An ideologue is an ideologue

Jacques Berlinerblau in the Washington Post's On Faith section: "Maher, a talented stand-up performer, is simply not skilled at, or comfortable with, rapidly converting ideological bile into comedy gold...


Maher is no master of squirm comedy. Maybe this accounts for why Religulous is larded with soundtracks, stock movie footage, captions, sound effects, you name it. These are Maher's post-production "life lines"--gimmicks that help him cover up the fact that watching two ideologues run head first into one another is not inherently illuminating or pleasurable to watch.


And let there be no doubt, Maher is an ideologue (a point that Andrew Sullivan brought home in a recent exchange with the host of Real Time). His worldview and politics are decidedly New Atheist. This means that he must focus obsessively on religious extremists and oddballs. He must provoke and mock them.


And he must do so while maintaining the peculiar insistence that he actually understands their religion better than they do. Thus, he counters their assertions about the Bible with equally literalist counter-factuals. (Somebody buy him a book on the history of biblical interpretation, if only so he would stop assuming that all Jews and Christians read their Scriptures literally. Bill meet Philo of Alexandria. Philo. Bill.)


It also means that he must steadfastly avoid speaking to, or even thinking about, religious moderates. In accordance with the New Atheist creed, they are seen as enablers of religious zealots, or in Maher's phrase "mafia wives."


In one sequence, our narrator comes across two Catholic priests who share his skepticism about religious dogma. The host smiles goofily and expresses his approval. But the joke's on him. These priests are by no means unusual. Most Catholics, Jews and Protestants in America are at peace with science, modernity, secular government, and so forth. Maher could have found tens of millions more like them, had he bothered to look.


When all is said and done in 2008, nonbelievers will have questions: why were the atheists, always hot on the bestseller lists, so irrelevant this election season? Why did the presidential candidates and media ignore them? Why were their issues (e.g., separation of Church and State, the importance of public-school science curricula) so completely marginalized?


Well, Religulous may yield some answers. I often wonder if the New Atheists themselves understand how politically counter-productive their relentless mocking of moderates has been. The latter are everywhere locked in epic struggles with fundamentalists in their own traditions. Were New Atheists to ever think tactically, they might refer to those moderates not as "imbeciles," but "allies." Well, 2008 has been a wash; maybe some clever atheist will figure that out in 2012 and forge coalitions appropriately...


Further, he has no doubts whatsoever that the people whom he interviews are utterly contemptible (and in many cases they are). Confronted with this low-wattage selection of religious schmucks, Maher is free to sermonize condescendingly. The movie ends with an extended homily in which our wisecracking Virgil warns the religious to "grow up or die." In light of the current intellectual and political poverty of atheist thought, the sentiment might be just as well directed to nonbelievers."


An ideologue is an ideologue, regardless of whether or not you're sympathetic or resistant to their ideology.

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