[T]o his credit, Maher hilariously exposes astonishing levels of ignorance and parochialism among the earnestly pious Americans he encounters in his travels around the country. (Maher's brief visits to other parts of the world are less amusing because the believers he interviews in Europe and the Middle East aren't as boorish.)Aw, come on. I haven't seen the movie, but really... American believers are more boorish? I'll bet the folks in the Middle East weren't prodded with the same sort of questions and edited with the same vicious hostility. I've seen enough Maher on TV to know he finds comedy in being very cruel to Americans. It's a comic stance that he's built his career on. Attacking foreigners can be hilarious, but it's not in style and it's not Maher's thing.
Yet Maher has loftier ambitions than laughs. He wants to save the world from the idiocy he unearths in the American heartland, and he believes the best way to fulfill this aim is to mercilessly attack religion and all those who adhere to it. And that's why the film, like so much written by critics of religion in recent years, must ultimately be judged a failure.It's only a failure if the purpose is what you say: to save people from religion. Maybe it's to sell books and movie tickets, to make those in-the-know laugh and feel superior, and to propagate the idea that the hip, smart people are atheists.
Like [Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens], Maher harbors so much contempt for religion that he would rather score easy points than explore the messy reality of humanity's complicated--often sordid, but sometimes noble--religious impulses and experiences. That's why Maher takes on simpletons and extremists instead of seeking out theologians and other thoughtful believers to explain and defend their beliefs. That's also why moderate believers simply don't exist in Maher's America, which aside from the 16 percent of the country* that explicitly rejects institutional religion, seems to be populated only by fundamentalists awaiting (and perhaps even itching to hasten) the apocalypse. How else to explain the absurdly paranoid peroration with which he concludes the film? Over ominous music and images of mushroom clouds, Maher informs us that religious belief is a "neurological disorder" that must be eradicated for the sake of human survival. "Grow up or die," he warns, as if those were our only options.Only contempt explains it? In any case, why can't a comedian or a polemicist deal in contempt?
It's not the only approach, but it's an approach. (And I don't think "contempt" is at all the right word for Dawkins, whose "God Delusion" I've read. It fits Hitchens -- and I've read "God Is Not Great." I haven't read the Harris book, but I don't think it's contemptuous.)
Instead of hurling insults and indiscriminate denunciations at religion-in-general, Maher and his fellow atheists could do far more good by encouraging the growth and flourishing of open-minded belief--the kind of belief that lives in productive tension with modern science and cultural pluralism.Comedians as do-gooders? What good will that do?