Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The uncomfortable similarities between Religulous and Expelled!

There is a lot of discussion over at SciBlogs about the recent announcement that Bill Maher is the winner of the Richard Dawkins Award (important note: given out by the Atheist Alliance, not by Richard Dawkins). My opinion on whether Maher should have won the award or not is fairly boring -- I think his lunatic views on vaccines and alternative medicine make him a questionable choice, but I'm not up in arms about it either -- yet one allegation that has come up in the discussion has troubled me: Folks have been pointing out some uncomfortable similarities between Maher's movie Religulous and Ben Stein's pro-Intelligent Design flick Expelled!

I have to say right up front that I really enjoyed Religulous. I thought most of the movie was unfair-but-funny, in a sort of Borat-esque way. No, Maher wasn't using carefully reasoned arguments to critique religion, he was just brutally ridiculing it in a very entertaining way. More than that, the closing monologue, which juxtaposes images of destruction wrought by religion with a call to arms for nontheists to be more vocal about their beliefs, was somewhat of an awakening for me. It was what brought me "out of the atheist closet" and inspired me to finally read Dawkins and Hitchens. I particularly liked the line, "Faith is making a virtue out of not thinking."

I knew that he obtained some of the interviews on false pretense, neglecting to say he was making an anti-religion movie, and it was very clear that the interviews had been edited less for accuracy and more for maximum comic effect (I thought this was obvious enough that to keep it from being truly disingenuous). At the time, this didn't really bother me, because, as I said, it was a bit like Sasha Baren Cohen's technique: his uncompromosing unreasonableness jostles people out of their carefully rehearsed scripts, and gets them to betray their true beliefs, no matter how bigoted or stupid those beliefs may be.

But then there is Expelled!... I was as incensed as anyone about the false pretenses that Stein and his producers used to obtain interviews with Dawkins and Myers which they mercilessly quote-mined for out-of-context nonsense. The "Dawkins believes in space aliens!" canard is particularly galling. It just really, really pissed me off.

So how is that any different from Religulous? Maybe it's not. Maybe I am employing some pretty hypocritical double standards here. Or maybe, one's intention really does make a difference... maybe it really is okay to be a little unfair when you are taking down bigoted and unthinking authority figures? But then, I suppose that's how Stein's Creationist fans view his actions... Does that mean that I have to choose between enjoying Religulous and labeling fans of Expelled! as hypocrites?

I dunno... it's troubling. I think ultimately I'm going to be a bit of an absolutist here: Maher's conclusion was right, despite his questionable methods, and that justifies a little shenanigans. Stein's conclusion was wrong, which makes his questionable methods all the more egregious.

Maybe that's a double standard, but I think I am at least consistent in applying this double standard... if that is possible. For instance, Michael Moore's movies kind of fall in the middle for me, i.e. I guardedly agree with some of his conclusions but have a problem with others, and not surprisingly I am more troubled by his methods than I was by Maher's, but not enraged the way I am at Ben Stein's dishonest idiocy.

Bah, I suppose in the end, it doesn't matter. I enjoyed Religulous and found the end inspiring. Do I really have to decide whether it is "okay" or not that Maher had to be a big liar to make the movie?


  1. Mmmhm good thoughts. I try to question myself regularly, coming to similar conclusions: That many features of my own psychology may not even be so different from those of a faithful or faitheist. After all, everyone thinks he/she is right - some might reach the insight that even those they disagree with are not disagreeing because they are evil, but because they believe they are right, too. Then again, many actually are evil, as far as I see.

    Anyway, your question was whether or not the end justifies the means.

    Just a few hours ago, my fiancee and I entertained the thought that a democracy-under-all-circumstances might not be such a great thing after all, because in order to make intelligent decisions (such as which representative to vote for), one has to have some amount of education. By "intelligent" I mean, decisions that vote for far-sighted, consequentialist politicians whose horizon goes beyond this legislative period/the next election. Ideally, some kind of rationalist aristocracy should take care of political questions until everyone is "ready", i.e. sufficiently educated, for a democracy.

    So yes, sometimes the end might justify the means.

    Concerning the topic at hand, I take the position that whatever is most effective in breaking the spell of religion, whatever is the politically best way to "empower" people with rationality/a mind of their own, should be chosen. It depends on the strength and effectivity of reactionary forces, i.e., how Maher's methods are decried/instrumentalized for religious agendas, on whether my opinion turns out to be positive or negative.

    In itself, I do not see it as problematic, because I firmly believe in reason, and that it is always a good thing to help people to think on their own.

    Of course, a christian might have a different point of view, and find it deplorable how reason leads people astray from salvation. Religion is such a vicious thing, and such a great meme by the same token.

  2. Just a few hours ago, my fiancee and I entertained the thought that a democracy-under-all-circumstances might not be such a great thing after all

    Clearly, as the budgetary disaster in California graphically demonstrates. More subtly, but perhaps more historically embarrassing, is the fact that California went from being the first state to legalize gay marriage to now (I predict will be) one of the last ones to permanently legalize it, because of their overly-democratic constitution.

    Ideally, some kind of rationalist aristocracy should take care of political questions until everyone is "ready", i.e. sufficiently educated, for a democracy.

    I'm sure I don't need to point out the obvious problem of who gets to decide who is a "rationalist" or not ;)

    I'm a big fan of the republican (lower case r!!) style of government for this very reason. It's still terribly messy, but it strikes a reasonable balance between keeping decision-making authority out of the hands of the vast ignorant masses vs. keeping those with the authority in check and (mostly) accountable.

    Thanks for your comments about Religulous! I think I agree, and in any case I'm not losing sleep over it. Even if it was deplorable, it was still hilarious :)

  3. Even if it was deplorable, it was still hilarious :)

    I agree fully, especially in regard to the ending.

    Also, I am aware of the implications of a non-democratic form of government. It might be impossible to plausibly construe an abuse-proof tyranny (in the ancient greek sense), and the risks outweigh the possible gain. Plato doesn't help, either.