March 01, 2009

Half a year after its release, I have finally seen Religulous. I knew Bill Maher is a skeptic, I had heard he might be a seeker, I know he has a sense of humour, and so I had come into the seeing with hopes. Nearly my first thought upon seeing what he was doing with his chosen subject matter was, ah, Karash Nekroden.

(Only you, Karash, did it much, much better. Ever though Maher had complete control of his medium and his editing -- if not of his interview subjects -- he came across much more weakly than you ever did.)

The song introducing the documentary is particularly ironic. There are agnostics who truly are seekers, but Bill Maher is not one of them. He prides himself in his doubt, in not knowing for sure – and yet there is one absolute certainty in his life: there is no God. This is not the sign of a doubter. His faith in rationality and atheism is every bit as strong – and as irrational – as the faith in God of those to whom he speaks.

Whether or not he realises it, he has come into his "seeking" with two a priori assumptions:
  1. If a thing can be explained rationally, it does not require God.
  2. If God is part of the explanation, it cannot be rational.
The net effect is perfectly circular. No one will ever be able to prove a God to Maher's satisfaction, because he has set up his criteria to exclude every possibility. Even were circumstance to jolt him outside the constraints of his rationality, he would probably dismiss anything observed at that time since he, the observer, would not be in a rational state of mind at the time of observation.

We all work from exactly the same base evidence. Beyond that, it is a matter of which "best" explanation you wish to put on it. In his documentary, Maher proved exactly one thing: that no matter what evidence were placed right in front of him, he would always find a way of explaining it that required no God. He would rather believe in blind chance and coincidence. In this, he believes, lies mankind's true salvation.

But we have already discovered what happens when the world around us is emptied of religious meaning. It has already happened once before, in the late 19th century. As faith in God ceased to have meaning, it was replaced by faith in nationalism. We know the outcome of that.

In our time, we have arrived at a three-way division. Some believe within a societally sanctioned structure. Some refuse to believe, with the fervency of true belief. While the basis of belief may pass unquestioned, the quality of belief for these two groups is constantly tested.

The third group seek or practice belief in their own fashion, with or without having tested the structure upon which they build all other aspects of their lives. Many among this group cherry-pick among the various choices. Some may choose to follow all aspects of bushido except obedience ... without which the entire structure of bushido collapses. Others pick and choose among structured and unstructured belief structures, finding those pieces that most appeal and rejecting those that don't, which are also often those which require the greatest personal effort.

To achieve what is worth achieving, be it mundane or a matter of faith, can be gained only by assaying the path of thorns: but every instinct in us cries out against any real challenge. We may claim to seek, but if it does not come easily and fit perfectly into what we already know, most of us quickly lose interest at best, attack at worst. It can be inviting guests into the controlled environment of The O'Reilly Factor, and cutting off the microphone of anyone who disagrees and can't be shouted down. It can even be as simple a thing as wondering why one-time friends, whether in person or on the Internet, have gone their own way: never once realising that the only time we sought their company was at our own convenience. If we don't make any kind of effort, in time their interests and convenience will diverge from ours. How can they not? Conveniences come with editing and an off switch. True friendships don't.

Writers too are susceptible, as are all storytellers. With total control over characters and plot, what more natural thing than to maneouvre each so that things work out as we think they should work?

But this tendency is not limited to fiction. Non-fiction is not an absolute. Like a pure letter, it means nothing without other letters. When telling the story of a 1930s social advocate, do we mention that he believed in eugenics, that most educated people of the time believed in eugenics, that he stopped believing in eugenics when he visited Nazi Germany, or omit the point altogether? Do we enter the discussion of eugenics more generally, and start questioning not only the morality of it, but also who will take the responsibility for paying for the children of those incapable of doing so themselves? (So many values erode instantly upon being confronted with the bill.)

Ultimately, every debater, every advocate, every lawyer, every documentary maker is a storyteller. We choose which facts to tell and how to present them. Exactly the same point can seem its own polar opposite when framed appropriately.

Yet one of the primary assumptions of rational thought is that facts are objective things which can stand on their own. If we are completely unaware -- or refuse to believe -- otherwise, then presentation takes on the quality of objective fact, and all observed things which differ from previous assumptions become absolute questions of truth or lie. Once established, so strong is this need for an absolute that if even a single piece of the core structure is found failing, we will reject the whole and swing, even more strongly, onto the opposite branch. Atheists become the deepest believers, and former believers the strongest atheists. Few reject smokers as strongly as the former smoker. Few are so biased as those who have been prejudiced against -- and few will see it less.

Brush all that aside, and cling unquestioningly to the primacy of rational thought. In the end, how can it not lead us to something like Religulous?

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