This afternoon Michael and I decided to drive across town to see Bill Maher's new film, Religulous at the one screen showing it in town. I was surprised to get there and see a pretty much packed house. In fact, although we'd purchased our tickets online we found ourselves sitting near the front since seats in the "bleachers" were scarce.
The audience was an interesting mix with a lot of older adults in attendance. In fact, Michael joked he felt positively young in that crowd!
The film itself was very interesting. Maher managed to stay on the polite side of sarcastic at most times and simply asked pretty straightforward questions and let the subjects do the talking. The result swung between hilarious and uncomfortable.
Perhaps my favorite moment in the film was a chat he had at the Jefferson Memorial with a scholar who pointed out that despite the claims of the Religious Right the Founding Fathers were not religious men for the most part and, in fact, seemed to have a healthy skepticism about much of the religious dogma that so many swallow without a thought today. A series of quotes from our revered ancestors flashed on the screen underscoring the conversation.
The first part of the film dealt primarily with Christians and the usual refrain from the "saved" was "What if you're wrong?" Maher, early on, took on this mantra by asking if the believers only believed because they were hedging their bets. In other words, is it good enough to "believe" simply because you want to cover as many bases as possible and only acting morally because you are afraid if you don't that something will happen to you rather than doing it because you feel that it is the right thing to do. This seemed to stump the first group he spoke to at first.
Later in the segment he paid a visit to the Creation Museum being built and Kentucky and spoke to its founder. This was one of the points in the show I actually became a bit uncomfortable. This man claimed that anyone who doubted the Creation Myth was a sinner and immoral. There was something in his eyes that made me think of Abortion Clinic bombers - a fire that burns but at the same time seems dead. Truly, a scary person.
Maher balanced his assertion that anyone who doubted the Creation Myth with an interview with the head of the Vatican Observatory who calmly pointed out the inconsistencies in the argument that Evolution and Creationism could be "combined" as is happening at this museum. As he stated the Bible stories were written long before what we would consider "science" was even conceived. Therefore, to believe that a Bible story is "science" or has scientific validity is illogical.
Later, he spoke to some Ex-Mormons who talked about the beliefs of the Latter Day Saints and explained their bizarre beliefs in gods on distant planets and the concoction they brewed combining what reads like a Sci-Fi novel with Biblical stories to create this odd religion. He could not find a single active Mormon to speak about their practices or even answer questions about their beliefs on camera. The church security even chased them away from photographing the exterior of the "Temple" in Salt Lake City. Why is this considered a religion? It's a cult, pure and simple.
Of course, Jews and Muslims were touched upon as well. He even managed to talk a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews who have visited Iran and taken part in a Holocaust denier conference there. Truly bizarre. Their belief is the Jews got what they deserved because they aren't holy and they shouldn't be allowed in Israel.
He also met a man who makes little gadgets for observant Jews to use on the Sabbath so they don't break any of the tenets such as pushing buttons, using fire, or the many others I've forgotten. Maher asked him if it was wrong for him to try to get around God's law by making these things that would allow people to do things they normally would be prohibited from doing. His answer was that if God wrote a law with loopholes it was so someone could figure out how to get around the law!
After the Jews came the Muslims. Again, a moment that was very uncomfortable as he quizzed both regular believers and Imams on the beliefs. To a man they denied the Islam has anything to do with violence even when Maher pointed out violent commandments in the Koran to them. Their response, despite it being in black and white was that it didn't even exist. As though no one could possibly read the passage but them.
His comment afterwards was quite astute when he mentioned that it seemed that they did know there was some fundamental problem in the culture that made it tend toward violence but simply couldn't bring themselves to discuss or face this with an outsider.
In between he talks to a U.S. Senator who believes in the Rapture and finally admitted that no one had to pass an I.Q. test to serve in the Senate. He made a good point and maybe it's time we instituted that requirement in the face of so many "Born Agains" holding office.
A trip to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida brought chuckles and moans from the audience. Shots of kids wearing "Roman Centurion" helmet, shields and swords made out of gold lame and polyester foam padding (sold in the many gift shops) engendered a sense of disbelief at the crassness of "true believers". Maher talked to a Jesus impersonator about his beliefs but the funniest moment came when the "cast" of the Crucifixion show broke into a song and dance number, much to the delight of the crowds watching. I couldn't help but think of the horrible PTL club in Charlotte, NC when I was young and their "shows" including the Last Supper play.
Yet, despite all of the bizarre people he met, none of them were unbelievable. I saw people "praising" during the hokey "crucifixion" in a theme park that could have been my own relatives. I know if they were there they would be on their feet weeping with arms upraised and shouting. Yet, like Maher, I wonder "why?"
I've never had that burn. I've never had that level of belief. Even in my darkest moments when I was very sick and prayed, there was a part of me that still wondered.
I have a nephew that I love very much who is very much the dedicated church goer and attends a Pentecostal church. He is very intelligent and yet, I wonder how it is that he can believe in God and Jesus with such conviction and without a shred of hard evidence. How can he be absolutely convinced that a guy in the 19th Century is 100% correct that there will be a "Rapture" and he'll be taken bodily to Heaven? How?
After all, when we break down the stories they make no sense. If we substituted Jesus' name for someone else (BTW: there are at least 3 other identical stories predating Jesus) the whole story would seem absolutely absurd and we would question anyone's mental state who believe the story was real. Yet, because it happens to be this particular story we accept it without question and accept without question all the horrible ideas that come with it - be it war, hatred, death, violence, or intolerance of other people.
I suppose, in the end, I agree with Bill Maher's final thought in the movie. It's time that we stopped allowing people in power to have a free pass because it is their "religion" and make them act in the best interests of all. They're fond of asking the rest of us "What if you're wrong?" It's time to start asking that of them.
Does the idea of Armageddon and the Rapture scare me? No, but the idea that the people in power believe in those things scares the crap out of me.
Oh, and the movie receive a rousing round of applause at the end as I heard someone near us say "It's about time someone asked these people some questions!"