Don’t be Religulous

I went to see Bill Maher’s documentary last night, on a balmy Miami night. Afterwards the rains came down in Biblical proportions, thus announcing God’s displeasure at the film and my attendance (I thwarted His wrath under a convenient restaurant umbrella). It’s an enjoyable and instructive film, especially if you enjoy groaning at people’s amazing credulity and nastiness, not the mention the silly outfits. What the film conveys better than any book is the sheer nuttiness of it all: the weird fantastical beliefs, the mental contortions, the verbal slipperiness, the flickering wild eyes. Each religion seems determined to outdo the others for sheer bizarreness—the less credible the better. The Mormon religion took the grand prize for me, with God relaxing on his nearby planet and Missouri the site of the Second Coming. But there was plenty to root for in the realms of the Higher Charlatanry, e.g. the portly Hispanic guy who fancies he is Jesus Christ (and thousands agree with him). My question afterwards was who was the most repulsive of the religious fanatics on display: Christians, Moslems and orthodox Jews had their strong contenders. This was equal-opportunity religion-bashing; except that Maher didn’t do much bashing, leaving that to the proponents of the various sects themselves. What a gallery of pious rogues! A book almost inevitably takes its subject seriously, but a film like this can simply let the camera record the gaudy tapestry of human delusion and manipulation. What they all had in common was that when testing questions were raised so were their hackles–and the whiff of violence was suddenly in the air. We knew all this before, of course, but seeing and hearing so much of it brought the whole terrible farce home.

I also learned something interesting: the remarkable parallels between the lives of Horus the mythical Egyptian falcon-god and our very own Jesus Christ—virgin birth, desert test, crucifixion, water-walking, dead-raising, light-giving, resurrected, three wise men, the whole shebang. I just looked this up on the internet and found a long list of strikingly exact parallels (I suggest you do the same). But when you think about it, this isn’t all that surprising: the gospels were penned long after Jesus’ death and the writers had to get their narrative from somewhere, especially for the early bits about his birth, childhood and so on—before he’d made his mark as a 30 year old. So they just copied the old story of Horus, evidently—which makes you wonder how much of the story of Jesus’ life in the Bible is really true. Perhaps hardly anything; maybe nothing. I used to think it must have some basis in historical fact, but the Horus-Jesus coincidence rather undermines that assumption.

My only serious objection to Maher is his insistence that we just don’t know the answers to the Big Questions, such as whether a god exists or where we go when we die. This is far too concessive. We certainly do know that Santa Klaus does not exist, or goblins, or three-legged giants who live in the fridge; it would be daft to be “agnostic” about such questions—and even dafter to remain “open-minded” about them. And we have every reason to believe that death is the end of the self, since we know that the mind depends on the brain. If you get brain damage a part of your mind goes out of existence; it would be absurd to think that it slides into an immortal limbo, waiting for the rest of your mind to join it when your brain goes totally kaput. Saying that such questions do not admit of rational answers simply invites the kind of superstitious nonsense Maher rightly ridicules. We indeed don’t know everything, but some things we know quite well—and the complete falsity of religious doctrine is one of them.


I’m thinking seriously about play and games in preparation for my forthcoming seminar on sports and philosophy (which will include actual physical activity). I’ve just read three books related to this. First is Mark Rowlands’ new book The Philosopher and the Wolf, a stunningly good narrative about the author’s relationship with his “pet” wolf. Among many wonderful and poignant moments, the book talks about the wolf’s style of play and its style of life. This reinforced my view that play connects us with our animal heritage, which is a good (not a bad!) thing. Then there is Johan Huizinga’s old (1938) Homo Ludens, a learned anthropological treatise on the role of play in shaping civilisation, in which game-playing comes to seem the dominant feature of human life. Finally, Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper, a minor masterpiece, strangely neglected by mainstream philosophy, in which the author defines the notion of a game with great insight and sophistication–the main point being that a game always proceeds by erecting obstacles to achieving its goal, instead of adopting the most direct means possible. This book also puts play at the centre of human (and animal) life, declaring games the highest form of human activity. All in all, we need to get serious about our game-playing and stop thinking it’s peripheral or somehow inferior to “work”. My own recent book, Sport, argues much the same, but I’m glad to have found three such ringing ensdorsements of this ludic point of view.