This week’s post is going to be a bit out of the ordinary. A friend of mine asked me to watch Bill Maher’s Religulous, where he satires and supposedly proves that “Religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.” (1:43) I’m normally skeptical of documentaries, especially ones done by people who are not in any real sense scholars, and this documentary did little to ward me of my skepticism.
Firstly, I’d like to address what he sets up as the premise of the film. As far as I can tell he wants to understand how otherwise reasonable people can believe in religion, and to prove that “religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.” (ibid) In order to prove this he claims he will use rationality, but that would involve a logical argument of some sort. It could look something like this:
- Anything that encourages beliefs in the supernatural is a detriment to society’s progress. (This would take the form more formally as “If something encourages… then …. ) [P->Q]
- Religion encourages beliefs in the supernatural. [P]
- Therefore religion is detrimental to society’s progress. [Q, Modus Ponens 1&2]
While these claims are by no means self-evident, they are nonetheless at least possible as true, and if so, the argument winds up being a valid one. However, I detected no such argument in the documentary. (I would have been impressed at an attempt) It instead was largely Argumentum Ad Populum (He visited trucker’s chapels, and tourist attractions, but avoided universities and seminaries.) Ad Hominem (he dismissed entire religious claims based on the fact that sometimes their adherents did terrible things), Dicto Simpliciter (he made sweeping generalizations about entire religions and ignored the nuance.) and other various propaganda like material. (Though he did have a few good points, which we will address later in the body.)
To start, he begins to ask some guys at a Trucker’s Chapel, if they were okay with the fact that certain doctrines were mentioned nowhere in the Bible. For example, “Original Sin”, “Immaculate Conception” and the “Virgin Birth”(which he admits is found in two of the four gospels.) I am not surprised he did not ask about these when he was at the Vatican or questioning Catholics, as they would have an easy answer to it, but considering how little of the majority of Protestants engage with the works of Church History (especially those at a Truckers chapel), it is unsurprising that they do not have answers to these questions.
You could have gone for a bigger target than the doctrines he picked if you wanted to take a shot at the Biblicity issues. For example, the word Trinity is not found until the writings of Tertullian, where the word “Trinitas” was first used.1 Not that it wasn’t implied in Scripture or in the earlier Fathers, but that the word never appeared until the the late Second Century would have been something I gunned for. The answer to why some of these Doctrines are there however is simply that they arose out of reflection on the Biblical data over hundreds of years. That is what tradition is built on, the interpretation of the Scriptures through the living body of the Church for a long time. So the Biblicity of these doctrines is little problem. Some of them would be debated between traditions, for example, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, but the Virgin Birth for example is unanimously accepted. (Though some traditions have implications others don’t.)
It is clear however, that Maher did not do any research into the forming of the Canon or the development of Doctrine before challenging these people’s views. For example, if the Virgin Birth is only in two of the Gospels there is likely a reason for it. (He never once asked the question as to why there are Four gospels, as opposed to One or Twelve.) The different Gospels were written for different audiences for different purposes, and the Virgin Birth was included in Matthew(written to a Jewish Audience) and Luke (written after interviews with Eyewitnesses). Matthew was written to Jewish audiences as an apologetic, to show that Christ met all the prophecies of the Old Testament. Luke was trying to do as much credit to the original eyewitnesses as he could. He has more detail on the childhood of John the Baptist and Jesus than any other Gospel, which suggests that Mary and Elizabeth were potentially some of the people he interviewed, and if he’s being faithful then he’d report Mary’s experience as accurately as he can.
Maher claims at different points that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. This seems absurd for a few reasons, but I’ll start with one glaring problem. Where is he getting his information? He simply asserts it as fact. A basic study into the formation of the Canon will reveal that the Canon-formers had actually discarded and eliminated documents that were forgeries and fakes. In addition, the basic books of the New Testament Canon were being cited as early as Clement of Rome. In his Epistle to the Corinthians (AD 68-97) Clement references Ephesians, Acts(Which is the second part of Luke-Acts), 1 Peter, Titus, Romans, 2 Peter, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Hebrews, and so on. This shows that there is little to no difficulty in asserting that the New Testament was in use incredibly close to the time of Christ. Not only that but the direct disciples of the Apostles, such as Ignatius, and Polycarp, were quoting from them as well. So these men would not have cited them unless they were certain their masters had written them.
Maher though, does bring up a good point with Dr. Francis Collins. Does the fact that the Bible being written fairly close to the time of the Apostles give it credit for a historical document? If you were to run it through a laboratory or a courtroom would that hold up? And this is now no longer a question of authenticity, but of epistemology? What are the standards for knowing History? Can we know it at all? We certainly can’t know it like we know the laws of physics, through observation. We can only really hear about it from people in the past and then falsify it through Archaeology. So the answer to the question he raises is ‘no’ it would not survive a lab test. Simply because it’s not repeatable or observable.
But neither would World War I history. Or the fact that yesterday existed. We can’t know these by observation and experimentation, but rather inference and testimony and memory. So the epistemological question he raises is really a Red Herring. “Is history science?” “Well no.” “Ah.” “That’s why you get a Arts degree in it, rather than a Sciences.” In fact, we start to see Maher’s epistemological cards coming out on the table. He thinks that science is the purveyor of Truth with a capital T.
Maher then interviews a televangelist about the image of Jesus in today’s culture. He asks if the poor man was what Jesus looked like and the preacher said something along the lines of “No. He had fine linens because he was rich. He was given gold as a child after all.” Which Maher rightly pointed out is not exactly the image you get from the New Testament. So the question then appears (at least in the viewers mind) “Where did the gold go then?” And this can be explained when you notice that after the Magi show up, Jesus does a good bit of travel. They traveled from Bethlehem to Egypt. On foot. With a newborn. This cost money due to bandits and robbers and such, and so they likely had to hire mercenaries to guard them on their way, book a place to stay while they were there, and then return at a later date. This likely exhausted the gifts the Magi brought, and were a sign of God’s providence. It’s not plain in the text exactly, but seeing as how they flew there a verse after the Magi gave them the gold, leads to that sort of inference.
Maher then uses an Ad Hominem attack against Lot. He claims that since Lot is a Godly Man that offered his Daughters up for rape, rather than the angels, he was a role model. Maher claims that since this man is considered Godly, then there is less morality in the “King James Bible” than the “Rick James Bible”. He’s clearly missing the point there, it wasn’t that Lot was good. Or that Abraham was(pimped out his wife…) or that David was(killed a man, stole his wife) or any Biblical character save Jesus was, but that God is good. With this in mind, the stories of debauchery and sin make a bit more sense.
Maher then tries to rope in modern politics. He goes to a “Gay rehabilitation clinic” where gay people are made straight through religion, and talks to the leader there about homosexuality in the Bible. He asks why, if it’s such a big deal, does Jesus not say a word about it in the New Testament? The guy has very little of an answer, but the answer is fairly forthcoming in both the question and in the original language. The question assumes something that is unsupported by the text, which is, “Whatever Jesus thought was important he’d say something about right?” but he fails to remember that our ideas of sexuality are not the same as they were in the 1st Century AD.
There was temple prostitution, government condoned orgies(indeed even government planned orgies), and much sexual activity that might be considered deviant in our time, such as paederasty or the practice of educating young boys through homoerotic relationships with older men. Most of the Emperors indulged in this practice for instance, Gibbon states, “Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct”2 which implies that he had no male or boy lovers. But it was easily seen in most of the others.
When the New Testament writers spoke of “Sexual Immorality” they use the term “pornea”. This had a double connection, that of ‘idolatry’ and that of ‘sexual immorality’.3 This was a ‘junk drawer’ term for anything that was considered non-standard sexual intercourse between a man and his wife. This would include things like temple prostitution (this is a double whammy of both Idolatry and sexual immorality) and that would include both heterosexual and homosexual prostitution. The condemnation of long hair on men in 1 Corinthians was to dissociate them from the male homosexual prostitutes of Hermaphrodite that were worshipped in Corinth. Paederasty, incest, rape, adultery, prostitution and homosexuality these all fall under the umbrella of “Pornea”. So Jesus did speak of it.4
Can a Christian be a homosexual (by orientation) rather than a heterosexual? Yes. The Bible seems to only condemn the behavior, though with the given that ‘lust in the heart’ counts as adultery. (Matt 7:27-28) but that applies to both hetero and homosexuals.
Maher critiques then the adequacy of the Ten Commandments as moral rooting. He makes the statement that the first four seem silly, why does it matter what God you serve, and why aren’t there commandments against say, child abuse or rape? (Even though these would fall under what the Bible would call ‘adultery’.)
He doesn’t understand that the Commandments are set up in the following way. “Love the Lord your God”, and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you love God, you will love yourself as God loves you, and therefore love your neighbor as God loves them. If you follow the first four commandments, you will follow the rest.
So Child Abuse, Rape, etc, would be morally discounted by the remaining commandments as they treat objects of dignity as objects of valuelessness. He then asks if the first four are even necessary? I mean God seems like a very jealous God! Should we really be encouraging such closed-mindedness?
But not all Jealousy is bad, there is a difference between denying the petty and protecting the precious. A husband who feels no anger at a man who is trying to steal his wife is not a good husband, but a bad one! If God has made a covenant with his people then for him to be jealous over them is for him to be a good God, just as a man who has made a covenant with his wife is a good husband he’s jealous at something or someone trying to steal them away. These laws were only binding governmentally in Israel sure, but they hold true for Christians today since we also enter into this covenant with God. And if it is the case that the others follow logically from it, maybe we should?5
But sure, we could have seen some of this ourselves (as Maher suggests). That murder is wrong and so on, and the God thing is a bit less obvious. What he doesn’t realize is that in affirming objective moral values he has created a deeper philosophical problem.
Why is it wrong to rape or murder or steal? Surely it’s not something that we find in nature? We’re not going to go out and discover written in the heavens some law, like the law of Gravity? Is it testable or repeatable? If it’s a product of the evolutionary process then they are more like fashions then law. When someone goes against the herd, it’s not that they are doing something wrong but merely something out of fashion. But rather than getting distracted by the argument of Natural Theology here, I’ll simply provide a link to a paper on it, and then do a post on the Moral Argument another time. (See footnote) 6
Maher then references that there were ‘other myths’ in circulation that postulated a diety born on December 25th, crucified and resurrected. Most frequently I hear this of Horus, but the most ridiculous one I have heard is Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent, and then Baldur, Mithras, et al. Not only are these rehashed from that terrible documentary Zeitgeist (a full refutation of which can be found at the following (See footnote)7) where he depends on outdated scholarship of a lone Egyptologist Gerald Massey.8
I am going to end with the review of the content there, as he focuses briefly on the foundings of Mormonism and Islam, which I would tend to agree with in the most part, however he does fail to address the flourishing Golden Age period of Medieval Islam, and the (for the most part) peaceful coexistence of the People of the Book under their reign.
The rest of my review will focus on a definition issue. Early on he made the unfounded assertion that faith is simply “belief without evidence” which is quite a startling claim. At first, that seems plausible, based on certain Biblical passages such as Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Some people take this to mean that to simply ‘not have faith’ is to not believe anything without evidence, and thus Atheism can be a lack of belief.
Of course that’s not a very high calling. My dog, my desk, and my computer all ‘lack belief’ and therefore all are atheists. The better and more sophisticated definition of atheism is a “belief that there is no God” which serves as a more rigid designator and helps distinguish them from thing that lack belief in God, (ie. Infants.)
This definition of faith however, is simply misguided. Faith is not an ‘epistemological’ category but rather a ‘relational’ category or perhaps a better description would be a description of a psychological state. For example, to have faith in one’s wife, is not to believe that she will do things without evidence, but rather that you trust in her based on the deliverance of reason and experience. It is a trust in conjunction with reason that creates faith. This is even supported in Scripture.9 Paul gives a list of eyewitnesses to the resurrection so you could go and check the evidence. Peter says to be ready to give a defense. Jesus says to believe, if not because of his word, then on the basis of miracles.
In addition the tradition carried this on in men like Augustine and Anselm who famously said that the were doing philosophy as “Faith, seeking understanding.” or that “They believe in order that they might understand.” If you do not first have a foundation of trust with a person or a thing, you cannot rightly study it. If you do not believe that the laws of physics are not constant, what is the point in studying them? We take epistemological claims in relation to ourselves and we either trust them or deny them.
So, we need to not fall prey to ridiculous documentaries like Religilous, which if it did anything for me, it convinced me we need better training of our laypeople in the Church and better familiarity with history. This Anti-intellectualism that has been plaguing the faith since the Fundamentalist movement needs to stop.