9/11‘s.  Stylistically, its a familiar travelogue documentary with splashes of Bill’s biography and plenty of on-site provocateuring in the mold of Borat and/or Michael Moore.  Substantively, it’s a litany of layman’s atheism punctuated by a materialist fire-and-brimstone rant at the end.  That it can be referred to as layman’s atheism is what makes this film worthwhile.  It’s always been a bogus charge that the New Atheism isn’t that new.  The piling up of data from studies in genetics, neuroscience, and cosmology has in fact produced new arguments against many of the worlds most deeply cherished religious tenets.  But those arguments, even when written in eloquent and relatable popular science terms by folks like the talented Daniel Dennett, can be hard to follow.  That’s where Bill Maher comes in.  Maher isn’t giving kitchen table explanations of the readiness potential in neuronal axons, nor is he explaining how Darwin’s theory of natural selection works.  He’s just thinking with his guts most of the time; asking obvious questions about obviously silly things.  And until our basic level of scientific literacy catches up with the times, it’s important that there be somebody doing this.  Is Religulous a particularly brilliant film?  No.  Is it even above average?  Not really–not as a film it isn’t.  But it’s a competent, entertaining expose on matters of an above average level of urgency.  There is one basic argument that the Horsemen and Maher have in common.  Religion, even at its most moderate, encourages smart people do discard their rational thought in favor of faith.  We entrust our leaders with firepower enough to blow up the world, hoping that they will be rational actors.  Yet we, along with our enemies who also seek this firepower, actively nurture and defend this thing which causes people to discard their rationality.  It’s a sort of new take on mutually assured destruction–call it religiously assured destruction.  But whereas MAD theoretically would keep nuclear hostilities in gridlock mode, RAD has the dangerous quality of exacerbating the last several decades of nuclear tension.  This anti-end times gospel may be old hat to some, but many still need to hear it.  Maher may sound and look like a typical fire-and-brimstone preacher in the film’s last minutes when he makes this argument amidst scenes of mushroom clouds and explosions.  But that heathen sermon, if heeded, could actually save the world.  That’s a lot more than you can say for the sentinels of snooty liberal political theater and their collective output combined.  

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