Religulous Atheism

“You’d think if you were one of Christ’s biographers, [the virgin birth] would be sort of an important thing not to leave out. Oh, God, he was also born of a virgin. They don’t notice the virgin birth. You know, I think that is something if you were any sort of reporter you’d put into the story. What editor looks at the facts and goes, ‘Yeah, but take out the thing about the virgin birth. That’s not interesting.’”

This is one of Bill Maher’s quotes in the docu/mockumentary Religulous. I already mentioned this film in a previous post (Religulous in Barcelona), but I wanted to examine it a bit further. So I made a video compilation that tries to reveal some of its prejudices on religion and religious people.

Click the following to watch the movie A closer look at Religulous:

(for a transcript of the video, including dialogues – click here;

voor een Nederlandstalige transcriptie van de video zonder de dialogen, klik hier)

CLICK TO WATCH:

One of the main prejudices is the idea that the way biblical stories are written, is comparable to the way we write history in modern times. Hence Bill Maher’s above mentioned remark on the birth of Jesus. He clearly expects the two stories about the birth of Jesus (in Matthew and Luke) to contain historical ‘facts’ in the modern sense, or at least he believes that’s what they claim. In that sense he imitates his religious counterparts – who are fundamentalists –, and he reads the Bible like they do. He just comes to different conclusions.

Moreover, in trying to differ himself from his adversaries, Bill Maher seems to resemble them more and more. The ‘final solution’ he proposes to solve the problem of violent religious groups says it all: “The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live.” He makes religion (and religious people?) overall an enemy to mankind, and considers it as the source of all evil. He believes that getting rid of that source (sacrificing religion) will ‘save’ us and will lead us to a better, ‘paradisiac’ future (remember John Lennon and his song Imagine, with the line ‘and no religion too’?). Well, ‘getting rid of it’ is exactly what some of his religious counterparts believe must happen to ‘secularism’ and ‘infidels’. History shows that the battle for the so-called ‘ultimate Truth’, for ‘Paradise’ and ‘Peace’, be it claimed by religionists or secularists, always ends in bloodshed… An atheist like Stalin, who violently oppressed Christianity in the Soviet Union, really is a ‘mimetic double’ (as René Girard would call it) to some of his dictatorial religious predecessors. Indeed his actions are a mimesis (i.e. imitation) of the so-called evil enemy he’s trying to destroy, and by doing so he regenerates this evil. He maintains violence, because he tries to destroy the possibility of violence by violent means…

The question is whether there’s a way out of the dilemma created by the opposition between ‘radical secularism’ and ‘religious fundamentalism’. I think there is. I think we need to educate ourselves in becoming ‘spiritually literate’. E.g. concerning the question how to read the Bible, more specifically the stories about the birth of Jesus, I’d like Bill Maher and his religious counterparts to consider the following observations.

The two stories about the birth of Jesus don’t ‘match’. Matthew’s story is very different from the one by Luke. For example, the story in the Gospel of Matthew begins in Bethlehem and ends in Nazareth, while the story in the Gospel of Luke begins in Nazareth and ends in Bethlehem. If the compilers of the New Testament would have considered these stories conveying historical facts as we understand them, then they probably would have chosen one of the two and not both of them. Disparate reports on the birth of the Jesus you’re trying to ‘sell’ to the outside world just don’t add to the credibility of your story… Unless, of course, those disparate reports are not historical in the modern sense of the word. I do believe the stories on the birth of Jesus try to express something about the historical experience of people with Jesus, but the stories themselves are not ‘historical’. They are comparable to ‘poetic’ expressions. For example, Jesus was experienced as a liberator by many people, in one way or another. He freed people from oppression, social exclusion, anxieties, … As said, I believe this personal experience of the ones who knew Jesus is real, is historical. However, to express this experience, people turned to well-known mythological images and stories, ‘formulas’ one could say. Hence Matthew and Luke portray Jesus in typical stories which their audience understands as conveying the personal, experiential and historical truth that Jesus is a savior and liberator, comparable – in some ways at least – to the prophet Moses, or to king David.

Sometimes the poetic and mythological images used to express a certain experience will contradict each other, but this doesn’t mean that they exclude each other. They may simply refer to other experiences, or to different aspects of the same experience. A contemporary example may clarify this. Many songs in the English speaking world make use of ‘the car’ or ‘the road’, and everything associated with them, as metaphors to express different (aspects of) life experiences. In the song It’s my life Bon Jovi sings “It’s my life, my heart is like the open highway…” to express he feels free, or that he desires to be free. His heart is, of course, not literally a highway. Meat Loaf, on the other hand, expresses the longing for freedom slightly differently, in his song Objects in the rear view mirror, may appear closer than they are: “And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…” It’s no use asking who is ‘correct’, Bon Jovi or Meat Loaf. It’s no use asking: “Well, now, is the heart a highway, or is life a highway?” We understand these somewhat conflicting images and the common experience they refer to, because we are part of the culture which uses them… Both the experience of Bon Jovi and Meat Loaf is true and historical, albeit personal. And the image of the road or the highway is omnipresent. James Hetfield, of heavy metal band Metallica, sings “And the road becomes my bride…” in the song Wherever I may roam… Once again, not to be taken literally, but we normally understand what he’s referring to.

It’s a bit more difficult to understand the images used two thousand years ago, so we might need to study to get there. Considering the ‘false’, but often vehement conflict between ‘secularists’ and ‘religionists’ I described above, it might be a necessary study though. Karen Armstrong traces the origins of this conflict back to the period of the Enlightenment. According to her, a confusion arose around that time in the western world concerning mythology. Mythology was considered a primitive form of science by many intellectuals of the modernist era. Hence an opposition arose between those who held on to a ‘mythological truth presented as historical fact’ and those who embraced modern science as carrying the keys to the ultimate truths about life. Research, however, points out that the modernist assumption about mythology (and science for that matter) is false. Mythology and ‘poetic images’ never functioned in the way modern science functions, even to this day…

The distinction between mythology and modern science is actually quite simple: mythology tries to express and to ‘mold’ human experiences and offer different perspectives on them, while science tries to explain human experiences. The example I give in the film to make this distinction clear, is about the mythological story of Cain and Abel. This fictitious story reveals an existential truth about our existence: sometimes we are all too heavily consumed by envy. Furthermore, it tries to answer the question what to do with these envious tendencies – where we should direct them, if it belongs to our ultimate goal to be guided by envy… These are questions which science cannot answer. Science can maybe explain how we become jealous, and that jealousy is a natural tendency in man, but it cannot answer the question whether jealousy is a good or a bad thing. This last question is an existential one, more specifically a moral one.

So, in short, there should be no conflict between modern science and mythology because they try to answer different questions. Once you realize that religion belongs to this mythological, poetic, indeed ‘spiritual’ realm which deals with existential questions, it becomes a genuine, reasonable and sensible force that undermines the certainties of every ‘ideology’ – be it religious fundamentalism or the radical atheism which opposes it, indeed ‘doubles’ it. Understood as poetic and spiritual images, religious texts open up dialogue and different perspectives on a Reality which, ultimately, is ‘not in our control’. A Reality, in other words, which ‘transcends’ us – as we didn’t create the world we inhabit.

There’s a lot more to discover on the distinction between scientific and existential questions. For example in the works of philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), who makes a distinction between ‘problems’ that can be solved technically, ‘scientifically’, and the mysteries we are confronted with which are ultimately unsolvable (they allow for different ‘attitudes’).

To read a paper by Karen Armstrong on

FUNDAMENTALISM AS A TYPICALLY MODERN MOVEMENT, CLICK HERE (PDF)

Enjoy exploring!

Religulous in Barcelona

I’ve put the word ‘religulous’ in this post’s title after a documentary, or should I say ‘mockumentary’ of the same name by director Larry Charles. In it, Bill Maher goes around the US primarily to investigate certain people’s religious beliefs and comes to the conclusion these beliefs are ‘ridiculous’ – hence the title: Religulous.

Bill Maher is right to point out some absurdities in certain people’s convictions, although stylistically spoken he could have done it a little less ad hominem. It’s a pity, however, that he limits his investigation to people who say they believe in ‘God’. I think it would have been much more interesting if he had shown how the psychological and sociological mechanisms that produce certain convictions are also hugely conditioning people who claim they don’t believe in ‘God’. Maybe he would have called his documentary Anthropologulous then. Whether we do or do not believe in God, we’re susceptible, as human beings, to some very strange convictions and behavior.

In fact, what I’ve learned from René Girard (among others) is that ‘belief in God’ is not ‘the real problem’. Atheists are no less capable of the kind of ‘religious’ behavior Bill Maher calls ‘ridiculous’. Similar to the rituals surrounding the deities of traditional religion are, for example, pop festivals or the ceremonies honoring dictatorial leaders of atheistic regimes (such as some of the annual festivities held in North Korea). So the question should not be ‘do you believe in God’? Maybe we should rather reflect on the social and psychological mechanisms, the desires and deeper motivations which shape our life.

To me, German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928) seems to summarize the ‘real’ dilemma when he claims “Man has either a God or an idol”. Or, to put it differently, the question isn’t so much ‘do you believe in God’ as it is ‘what (kind of) God do you believe in?’ So it’s not only a pity that Bill Maher doesn’t reveal the parallels between potentially ridiculous behavior of both ‘theists’ and ‘atheists’, it’s also a shame he doesn’t interview more people who try to develop their faith in a constant and frank dialogue with the natural and social sciences. Too bad he doesn’t get into the rich philosophical and theological traditions of Christianity. Actually, the way he reads the Bible is none other than the way his adversaries read it – he just comes to a different conclusion. In this sense he imitates his adversaries and becomes somewhat of a ‘mimetic rival’. Bill Maher is oblivious to the basic hermeneutical principles that were used by educated theologians throughout the ages (and from the get-go, meaning these principles were also used by the biblical writers themselves!).

Nevertheless, all these remarks on content and style aside, it must be said I did enjoy quite a few hilarious moments in this documentary. I thought about it when I recently visited Barcelona together with my wife to celebrate her birthday [Was she happy? Yes, she was!]. We were there when Barca, the unmatched and world-famous soccer team that is, had to play the Champions League final at Wembley against Manchester United. So we were confronted with exuberant Barcelona soccer fans the night their team won this important match. At the same time we witnessed a leftist manifestation that went on for a few days at the Plaça de Catalunya. Mostly young people were gathered there to demand governmental and economic reform that should result, among other things, in job creation, since unemployment is on the rise in Spain. In both instances we witnessed what Bill Maher would call ‘religulous’ behavior.

I don’t want to imply that supporting a soccer team is ridiculous as such. It is, however, a social phenomenon that is susceptible to extreme and bizarre behavior, as it tends to produce processes of idolatry. The picture on the left indeed shows that Lionel Messi is treated like a god by some of his fans. I neither want to imply that the unemployment claims made by the Spanish youth at the large square in central Barcelona should not be taken seriously. I just wanted to record how people sometimes ‘strangely’ behave when they’re united against a ‘common enemy’ (in this case ‘the system’).

Amidst all of this social upheaval and turmoil both my wife and I were driven by yet another herd of people towards the work of famous architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), especially his Basilica Church La Sagrada Família. Never to be completed during the architect’s lifetime, this amazing monument is now finished on the inside and, perhaps needless to say, visiting it opened my senses and heart to another kind of religious, even ‘spiritual’ experience. It was like walking into the spatial mind of a genius who devoted his life to the creation of a sphere where people could ‘reconnect’ with themselves, each other, nature and, ultimately ‘God’. As is known, Gaudí was a devoted Catholic who put all of his talents as a scientist, mathematician and artist at the service of ‘The Holy Family’. His work displays a deep awareness of the interconnectedness, indeed ‘familiarity’ of all that is. Moreover, Gaudí was convinced people could only ‘find’ them‘selves’ if they discovered there was no ‘self’ apart from a ‘being’ that ‘is’ always already ‘in relationships’. What and who we are is first and foremost ‘given’ – it is not something we autonomously create. To deny this, is to surrender to what René Girard would call a ‘romantic deception’.

The following quotes of Gaudí show how he considered any artist’s creativity as something that doesn’t spring from a purely ‘original’ mind. Rather, his view on ‘originality’ is closely connected to the discovery of a creation that always precedes the work of the artist:

“Originality consists in returning to the origin.”

“Man does not create… he discovers.”

Artists like Gaudí consider themselves ‘co-creators’ or ‘collaborators’, only relatively ‘free’ as ‘imitators’ of Nature:

“The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.”

“Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the creator.”

Gaudí seems to distinguish between two kinds of imitation, ‘blindly copying’ and ‘creatively mimicking’:

“Copiers do not collaborate.”

From the point of view of Girard’s theory on imitation (his ‘mimetic’ theory) blindly copying exactly occurs when people feel they are not imitating at all. On the other hand, people who realize they are dependent on others will develop a creative kind of imitation, allowing ‘originality’. By consciously imitating something or someone other you’re indeed saying two things: that there is a likeness between yourself and that other and that there’s also a ‘distance’ (otherwise imitation would not be possible). One could even say that imitation somehow creates this distance, a kind of ‘space’ where men each become ‘others’ towards… others.

As said, the Sagrada Família, as a building that so closely resembles the ‘mathematical’ mystique of natural forms, precisely produces a realm wherein people are not swallowed by the unifying yet destructive powers of ‘wild’ crowd mechanisms, but a ‘breathing’ sphere where people really become aware of each other in the ‘space’ surrounding them. To Christians like Gaudí and Girard this kind of awareness allows for the experience of a divine Love which creates us. From the contrasting situations in Barcelona I start to see what they’re getting at…

Lorenzi Marcella Giulia and Francaviglia Mauro wrote a very interesting article on Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família in the Journal of Applied Mathematics (click on the title to read it): Art & Mathematics in Antoni Gaudí’s architecture: “La Sagrada Família”. I especially recommend it to those mathematicians who want to taste something of Gaudí’s peculiar spiritual take on science.

Of course there are other ways to enjoy the swarming life in God’s grace – “His ways are manifold”.

Try for example the Hard Rock Cafe in Barcelona, and discover “God is my Co-Pilot”, celebrating that good old rock ‘n’ roll music!

Cheers!