Thursday, May 28, 2009

An Open Letter to Bill Maher

Howdy, Bill

Just Saw Religulous. You're sharp as ever. Which is maybe a bit too sharp. I think it would have served your cause better if you'd let more people finish their sentences, rather than cutting them off with some withering comment.

I know, I know. You don't suffer fools. And we love you for it. But I think you're stacking the deck in the same way my old intro philosophy prof did back in the day. As you put it so well, the story of Jonah living in the belly of the whale and the story of Jack climbing a beanstalk both seem equally fantastic. And otherwise intelligent people who believe either story as literal truth are fun to mock. They are soft targets.

But there are harder targets out there you might have addressed. A lot of folks go to church and see these stories as fables. I have a Minister friend who openly talks about "the creation myth" or "the flood myth" from the Bible. Now admittedly he is United Church and prone to whiskey binges, but you take my point. So why do these folks take part in religion? Because they get something out of it. Something you don't get. And it's OK you don't get it. But it doesn't mean they're all stupid or crazy.

I was happy to see you talking to the Jesuit astronomer who notes that 1500 years passed between the writing of the Bible and the birth of scientific method, so we should not expect to find any valid scientific info in either Testament, and instead search for it today with all tools at our disposal. But I thought it was a bit disingenious to portray him as some radical maverick. Those Jesuits are generally smart mofos, and they often have quite a sense of humour about the various saints and miracles that their religion portrays.

I was also happy to see you talking to Dr. Andrew Newberg - the neuroscientist who studies how human brain patterns change while in religious trance states (such as 'spirit posession', speaking in tongues or deep meditation). I was unhappy that he never got to explain his ideas because you were too busy saying that he had proved your theory that religion is a neurological disorder. Below are some vids of him addressing scientific panels and documentarians. In fact, he is quite sympathetic to the human need for spirituality, and sees it as completely divorced from the question of whether any sort of god exists. For anyone interested in spirituality and rationality, this is fun (if nerdy) stuff.

Your point that we would quickly resign from any social club that had committed the atrocities of most religions is a good one. And your concern that fanaticism will lead to the end of the world either through war or neglect is valid. I get your urgency. But you ignore a crucial question: Why are many rational, non-fundamentalist people religious?

Many people use meditation or religious ceremonies (gathering in contemplation, telling ancestral stories, taking part in ancient rituals) in order to transcend the ego. The ego is the center of our rational intellect. Which is good. It is also the part in each of us that sees ourselves as an entity separate from everyone and everything else. To many people this just seems like a given. It is not. We could also choose to see ourselves as part of a greater entity: Gaia, or a cultural tradition, or a collective consciousness. But the ego fights this. And it likes to think that it is the entirety of our minds. It is not. It has been repeatedly, scientifically proven that there is lots of brain activity going on that is unrelated to our immediate egoic consciousness. The ego is also constantly engaged in a futile struggle for more. More status, more money, more sensation. And it loves to be right. To dominate. Either physically, or intellectually, or morally, or emotionally. It feels good. For about a minute.

Spirituality can be the discipline of recognizing this hungry chatterbox and trying to turn it down for a while in order to allow other parts of our consciousness some breathing space. It's not that different from cognitive therapy - how we can train ourselves to recognize an anxiety attack or an angry rage or a depressive episode as just that - an episode and not the absolute reality of our condition.

I would have loved to have seen you talk more about how this worthwhile project to tame the ego has been repeatedly hijacked for various egocentric projects. As you put it "Does the Vatican look like anything Jesus had in mind?". You could also have presented some agnostic alternatives to religion (with its historical baggage and its curent crop of douchebags). There are plenty. Buddhist meditation is a practice that asks no belief in anything supernatural and welcomes all denominations. Some "new age" and neo-pagan practices are incredibly pro-queer and anti-patriarchal. But you didn't do this. You went for the easy argument against the extremists in order to be right. In order to win.

And you did. And you looked like it felt good. For about a minute. And then you looked pissed & pugilistic again. In contrast to some of the serene believers you mocked. Do you think this approach changed any minds? Or did it just flatter those who already agree with you? Religious leadership is clearly an ego trip for some of your interviewees. It's alarming how similar your own motivation looks.

A bad advertisment for a good cause...

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