Bill Maher’s new movie Religulous has just come out. I have seen him on a number of TV promotional spots like the Daily Show. He challenges the simplistic unscientific beliefs that so many religious people fervently hold to. He is shocked that people believe in a literal flood, a very real Satan figure, or the theology of atonement that is said to give meaning to Jesus’ death on the cross. He frames the faith of these religious people as worse than pitiable. One line of reasoning he repeats throughout his interviews goes something like this: We live the 21st century and we should have moved beyond this as a society. Religion is a blight on society–look at all the wars that are to blame or the bigotry that’s resulted from people holding misguided religious beliefs. He asserts that religion is ridiculous (hence the title) and even dangerous to society and we must move past it as a civilized country if we want to evolve. He has made it his crusade to embolden people to stand up for their agnostic beliefs and push for a more secular society.
I think he is onto something. The clips that he shows make clear that some religious people do hold ridiculous beliefs. For every religion out there, it isn’t difficult to find some nut job who has distorted its meaning. There is the guy on the street corner who preaches condemnation and hell fire at people he doesn’t even know. There is the co-worker who rigidly observes a set of Christian rules and judges everyone around him without an ounce of compassion, love, or forgiveness evident in any part of his life. There is the high school student who goes to youth group every Wednesday for prayer and praise, and then on Friday dives head first into the drunken debaucheries of the high school party scene. Christianity is a religion full of people who serve as bad examples, but that’s the point. To say people are messed up is to engage in Christian theologizing.
One of the central doctrines of the Christian faith is the doctrine of sin. We were created blameless but we err. We were declared good but we execute evil. We were made to love but we’re filled with hate. Every person on the face of the planet has felt the pangs of sin–trusts have been betrayed, confidences broken, and relationships destroyed because of sin. We all know sin like we know hunger because it’s as much a part of our life as eating.
For Maher to point out the shortcomings of individual religious adherents is only to confirm the presence of sin in the world. There is no surprise that he can grab a random religious zealot on the street or a politician who has used religion to get elected and make their faith look stupid. He could have grabbed anyone. Everyone holds some set of beliefs that are crazy, and everyone lives an inconsistent lifestyle–in some people it’s just more obvious.
Where Maher goes wrong is with his putative solution. He avers that we are smart enough to move past this. We are developed enough as a society that we ought to be able to move on to a more enlightened place. But I think this is terribly naive. I’ve seen no evidence that smarter, more cultured, or more educated people in any way behave better than those who are less educated. I could offer anecdotal evidence of the college students I’ve interacted with on the Harvard campus and the orphan children I worked with in Africa. I could suggest national or political examples of Nazi Germany or Watergate. I could offer corporate examples of Enron, Martha Stewart or most recently the sleazy practices that lead up to the mortgage crisis. Some of the smartest, most cultured people do things just as stupid and self-contradictory as the people Maher has interviewed.
And that’s the Christian message: we are all messed up. Each and every single one of us is broken, hypocritical, judgmental, and selfish. We are sinners. We not only live at times embarrassingly inconsistent lives, but our sin often times seriously hurts other people. Lying isn’t bad just because God arbitrarily says so; it’s bad because relationships are built on the foundations of honesty. Raunchy anonymous sex isn’t sinful because God is a prude. It’s sinful because humans are vulnerable people who can best enjoy the riches of sex within the context of the covenant relationship of marriage. Sin afflicts us all, and it is in us all. We are all sinners. Being a Christian just means that we recognize our brokenness and are trying to move towards healing and salvation in the context of community.
History does not move forward without catastrophe, happiness is not guaranteed by the multiplication of physical comforts, social harmony is not easily created by more intelligence, and human nature is not as good or as harmless as had been supposed. We are thus living in a period in which either the optimism of yesterday has given way to despair, or in which some of the less sophisticated moderns try desperately to avoid the abyss of despair by holding to credos which all the facts have disproved.
Niebuhr, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith,” anthologized in Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, 9.