February 24, 2009
A perhaps surprising review of Religulous from the net’s most notorious atheist:
I did finally see Religulous a few days ago, and I confess to being a bit disappointed. It consisted of a series of short interviews with, for instance, truckers at a truck stop chapel, Catholic priests, an “ex-gay” minister, a Muslim rapper, etc., and it was all capped with excellent and scathing monologue that strongly criticized religion. Don’t get me wrong, it was good, and there were some funny bits, but something nagged at me throughout, and only when I saw the conclusion did I realize what it was.
Maher cheated. He had a clear idea of what his opinion was, but he wasn’t sharing it with the people he was interviewing. They were left to flounder and make poor arguments in part because there are no good arguments for religion, but also because they were left in the dark about what they were arguing against. It may be funny, but it’s no fair; contrast that with the Dawkins’ documentaries on religion, which are less funny, but more honest, because the people on camera know (or should know) exactly what they are wrestling with.
A better Religulous would have recorded the closing monolog first, and sent that to each of the potential interviewees with a note saying, “Here’s my position. Are you willing to argue against it on camera?” That would have made for a much more interesting movie, and Maher would have had to break a sweat to address criticisms…and it would probably be less funny. There’s a reason Maher wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, and I think it’s because his documentary took no risks, and didn’t probe very deeply.
One of the most important things I’m trying to do here on Evaluating Christianity is to engage in an honest dialogue with believers over what we believe and why. I’m not out to win “converts” to atheism; at most, I’m out to win converts to the notion that atheism is reasonable. At the end of the day, I’m not Christopher Hitchens — I don’t need to see theism obliterated from the face of the planet. I’d just like for the theist (and in particular, the Christian) to concede that atheism is a rational response to the world we live in.
That’s why I’ve tried to structure my Summary Case for Atheism as the kind of response I would give you if we were having a beer and a friendly chat. I don’t think the case I present is air-tight; in fact, I hope that it encourages people to raise criticisms and questions.
Now I understand that other people — both theists and atheists — have different objectives. At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from this blog is presuppositionalism, a school of apologetics built on definitional wordplay, strategic argumentation and deliberate obfuscation. It’s a polysyllabic version of what Greta Christina calls the “Shut Up, That’s Why” school of apologetics. At the end of the day, the presuppositionalist’s goal is to “win” his debate, not listen to what you have to say. (If you don’t believe me, check out this handbook from one particularly obnoxious presuppositionalist.)
So that’s the context for this week’s episode of The Atheist Experience, which featured a continuation of the discussion/debate on presuppositionalism that I talked about last week. I have to say that Matt Dillahunty (the regular host of the Atheist Experience) gave perhaps the most interesting refutation of TAG I have ever heard. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of how I would have approached it, which I think turned out to be the near-optimal strategy. The unorthodox nature of Matt D.’s responses clearly threw Matt Slick (the presuppositionalist apologist) off of his game such that by the end of the 48-minute exchange, Slick was left with nothing more than belligerently repeating a nonsense question. Here’s my take: