I watched Bill Maher's attempt at a documentary on Religion called Religulous. He spends most of the movie interviewing people to better understand or perhaps to skewer faith. He argues that he is going after the people who are absolutely certain, and also tries to juxtapose mythologies of different religion to ask why one set of myths (for western culture The Bible) is better than other sets of myths (including other ancient near-East text) that influenced the writers of the Bible. Maher fails miserably at what could have been a wonderful opportunity to point out how religion itself has become boiled down to a set of stories that most adherents feel deeply did not occur. Yet it is all they have and it is this simplistic view of religion that has Maher at times angry and provides great comical fodder. Yet he can't seem to go beyond the ridicule of the most elementary kind of religious expression.
At one point he visits an institute in Israel where Rabbis try to invent ways to allow traditional Jews to use technology that would be normally be forbidden on the Sabbath. It was clear to me that this was a grand opportunity to discuss the idea that perhaps religion is not about getting around the rules, but understanding the meaning of some rules. And perhaps how they might change with each generation. But Maher laughed it off, not digging deep he simply poked fun.
I think Maher is looking at religion like most in Western culture, the religion they remember from elementary school religion classes. Heaven and Hell, Baby Jesus, Moses on the mountain, Apples and Honey, Easter Eggs. A religion where incredible stories of miracles and fun holiday traditions feed a childhood imagination that as we age we begin to question but rarely find a good answer. Some faith traditions have interpreted over time what the stories mean and how they can be teaching tools for how to live our lives. Certainly, sitting in the center of the Hebrew Bible is a cornerstone of building a society. Albeit a religious society based around sacrifice, but even that changed over time, including being argued against by the prophets later in the history of the faith. What Maher and most of his belief system fail to understand is that you can take a faith tradition seriously and yet not believe that the stories that were created to explain the unexplainable were true stories. As one teacher of mine once said "The stories in the Bible are true, they just didn't happen that way". We mine the meaning and create a way of living, a culture, that grows out of what the ancient wisdom tries to teach us. We don't have to believe in a celestial hall monitor that watches over us looking for us to screw up. But we can believe that an attempt to understand our existence, that faith in something greater than ourselves can have value, as long as we examine it from what we know about the universe. I think there are rich religious traditions that understand that God may not be the God of the Bible, or the theologians of old, but something that is understood differently as we unlock the knowledge of the world. Too often people don't want to explore the deeper meaning so they either disconnect from the reality they see or simply hold two mutually exclusive thoughts in their head. I believe both set one up for failure to thrive as a human and leads Maher to so easily attack religion as if it were monolithic.
One point Maher complains that more people have been killed for religion and uses Christianity and Islam as an example. The problem with this is that it isn't simply religion. In both cases and in many others in the past when religion and government combine and a sin against God is a crime against the state violence can only be the solution. That, connected with a government supporting the idea that they have the one true answer, zealotry leads to persecution and forced conversions and events like the Holocaust. Governments that have religion as the driving force of the society can not be wrong. Killing the "infidel" is not murder, it is keeping the society safe. It is a government holding on to power in most cases using religion as a club. Often distorting the faith.
I believe intellectually honest religion is a good thing for people personally and for society as a whole. But Maher doesn't want to look that deep, no comedy in nuance. So laugh with Bill at Scientology and zealots but I encourage you to examine your own thoughts. What do you believe? Why? How do you reconcile it with the world you live in? Look deep, there is a lot of good in a faith tradition, but bring out the wheat and leave the chafe. You will be better for it.