Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Goldilocks and Religulous

Reviewing Obsession, Willamette Week's Aaron Mesh detects entirely too much earnestness:

It is difficult to overstate how solemnly this information is conveyed by Obsession’s talking heads. “Some people view the current situation with the Middle East as a clash of civilization,” one of them intones, shaking her head sadly. “I think it’s more than that.”
I have not seen Obsession, but I am willing to concede that it is marked by a solemnity that Aaron Mesh finds difficult to overstate. What's more awful, after all, than a film about religion that's entirely too vehement, weighty, and mirthless?

It turns out that none other than Willamette Week's Aaron Mesh knows what's more awful:
[Bill Maher] also knows that sometimes a smirk isn’t enough. In the final five minutes of Religulous, Maher explodes in a masterful diatribe, which Charles scores against a montage of God-honoring atrocity, none of it trimmed for content. “That’s it,” Maher rails. “Grow up or die.” It’s a symphony of outrage, and betrays Religulous for what it is: the latest salvo from an groundswell of irate atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who look at religion and can’t imagine why humanity has endured it for so long. Whatever you may think of it, this is a consequential position, and it shames the rest of the movie — makes its cheap shots and sniggering look pale. If Bill Maher hates religion this much, he ought to take it a little more seriously.
Don't be serious and don't be funny; don't hype the dangers of extremist religious beliefs, and don't make light of extremist religious beliefs; don't cry and don't laugh.

It's hard to imagine the "just right" that Aaron Mesh is pretending to hanker for, but my guess is that he would like films critical of religion not to exist.

I don't mean to single out Aaron Mesh; critics who panned the film (here's a roundup of reviews) tend to trade in the same bad faith contortions, although many also trot out variants of the Courtier's Reply.


Anonymous said...

i saw religulous and liked it, though like every post-michael moore documentary, i found the editing bothersome. maher is a funny guy and he makes a lot of great points.
the negative reviews (and some of the positive ones as well) i've read all say the same thing: he's smug and the film is condescending. i dunno. some of the people he talks to in the film are, for want of a better word, dumb. it's hard NOT to be smug when you're talking to somebody who won't say that the idea of a talking snake is a pretty ridiculous thing.

Dale said...

LoJ, good points. Yes, part of the humor of the movie is indulging in a chuckle or two at the expense of people's silly, baseless beliefs. But as for "smug" and "condescending," I think those words pop out of people who are used to the blanket protection of the "thou shalt not criticize religious beliefs" norm. That norm deserves to be smashed for the reasons Maher (among others) lays out.

It's not reasonable to expect people to universally embrace the overthrow of this norm. But the question this movie (among other recent creations) forces upon us is a judgment question: do we want to live in a nuclear-ready world in which, in the name of Good Manners, religious believers can assert baseless things with absolute certainty without being challenged; or do we want to live in a nuclear-ready world in which believers are expected to abide by the same standards of bullshit/not-bullshit that apply to all other ideas? The objection that this ruffles feathers and seems "rude" is true enough, but seems to sidestep the judgment question and proceed directly to one of its possible answers. I'm not ready to cede the answer, certainly not that answer, without taking at least a good long pause to consider the question.

To be clear I have done so and I favor the iconoclasm even at the cost of hurt feelings. Religions are ideas, not skin tones -- people can take or leave them, and they should be encouraged to leave the bad ones. People with silly ideas deserve, sooner or later, to be seen for what they are: people clinging to silly ideas.

Thanks for the comment.