I finally watched Bill Maher’s movie Religulous last night. Only ten years too late! But nothing much has changed in terms of what I want to say about it.
Bill Maher and like-minded people such as Richard Dawkins always make the same complaints about religions. They attack the religion’s cosmogony — its myths, its creation story, its ideas about heavens, hells, angels and all that. They point out that this stuff is ridiculous*. Then they figure the job is done.
Most religions have pretty dopey stories attached to them. The Mormons say that God lives on planet Kolob and has lots of sexy wives. The Scientologists say that our souls were dumped into volcanos millions of years ago. Biblical Creationists insist that people once palled around with vegetarian T-rexes. Even mainstream religions have ideas that sound pretty silly when you examine them; virgin birth, parting of seas, swallowings by whales, people rising from the dead, and so on. Some Buddhist ideas like the ones about Mt. Sumeru, the five-peaked mountain in an ocean at the center of the world, are just as weird.
Of course, these kinds of belief systems cause problems when people insist that they should be taught in schools as equivalent to scientific theories and discoveries. When that happens, we are right to oppose them.
But I don’t think most people join religions because they are convinced by their cosmogony. People don’t say, “You guys teach that God lives on planet Kolob? That sounds reasonable. Sign me up!”
I watched a film called New York Doll many years ago. It’s a really interesting story about Arthur “Killer” Kane, the original bass player of the New York Dolls, a seventies band that was tremendously influential to the later punk rock scene. The film tells the story of how Kane fell into a terrible downward spiral of drugs and poverty after the break-up of the Dolls. But then he joined the Mormon church and turned his life around. The Mormons helped him get sober and get his life together and even helped him get in shape for a reunion performance by the New York Dolls. Robyn Hitchcock wrote a brilliant song about it.
I don’t know what Arthur Kane thought of all the stuff about planet Kolob, or Jesus preaching to Native Americans, or Joseph Smith’s golden tablets that conveniently disappeared when people asked to see them. My guess is he probably just sort of shrugged at that stuff the way I’d imagine a lot of Mormons do. The important parts to him were the Mormon ideas about living a drug-free life and their emphasis on community support.
There’s a scene in Religulous in which Bill Maher goes into a trucker’s chapel and tries to convince the truckers of the absurdity of things like immaculate conception and original sin. The truckers argue with him a little, but it doesn’t seem to shake their faith. Then one of the truckers completely sidesteps the whole idea of the factuality of this stuff. Instead he talks about how before he was saved he was doing drugs and running prostitutes. Later, back in his trailer, Maher muses, “When the guy said ‘I used to do drugs, I used to have women,’ and I’m thinking, and your problem was…?”
That’s just Bill Maher being clueless. Or maybe he’s making a joke. But it’s a clueless joke. A few seconds later in the film he seems to answer his own question and yet he still manages to miss the point.
Maher says, “Being without faith is a luxury for people who were fortunate enough to have a fortunate life. You go to prison and you hear people say, ‘I got nothing but Jesus in here.’ If you’re in a foxhole you probably have a lot of faith. I completely understand that. But how can smart people believe in the talking snake and people living to be 900 years old and virgin birth? That’s my question.”
The answer is that we’re all in a foxhole. We’re all in prison. Maybe not literally, but metaphorically. We’re all going to get sick and die. We’re all imprisoned by society to one extent or another. Even “fortunate” people have to suffer misfortune. It’s inevitable. Sometimes misfortune is even harder to bear for people who haven’t experienced much of it.
People will cling to anything that makes the sadness of life a little easier to take. Being wrong but happy feels better than being right but miserable.
One thing that I really like about Buddhism, at least in the Zen school, is the way it doesn’t insist that we have to believe in Buddhist cosmogony. Most schools of Buddhism don’t have a strong insistence on belief in Buddhist cosmogony — although some do. But the Zen school is probably the most radical in its rejection of such beliefs.
Yet, even though the Zennies reject the idea that you have to believe in Buddhist cosmogony, they still retain many of the trappings of Buddhist schools in which such beliefs are held more strongly. They still have ceremonies in which they honor mythological figures like Kanon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, or Maitreya, the future Buddha who is supposed to appear when human beings have shrunk to an average height of three feet tall.
Nobody ever insists that you have to believe that Kanon really hears the cries of all who suffer or that one day Maitreya will actually appear to save the world. And yet we play along just like people who do believe these things.
The reason is that these ceremonies have practical value. They help people get along together. They give them a sense of belonging and community. Their “lies,” as Bill Maher would probably characterize them, ease some of our worries and fears. And they can do this even if we know perfectly well they’re not true — at least not true in the sense that scientific discoveries and theories are true.
I think it may be similar to the way it feels good to hear someone you love tell you it’s going to be all right when you’re sick. I know my girlfriend hasn’t got a clue in the world when it comes to medicine and biology. But if I am lying in bed coughing and sneezing, it’s a great comfort when she says I’m going to be OK.
We all need that. I think the Zen way of understanding these aspects of Buddhist cosmogony is a great innovation and can be applied to any other religion. In fact, I see that happening already. You don’t need to insist all this mythological stuff is factual in order for it to have value. You can still accept science and rationality without necessarily trashing religious myths.
* Hence the title of Maher’s move which combines the words religious and ridiculous. I know you spotted that ten years ago, I didn’t notice till last night.
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