Religulous Dogma

04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Philip Goldberg Interfaith Minister, author of 'American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West'

Suppose I produced a documentary about comedy and filmed only the worst acts in the crappiest clubs in small town America. If I did a good job, the film would be perversely funny and viewers would come away both entertained and informed. But comedians and fans of comedy would be right to protest that it's not really about the state of comedy in America, it's about one sliver of the comedy universe, and the least attractive one at that.

That's how I felt when I saw Bill Maher's film, Religulous. I laughed. I learned. I shook my head in amazement at the folly of religious fanaticism. But it annoyed me that it's presented as a film about religion. I feel the same way when Maher talks about religion on the air, and even more so when I hear the loudest voices of atheism -- Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris -- because they make the same mistake without making me laugh.

Let me make clear that I have high regard for all of them. I never miss Maher's show, and I'm grateful that someone with his insight and wit is out there puncturing hypocrisy, sham, and absurdity, including the religious versions. I admire the intelligence and courage of the other outspoken atheists; I'm glad they're shining a light on the destructive aspects of religious dogma. My beef is that they are being intellectually dishonest. They are not living up to their own ideals of objectivity, rational inquiry, and evidence-based reason.

If the atheists were true to their own standards, they would do some research -- especially the scientists and public intellectuals, who, unlike Maher, don't have to entertain us. Objectivity would mean looking at all the data, not just a select subset. It would mean examining all religious attitudes, not just those of fundamentalists and biblical literalists. If they were to make such inquiries, the atheists would find a large body of research showing that religious beliefs and attitudes fall on a continuum of maturity and sophistication. The way we relate to the mysteries of the universe evolves just like other attributes, such as moral reasoning and cognitive ability.

In this regard, they would do well to read the work of Ken Wilber, whose attempt to synthesize the diverse strands of research in this arena is unsurpassed. Another good place to start would be the classic Stages of Faith by developmental psychologist James Fowler, which was published in 1981. Suffice it to say that the atheist critique is limited to people in the first three of Fowler's six stages -- the most superstitious, irrational, and conformist end of the spectrum.

The atheists would also benefit from a nuanced look at recent surveys. They would find proof of something they already know: not all religious people are the same, and only some fit their stereotype. Yes, more than 90% of Americans check "Yes" when asked if they believe in god. But what do they mean by god? Not necessarily the one atheists say they believe in: the Santa Claus god or the stern father figure who keeps track of human actions and judges them capriciously. The god many people believe in is more abstract, something resembling a cosmic energy, or the Force of Star Wars, something more at home in the wacky world of quantum physics than in Michelangelo's painting.

Surveys also show that most religious people do not take the Bible as literal truth, meaning they don't believe what atheists mock them for believing: Jesus was born of a virgin, a snake talked to Eve in a garden, Moses parted a sea like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, etc.

Why do the militant atheists insist on this intellectual dishonesty? Maybe because confrontational language and side-splitting satire help them make their case. Maybe because they have ideological blinders. Or maybe their emotions and outrage have trumped their reason. Which would be ironic, since that's exactly what scientific rationality is designed to prevent. Whatever the cause, I hope they get over it soon, for two reasons. First, so we can have a more honest discussion. Second, because their critique is needed, but their current approach can be self-defeating. Logic suggests that if you let emotion and irrationality into the arena, the religious nuts will win every time.