May 6, 2009

Religulous, Miss California, and Dick Cheney: Defend the Delusion

Cover of "Religulous"Cover of Religulous

What does one get when one watches Religulous and then finds oneself thinking about Miss California? I had one more fleeting observation about Religulous that did not make it into my review and Miss California's infamous quote somehow solidified it. In watching Religulous, one of the things that struck me was how little many religious believers seemed to know about their claimed religions and the scientific or historical consensus surrounding many of their claims. I should have mentioned this in my review, but it was not until I read and re-read Miss California's quote several times that the full significance of this observation hit me. When one is exposed only to dogma and not to reality during one's upbringing and when one is taught not to question the teachings of one's parents and one's church, this is precisely the outcome the rest of us should expect. Many of the religious believers in Maher's film were like Miss California - they had been raised to think this way and never really bothered to question it.

It is widely recognized throughout the atheist community that we frequently know more about religious teaching than do those who claim to practice the religion. In part, this is because many of us are ex-practitioners ourselves. However, I believe that this is more about the process of questioning and exploration that many of us went through before discarding superstition. It was through critical examination that many of us were able to escape.

In watching Religulous, I was initially shocked to see Christians at the Holy Land Experience who seemed to have no idea that their bible was written decades after the death of their alleged savior. How could they not know this? Enter Miss California. They were raised to believe certain untruths and have not yet embarked on the process of critically evaluating much of what they were taught.

An earlier scene in Religulous is instructive here. Maher visits a truckers' chapel at a truck stop and is asking a handful of congregants about their beliefs. It does not take him long to get to what will strike most of us as fairly basic questions that no one in the group can answer (e.g., why is believing in things without evidence a good thing?). One man says something like, "If you are challenging my god, we're gonna have problems - I'm not listening to this" and storms out the moment it Maher begins to sound even mildly skeptical. So desperate was this man to protect his delusion that he was not willing to tolerate even a few minutes of disagreement with his religious convictions.

It occurs to me that millions of Americans are exactly like this man, not just when it comes to their Christian delusion but also with regard to their political views. In fact, I suspect that this is precisely what makes Fox "News" so appealing to some. Remember the reports about Dick Cheney's handlers having to arrive early at wherever he would be staying to set the TVs to Fox "News" lest the Grand Torturer might be confronted with dissent? Unfortunately, Cheney was not unique in this regard.

Just look at how the torture debate is shaping up. "We do not torture because torture is bad, and we don't do bad things" runs smack into the reality that we did in fact torture. The resolution simply cannot be acknowledgment that we did bad things, and so it is perverted into "What we did was not torture" or even "Torture is usually bad, but it was not bad when we did it because we had no choice." Such massive bullshit and yet really not that different from how countless people maintain their religious beliefs every day.

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