Blindness at the Times

DevilishBill2In reviewing Bill Maher's new film, Religulous, Stephen Holden of The New York Times has achieved an unusual thing: A written reflection that is even less informed than the film it discusses. Holden's chief blunders follow.

There is no arguing with faith.

Somebody please notify Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges so they will stop wasting their time, as in this encounter on YouTube.

The majority of Americans, however, embrace some form of blind faith. But because that faith by its very nature requires a leap into irrationality, it is almost impossible to explain or to defend in rational terms.

This would be news to Hadley Arkes, the Dalai Lama or Tim Keller, who oversees a humble flock at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

Mr. Maher has already established his position as an agnostic in his HBO comedy series, "Real Time With Bill Maher." A recent clash on the program with his frequent guest the blogger and author Andrew Sullivan, who is a Roman Catholic, illustrated how believers and those who doubt might as well be from different planets. They can argue with each other in fairly reasonable voices about politics, but not about faith.

Yet the fire-breathing Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath somehow are rational and even friendly in this discussion on Google Video.

In a small journalistic coup Mr. Maher interviews a Roman Catholic priest in front of the Vatican, who laughingly agrees with him that the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church are nonsense that are not to be taken literally. Mr. Maher, unfortunately, doesn't press him on why he wears priestly vestments and presumes to exert religious authority.

Yes, if anything critical can be said of Maher, it's that he's not aggressive enough -- as a journalist, no less.

When "Religulous" turns from evangelical Christianity to Judaism and Islam, its tone becomes uncertain and its rhythm choppy. An attitude of glib condescension is inadequate to address clashing religions that have turned the Middle East into an ideological cauldron. Jihadism and Orthodox Judaism are red-hot topics that Mr. Maher addresses too sketchily to convey the same authority he brings to Christianity.

I couldn't agree more that an "attitude of glib condescension is inadequate" -- not just in understanding the Middle East, but in understanding any faith at all.

Image: Bill Maher at Hollywood Hellhouse, September 2004, photographed by Nora Murphy.

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