Updated: Thu 01/21/2009


In summary, what do I think?

I agree with lots of folks that Bill sort of skims the surface of Religion.

I think the best way to say this is to point out that Bill isn't searching for the meaning of religion—or, for that matter, of life.

What he's puzzling over—and it certainly is a big puzzle—is the nature of irrational belief. It's a strange and tough puzzle, and one well worth trying to put on the table, study, and learn something about.

But that doesn't change the fact that this approach will disappoint people who walk into the theater thinking that Bill will help them "find God" or even uncover some kind of mystical superreality or moral grain to the workings of the universe.

Actually, now that I think about it, there are a few occasions where Bill does seem to have started his project with a set of values; intuitions, family bestowals of moral givens, and educated presumptions about some moral structure to existence. From time to time he does attempt to bounce these things against the blind adherence to morally neutral tenets that he encounters; with Ken Ham, to some extent with the truck driver who raises Pascal's Wager, and with the "Jesus" portrayer at the fundie theme park.

I guess that, with "Religulous," you have something which will certainly attract attention, with various kinds of critique:

  1. Some religious people; already well-embedded in the traditions depicted in the film; won't like it. Some will pray for Bill, others will pray that he gets cancer of the penis.
  2. A few others of the faithful will quickly see that Bill is not really addressing religion as they understand it, conclude that the film is not relevant to them, and condemn it—arguably justifiably, as you'll see in some of my comments—for its shallowness, and walk out, unimpressed.
  3. Some, however, may recognize that when Bill calls certain of the faithful to perk up a bit and be aware of the fact that bad religionists are running around giving faith a bad name, he's talking to them.
  4. Hopefully, some people on the cusp of going over into the kinds of creed/faith-based foolishness shown in the film will have an opportunity to think more carefully about their real values and life goals and tread a little more carefully into the future.
  5. Other religious people; more open-minded types, like Father Foster; will probably see this as almost a vindication of their own interest in the rational and faithful pursuit of true love and peace. And, in the case of Fr. Foster, a continued and content pursuit of intellectual growth.
  6. The actively, vocally irreligious will appreciate the effort—perhaps giving it an A- for effort—but will resent that their own pet peeves of religious foolishness (e.g., mine; blood propitiation) don't get adequate airplay.
  7. The passively, quietly irreligious may find some welcome intellectual support for their own unarticulated intuitions about the fact that, when it comes to much of what comes under the rubric of "religion" in their homes, communities, and workplaces, there's something rotten in Denmark.
  8. And now...the blow-by-blow:

    0:00:00 - 0:00:20

    Lionsgate™ splash.

    0:00:22 - 0:00:31

    Thousand Words™ splash.

    0:00:32 - 0:01:12

    Bill's opening statement is stunning...

    This is it!

    I'm standing on the very spot where many Christians believe the world will come to an end.

    It's called "Megiddo," and it's the place that the Book of Revelation says Jesus Christ will come down to, end the world, and save the people who believe in him.

    Now, when Revelation was written, only God had the capacity to end the world.

    But now Man does too.

    Because unfortunately, before Man figured out how to be rational or peaceful, he figured out nuclear weapons, and how to pollute on a catastrophic scale.

    And if there's one thing I hate more than prophesy, it's self-fulfilling prophesy.

    ...but I have one issue. Bill says we learned to make nukes before we learned to "be rational."

    I know what he means, but saying that the people who concieved a "need" for nuclear weapons, or built them, were not "rational" people is going a bit too far.

    I understand where Bill's coming from—and I understand that he and his writers want to cut to the chase. But let's be honest: The people who engineered the greatest man-made catastrophes of the 20th century were towering pillars—paragons—of modern rationality, by almost any rational criteria.

    All they lacked was, arguably, spiritual understanding.

    0:02:06 - 0:02:12

    Bill's statement about his need to get out there and find out what makes religious people tick feels heartfelt and is a great secondary thesis. Will he live up to it?

    But, now that I think of it, there's another issue.

    Bill is at least being honest with himself and with us here; but it's fair to point out that he's setting himself a limited goal.

    He could say that he's interested in learning "The Truth" (whatever that might be), but instead he has a limited goal; he wants to find out how people can persist in believing stupid stuff.

    It's a question worth addressing, and I'm glad Maher's doing it.

    Just remember; it's not the only question, a propos religion.

    Also, I'll up the ante a little: Given the ugly road that fundamentalism is careening down, both here and abroad, I'm really glad Maher's trying to hit it, head on.

    But it's still true that it's not the only game in town.


    Sufi dervishes are shown. This raises an interesting question. Bill will soon be taking Islam to task, but we're only shown this amazing Sufi Islamic legacy only fleetingly, and in such a way that we realize neither 1) that these folks are Islamic, nor 2) that they're a mystical sect that in some ways represents what, to western minds, might be thought of as a somewhat redeeming apsect of Islam. They just look ridiculous. I don't think Bill believes that all things that look ridiculous are bad. Why does he throw these guys in?

    0:02:13 - 0:04:02

    In other regards, tho, this "The Seeker" montage is a great collection of images; sort of fondly reminds me of SubGenius image wrangling! Lots of silliness, some poignant moments.

    I got pretty worked up over the feel of this montage; the music was so perfect! So I got the lyrics and started working on playing it on my guitar.

    And here are those lyrics [lyrics in the shortened film version in boldface]:

    I've looked under chairs
    I've looked under tables
    I've tried to find the key
    To fifty million fables

       They call me The Seeker
       I've been searching low and high
       I won't get to get what I'm after
       Till the day I die

    I asked Bobby Dylan
    I asked the Beatles
    I asked Timothy Leary
    But he couldn't help me either

       They call me The Seeker
       I've been searching low and high
       I won't get to get what I'm after
       Till the day I die

          People tend to hate me
          'Cause I never smile
          As I ransack their homes
          They want to shake my hand
          Focusing on nowhere
          Investigating miles
          I'm a seeker
          I'm a really desperate man

       I won't get to get what I'm after
       Till the day I die

          I learned how to raise my
              voice in anger
          Yeah, but look at my face,
              ain't this a smile?

          I'm happy when life's good
          And when it's bad I cry
          I've got values but
               I don't know how
               or why

    I'm looking for me
    You're looking for you
    We're looking at each other
    And we don't know what to do

       They call me The Seeker
       I've been searching low and high
       I won't get to get what I'm after
       Till the day I die

       I won't get to get what I'm after
       Till the day I die.

    Want to see them perform it on YouTube? Just go here!

    I found a few of the lyrics snipped out of the montage to be very interesting; one image is spookily prescient:

    I've been around a while, and it seems like the fundamentalist "values" rap came about in the 1980s; the fundies have been claiming for some time that if you don't have an anchor in religious teachings, you can't learn values. There's that line in there: "I have values, but I don't know how or why." That's a beautiful statement; and I think it's closer to the truth regarding values; When religious people have good values, they willingly ascribe those values to their faith. When religious people don't have values, their religion is merely a surrogate, or "cover story," for their lack of values. The truth is that values are a kind of mystery. In truth, I think they come through what I call a family "legacy of love." There are very religious families that don't have that legacy, and, like I said, their religion is a shield against unwanted scrutiny; both from within the individual selves and family; and from the church.

    I also like where he says he ransacks people's homes, while they want to shake his hand. That's sort of true. Seekers often lack the common person's friendliness and accptance of the way things are. The Seeker is busy devouring the scenery while the host just wants to be friendly.

    This song was written in 1971!


    Catholicism and the 'b'-word: Birth control. Fairly telling moment in his family's religious history.

    Actually, my family's story is perhaps more telling: My mother, a "good" Catholic girl, was more-or-less amenable to her destiny as a Catholic baby-making machine; my Father, an agnostic, was less sanguine.

    My mother admitted that eventually she and Dad found themselves in the office of some monsignor or other, who finally told them that the church might OK birth control in their case. She was shocked, and a little incredulous, and said, "NOW you tell me...!" So I can vouch for Bill's Mom's testimony.

    0:08:16 - 0:08:43

    Bill preaches to the truckers.

    "Are you ever bothered by...?" Bill is, I guess you'd say, being a little sloppy here. ORIGINAL SIN is in the Bible. Fortunately, he couches the question of IMMACULATE CONCEPTION/VIRGIN BIRTH in terms of conflicting testimony (only in two gospels); but prefacing the list with "not in the Bible" makes it sound like he's saying these doctrines are man-made; specifically, relatively late in the game. The institution of POPES is extrapolated from Christ's interactions with Peter.

    Bill goes on to say these things are not from "The Founders" of the religion, but he doesn't seem willing to put a fine point on it and have some give and take over who qualifies as "founders" in the context of Christianity. Are not the people who finally committed the legends to text reasonable proxies for the founders? Is not Paul (Saul "Original Sin Cockblock" of Tarsus) a founder? If not, why not? These are good questions, but the fact that the film doesn't attack them is a rather glaring lack in the movie that will put off even the more rational among the believing set.

    I know these people, and I know whereof I speak.

    Later, I'll mention Bill slapping down the trucker who trots out the ol' "Pascal's Wager" dodge. That was good, and you have to give him his due on that one. It was interesting seeing him being almost browbeating on that point; but it's an interesting image: We're often reminded by fundamentalists that God can get mad. Is it so wrong to feel a little righteous anger when we see people being morally lazy? When Bill vociferously says to the trucker, "...and you know that!" I feel a sense of Bill reaching out to force a vital connection that needs to be made. It's like he's saying that if religious people would only put in the modicum of effort needed to pay attention to what people are telling them, this movie wouldn't even be necessary, and he could be at home, happily getting stoned and writing more standup material.

    0:08:33 - 0:10:00

    A Satanist Priest! OMG! Right there! Bill talked about the topic of religion as "comedy gold," and here's a 24K cash cow in their midst, and Bill fails to milk 'er! The guy could have shed light on the hedonism/supernatural nexus, and I think Bill should have pushed that. I can see why people would think this was a distraction, but think about it: Ultimately, Bill is chasing down the supernatural, and here's a guy who might, maybe have a story or two to tell on that account. I say, get down and do it!

    OK: I'll admit something. I'm being somewhat tongue-in-cheek in that previous paragraph.

    I still think Bill should have chased down the Satanic angle in the discussion; at least for a half-minute or so.

    What I think Bill would have come up against—and what people like myself already know about this world—is a certain amount of testimony by fundamentalists is trumped up. Think about that.

    It reminds me of an image from Joe Sacco's Palestine. A Palestinian ex-prisoner of the Israeli prison system, held without charges for quite some time and ostensibly innocent of any wrongdoing, says (I'm quoting from memory, not verbatim; sorry), "You find yourself caught in the mental trap of wondering what you did wrong."

    That's an intense statement, and may shed light on these trumped-up self-accusations of egregious sinfulness—necessitating "redemption" by a "savior"—by folks who are actually very likely quite nice people, whom if you knew them personally you might trust to babysit your kids.

    When a "saved" person's testimony includes a hazy allusion to a pre-salvation period of unholy behavior, I would wager that 90% of the time they're acting out something like the Palestinian man's syndrome. When you're battered over the head with your egregious sinfulness over and over again, you start to retroactively patch in myths about your "pre-salvation" lifestyle. It says a lot, for one thing, about how even the saved probably don't really take the Pauline accusation of inherent, inherited sinfullness to heart; this is why they have to manufacture or buttress a "sinful" past.

    This says a lot about human psychology. And I think that makes this bit of footage an understated gem.

    Just to drive one point home: The glaring sin of omission in Religulous is that Bill never addresses blood propitiation, head-on. That's a pretty bad oversight! And this scene sort of raises the question: If and when you address to The Faithful the fundamental moral flaw in the doctrine of blood propitiation—the idea that anyone could "pay for" anyone else's sins—what is the range of response?:

    The only thing left is to address the question of how bad, really, these people are/were, such that they need to be throwing rationality overboard in order to be "redeemed."

    Heck! Maybe the guy was a "Satanist priest!" Isn't Bill curious about that?

    0:10:00 - 0:10:08

    Bill both wins and loses in this after-the-fact "rebuttal." Thankfully, this "comeback" is funny, and not terribly at the expense of the guy giving his "erstwhile Satanist" testimony; I remember often having the same response as Bill when someone testified to me about their "bad" life "before" Jesus (or Krishna!); sometimes, you say, "Uh... and that's a bad thing?"—just like Bill!

    On the other hand, this insert sheds light on something we can expect from this format. Bill is taking advantage of access to the editing room to groom the "debate." Like I said, Bill doesn't abuse it egregiously here, but I'll be continuing to look at this over the remaining hour and a half.
    It's like the lotto:

    "You can't get saved if you don't play!"

    0:10:48 - 0:10:57

    Another great organizational coup by, one presumes, Charles and the editors; early on, Bill states another aspect of his core thesis: Doubt won't kill you—and it could save you! Nicely done.

    0:10:57 - 0:12:26

    The drumbeat here is: Did Jesus exist? I've always thought of this as a red herring of the most tepid sort; what a strange question to ponder! Did Jesus exist?

    There are cadres of people on both the religious and anti-religious sides who think the existence of Jesus is an important thing; and they're both wrong. Bill insists on chasing this question, when he could be frying much bigger fish.

    Collins first drops the "existence of Christ" "issue", and he almost seems to pause a moment, waiting for Bill to take the bait. Bill should not have taken that bait; he should have bided his time and let Collins move on to downstream issues.

    Alternately, Bill could have said, "OK; Christ was a historical person who existed. And your point is...?" Instead he grabs the anchor and goes down with the religiously neurotic anchor-grabbers.

    In short, Bill shoots himself in the foot here. I also give religion a thumbs-down in this segment because it succeeds in showing a great scientist reduced by religion to such a shabby expedient.

    0:12:26 - 0:13:33

    OK: Good segue work here. Now we sashay into the meatier issues of how dependable the texts are. That's good stuff. What he doesn't get into is the question of why certain Gospel writers included the virgin birth, and some blew it off. Why? I think I know why. Will viewers of this film who are interested in taking a second, rational look at their beliefs springboard off this observation to come to these conclusions?


    "You're smart people."

    Hmm. Why does it feel like Bill is being strangely obtuse here?

    Is it that these people are not particularly smart, yet Bill feels a bond with them; hence, the best way he knows how to resolve the faith impasse is to fall back on his original premise?: Smart people can be caught believing strange things.

    Please don't "impute" the sin I'm about to commit to Bill, but I have to say that—may God's blessings be upon them—I have to "snob out" on this and point out that these people aren't really all that smart.

    Who knows each and every story here? I suppose God knows. But, to start from an extreme example and work down, we have the ex-Satanist priest: He trots out Pascal's Wager, which, notwithstanding that it's attributed to a "great mind," is wading into the faith pool from a shamefully shallow end. There's also his citing of "scientific proof" of the DNA test of the blood on The Shroud; certainly a bit of churchy "urban legend" action. And finally his seemingly acquired "ex-Satanist priest" self-mythologization. Not a man who shepherds his spiritual self in the most genuinely truth-seeking way. Arguably: (bless his heart) Not all that smart.

    Then consider the apparent "leader"; the kindly black fellow. He's a good guy, for sure, but he's subject to a lot of the foibles of fundie belief; Bill points out that he falls for the idea that the OT prophets "predicted" the coming of Christ. If you examine the "evidence" in the OT, the supposed references are poetic and certainly bendable, and there's the simple fact that variances in emphasis on prophesy fulfillment in the Gospels suggests that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" specifically in the Gospels attributed to Mark and Luke. Not to mention that whole ugly business about the mistranslation of "almah" as "virgin" in the Septuagint.

    Bill's observations are good, but I felt like he didn't have to go so far as to say that these guys were smart; he could have been very decent and honest and accepting of their good will without going that far. For instance, he could have just pointed out that they are very, very well-intentioned, kind, and trying to face life's big questions, just like all of us do. They may have swallowed, without chewing, some ill-considered popular pious expedients along the way—not terribly smart—but to err is human. And to forgive is divine; and Bill would have behaved more divinely by just relaxing in a recognition of his fellow-humanity with these men; he lost that opportunity when he flattered them.


    "Pray for me." Bill and the parisioners-on-wheels are 100% sincere, and I am 100% touched to my very core.

    I also noticed Bill looking around while the others had their heads bowed. That reminded me of myself from back when I was married to a woman who turned fundie, and I often found myself in these kinds of environments.

    I remember one time I went with my wife to her "new" church—she was a "church hopper." The youth minister did some of the smaller bits in the liturgy, and he would read the prayer requests. One went something like this:

    "And we pray for Mrs. Harris, who is in the hospital awaiting surgery; she has a rare blood type, and they need the blood before they can start: We know Jesus will provide that....

    ...and I looked around the sancuary; did anyone else notice how funny that sounded? Not as far as I could tell...

    0:14:43 - 0:15:32

    Good segue, opening statement, montage of "prosperity gospel" hucksters. Pity the poor religious fools that buy into that shit.

    0:15:32 - 0:20:14

    Rhapsody on religion as showmanship. In some ways Cummings acquits himself well, but he distinctly drops the ball when he chooses to forget very unavoidable instances where Christ lambastes the rich, sometimes for the heinous crime of...simply being rich!

    OK, I'll back off a little; one quickly presumes the rich man in Luke 16 is being punished for not caring for the poor. But if you read it carefully, taking great care not to assume anything, the message is unmistakable: When a person becomes outright wealthy, something is enormously morally and cosmically—and egregiously—out of balance. Add to this other scenes where Jesus and his followers are obviously living à la belle étoile. For instance, he and "the boys" are caught gleaning corn on the Sabbath; the focus is on the idea that Jesus is "harvesting" on the Sabbath: Big no-no! But the inescapable subtext is that Jesus and his followers are making do with what they can forage from the environment.

    Oh! Just remembered another! "Jesus replied, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'" [Matt 8:20]

    Bill could have done a better job of lining up the scriptures where Jesus inveighs strongly against the accumulation of wealth; but thankfully he isn't wrong when he asserts that they do.

    In the end, this just further validates an apparent undertheme in "Religulous". There is a gulf between two features of hardcore religionist mentality: These two features are 1) that their belief in sets of "fixed" tenets—divinely established and inviolable truths—vests them with a rock-solid validity that the wishy-washy "liberal" world lacks and, presumably, secretly longs for, and 2) that, in actuality, they believe whatever they want to believe.

    Cummings wants to be rich, and he unconsciously trawls the scriptures for juicy indications that he's devinely entitled, and that his parisioners are divinely entitled to do their parts to help his (read: God's) dream come true.


    [Roman guard smacks Jesus in the face] LOL!


    Cummings: "Turn that [passion] to God and see what happens!" [BOOM!] Again, laughing, but not without some serious reflection. Good point, Bill.


    Cummings has a point here, and Bill is sort of in the dark. Cummings is obviously refering to "Seek ye first..." [Matt 6:33]: "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (NIV) Cummings may also be thinking about Christ's statement about the "lilies of the field." If Bill knew about (or recollected) all this, it would have leant intelligence to the dialog.

    To be fair to Bill, if "the burden of proof is on the prosecution," then it was Cummings's job to cite the scriptures, whereupon Bill could have offered morally considered commentary. I would have liked to have seen that. If Cummings were a real doctor, he probably would have quickly cited scripture.


    "I don't hate them. God hates them."

    0:23:31 - 0:23:35

    Bill: "And you also discovered the 'gay gene'?" Dr. Hamer: "Yes." Sorry, Bill. I know this was an esthetic decision to use timing to drive home a point, but this comes just a little out of the blue. You should have flashed back to this interview after your bit with Westcott.

    In short: Need more meat there—if you'll pardon the expression!

    0:23:35 - 0:24:34

    OK, they duck back into religion, and they both fail to deliver. Westcott gets defensive about the religious origin of his beliefs about sexuality, and Bill fails to coax him out of that shell; and I don't think it would have been all that difficult for Bill to have done so. They were both pussies, here. This is a important fulcrum point of this segment involving sex and American fundamentalist Christianity, and Bill needed to have milked it; but he didn't. Instead, they both revert to pondering ill-informed assumptions about the nature of gayness, then Bill uses editing to make a lighthearted—and admittedly well-crafted—joke at Westcott's expense. That's cool; but they both did drop their respective balls.

    Westcott: Nobody's born gay. There's no scientific...

    Bill: Really? Have you ever met Little Richard?

    Also, Bill telling Westcott that he "doesn't know" homosexuals seems a little hollow. But, then again, Westcott says he wasn't previously homosexual; just a "sinner," so I guess maybe he doesn't know these people, and Bill's right after all.

    0:24:34 - 0:27:19

    Bill hits a homer, strange to think, with this little reflection on his own vulnerability to seeking the aid of supernatural power in the face of his own rejection by an object of his affections during his youth.


    Oops! The captioning was confusing. I'm aware that people who still self-identify as Jewish, but accept Jeshua as the prophesied messiah call themselves "Jews for Jesus." So when I read the caption "Ex-Jew for Jesus," I thought it meant he used to be a Jewish Christian, but gave it up. No: He stopped being a Jew, and became a Christian. He shouldn't be called an "Ex-Jew for Jesus." That's confusing.

    A small point; but the misunderstanding colored my parsing of the ensuing dialog for about a minute or so.

    0:27:19 - 0:31:23

    This whole bit was weak. Not much got done, in terms of the end goal of shedding light on the nature of belief. First, Bill tepidly addresses the question of miracles, but it doesn't really click.

    Next, Bill addresses faith in the afterlife, but they don't really chase that down. Then they jump back into miracles (Jonah and the Fish); and again, they don't "go all the way."

    Well, I'll give one small thing to Bill; his observation about the "whale vs. fish" dodge is interesting; and one we should reflect on a little bit. This is a particularly low grade of Christian apologetics, which can be summed up as: Since I know the scriptures and you don't, you can't be expected to argue with me on this things as a peer.

    Of course, there is some truth there, within reason. I think Bill got caught short a number of times in this movie on this count; he doesn't really know his scriptures. But this line of argument—the "you can't cite chapter-and-verse and I can so we're not agumentative peers" rap—can be taken too far. And we all should recognize it when we see it.

    Nonetheless (and as Penn Gillette is fond of reminding us), it's important to know your Bible. At the very least, you'll have a grounding in powerful literary allusion. At the best, you may succeed in scraping off some of the lard of superstition in the texts and uncover some bits of genuine insight.

    0:31:23 - 0:33:36

    Jesus and nationalism. Some good, some weak. Why Ray Suarez? Certainly Bill could have conjured up an academic heavy on the question of church/state separation. Heck, he should have gotten Hitchens; he'd've knocked it out of the park, for sure. The montage of founders' statements about religion are fantastic.

    OK OK; I'll back off a little; Suarez actually handles his comments pretty well. But (and w/ apologies to Suarez), Bill could have done better. He should've gotten Hitchens and spent five minutes exploring this question.

    But that's my opinion.

    0:32:13 - 0:32:19

    The smoking gun on McCain and religious right pandering. You know McCain is fully aware that the U.S. Constitution did not "establish" the U.S. as a "Christian nation;" but there he is saying that. Utterly and unmistakably shameless.

    I'm so glad someone with cajones is now our President.

    0:33:36 - 0:34:19

    Very nice seque into the religion/government nexus. Why aren't doubting Americans "in the debate," as Bill put it so well?

    I think [doubters are]
    the great untapped minority
    in this country.

    0:34:19 - 0:38:20

    Pryor at least engages with Bill. He screws up again and again, but at least he sincerely tries to keep up a good-faith conversation: Considering a lot of the folks Bill deals with, that counts for a lot. I can easily imagine Pryor in consultation with an expert in a subject where Pryor has no subject matter knowledge; and he'll be astutely amenable to their reasoned and articulate arguments. Pryor almost makes me feel like I don't care if my national leaders are religious, as long as they're also open-hearted and honest, as Pryor shows himself to be here. It's not that religion "wins" on this point, it's that religion shows itself to have rubber teeth when the heart is honest and earnest. Pryor's style of religiosity is an acceptable second-best option under such circumstances.

    What Bill has going for him here is that he does focus on the question of whether, in fact, American fundamentalist Christiantity as practiced has a place in public life.

    0:38:20 - 0:42:56

    Bill explores fundamentalist thinking in an interesting way. At first I was going to complain that Bill fails to push Ham on the big question: What does an absolutist view of scriptural veracity have to do with real sprituality and morality? I guess it's OK to breeze over the issue and trust the viewers' fly-on-the-wall instincts.

    Come to think of it, I'm realizing that I've sort of been hard on Bill up to now; it's reasonable to allow that Bill, and Charles, the director, are giving us intellectual "breathing room." If all the 't's aren't crossed and all the 'i's aren't dotted, that's OK. Yeah. I'll cut Bill a little of that slack, from here on out.

    0:42:56 - 0:43:13

    Interesting images for those of us who didn't go to catechism. I did go as a lad. I did not quite get his little jab about the "vast stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." I remember the boredom; I remember scanty moments of interest, when people would, on rare occasions, actually raise an interesting issue. By "terror," Bill may be referring to the infamous sadistic nuns. I was lucky (sort of) and only had to deal with boring or, at worst, peevish nuns.

    Side story: Once, as a lad in catechism, I was asked to pray for the class. I stood up, folded my hands, lowered my head and prayed out loud. I capped it with, "...and God, please show President Johnson that his actions in Vietnam are wrong." I remember the teacher (I think it was a "lay" Catholic woman, not a nun) being a bit flustered; not quite sure how to mitigate my damage.

    0:43:13 - 0:44:01

    Great setup on the issue of the real-world Catholic church's priorities.

    People in online commentary threads (e.g., on IMDb) complain about Religulous's failure to address Eastern faith systems, like Buddhism.

    I had exactly the same thought Bill expresses here when visiting an awesomely opulent Buddhist temple near Puli, in the very geographical center of Taiwan. I asked a local, whose English was very good, the very same question bill caps this segment intro with: Is this—in my case, gesturing toward 20m-tall "door guard spirit" statues—what the Buddha had in mind? Bill's rap in front of the Vatican would have been just as much in place in front of any of the many, many opulent Buddhist temples in this world.

    0:44:01 - 0:46:32

    Here is where Bill shines: He shines when he's hanging with a genuinely kindred spirit and they're verbally/philosophically jamming. And Fr. Foster is a kindred spirit. It would have been nice for Bill to have acknowleged Fr. Foster's hipness. In general, it not bad to ask the question of whether what weakens Bill's final monologue/mini-manifesto is that it doesn't take into account the fact that religion is often ably represented by truly sane, considerate folks, like Fr. Foster here.

    0:46:32 - 0:45:56

    Interesting banter between Bill and Charles. Fun line of thinking, but ultimately it does raise the question of what a person does indeed derive from the Christ myth. Is it really fair to say that the experience is really no different from what we get from other compelling storylines, like Shakespeare's Romeo and Julliet, Fellini's La Strada, or Kosinski's Being There? Bill and Charles don't go there, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and thank them for taking us to the vestibule.

    Oh; one more observation: It's interesting to reflect on how "secular" live theater has often upset the fundamentalist mentality; fundies throughout history have inveighed against "the theater crowd." It's tantalizing to consider rhapsodising here on the nature of this age-old enmity; but I won't. I'll leave that one as an exercise for the student!

    0:45:56 - 0:48:01

    Very, very, very clever sound work around Chad; perhaps a little cruel. But the opportunity presented itself; how could you not use it? The audio-visual wrangling here raises an important question: Is it spiritual or even just honest to run a religious theme park like this and strive to make it a benign experience for middle-class beneficiaries of secular civil government, in light of the real experiences of victims of religious intolerance and strife in the middle-east?

    0:48:01 - 0:48:29

    Bill poses the "transposition" question; as a child, do you think you would've been able to intuit that a fairy story being foisted upon you as true was in fact a fiction? And the woman says, "So... You're saying the Bible's a fairy tale?" At first I thought she was being some combination of intellectually dishonest and perhaps a little prickly, but then I realized she was really just wanting to cut to the chase. She was right in this instance to skirt the question and try to move the discussion forward because the question Bill poses is rhetorical; not a real question after all.

    Bill was really asking her whether she could consider the possibility of religion as the divine sanctioning of reprehensible behavior; the brainwashing of little children. I'm going to say Bill loses this one, mostly because the segment with this woman is cut off and there's no satisfactory interpersonal resolution of the impasse. They cut to some cheap "Christian" animation used to inculcate these fairy tales among modern day youth, but that isn't a substitute for a genuine coming-to-terms with the woman in front of the media racks.

    You started it, Bill; ya gotta finish it.

    0:48:29 - 0:48:39

    Although, speaking of cheap animation, I loved these extracts from these home video products for fundie youth. This really is a thriving industry in the fundamentalist culture; shops that produce videos, DVDs, and youth lit that promotes these fairy tales as true.

    What's really weird about this culture is that, by insisting on "literal" interpretations of scripture the fundies pull the plug from their own bathtub drain, then complain when evil "secularists" notice them naked and shivering in an empty tub.

    Of course, I also didn't fail to notice the strange repressed sexual subtext of the Adam/Eve rib story, as depicted. The SubGenius church is also fond of catching the fundies blurting out their repressed fantasies in sermons and "worship" music; it was nice to see it here as well.

    0:48:39 - 0:49:04

    A nice two-piece collection of fundie weirdness. In post-release interviews, Bill points out a nugget he uncovered in his research; that Fundies don't really actually know what they believe. The important chaser is to also behold how, nonetheless, they profess to "believe" all kinds of weird, disconnected stuff. Just don't ask them why.

    The line by the first woman, "I pray, in your lifetime, you do [understand some piece of wholely unbelievable junk]." This line is a bluff to distract from the fact that she, in fact, doesn't understand either.

    Really, the most important idea here is that this woman needs to face the fact that she's a cultist. This is classic cult behavior; a willingness to profess to "believe" things that you don't, yourself, understand.

    It's interesting (and natural) to reflect how, in the planning stagees, Bill and Charles sat down and mapped out all the places they would need to go to point their cameras. What you have all over the world are these "reason-free zones." The "faithful" have to run to these places to get a breath of "reason-free" air.

    Bill (in his interview with Fatima Elatik, later) and others of the "new atheists" like Sam Harris explain the dynamic of the faith mentality: At some key point, if you're not willing to forego the expedient of rational thought, you're just not ready to join the club.

    Think about the service this theme park provides. Churches are OK places to walk in and feel comfortable abandoning your reason; but wouldn't it be great to be able to walk in the open air, your experience punctuated by concession stands and gift shops, secure in the knowledge that people you encounter on the walkways are more-or-less guaranteed to be amenable to at least feigning the acceptance of anything you say as gospel truth? Of course, this isn't an entirely new idea; there are religious "retreats," where you get to engage in salubrious physical activies*, dances, various social minglements where reasoned discourse is not only optional, but a social liability. Imagine the shock at Disneyworld of smiling and saying "praise the Lord!" to a passerby... and they look at you quizzically.

    *Side-side note: In some cases, "physical activities" that don't threaten to inflame the animal passions. My ex-wife took the kids to an Assemblies of God "retreat" in north-central Texas, in the middle of summer, where they weren't allowed to swim; and there was a swimming pool! Assemblies of God folks wear only long-sleeved shirts and long pants in the hottest weather.

    Oh: I found the hapless non-believing guy interesting. This movie is for him, and for all people who perhaps have given their unbelief about as much introspection and thoughtful assessment as these others have given to their belief; that is to say, not a heck of a lot.

    Unbelievers have their work cut out for them.

    0:49:04 - 0:49:23

    Why do I feel like it was stepping over the line for Bill to dub The Doobie Brothers over this dance number? I know why: Later, a person who is supposed to be in charge of monitoring the use of images appropriated from the theme park will take umbrage at finding Bill there.

    This is in line what I just said above about "reason-free zones." Theme park attendees need to feel secure that 1) "what goes on in our 'reason-free zones' stays in our 'reason-free zones', and 2) that reason doesn't infiltrate into these zones. I think the "witch woman's" primary interest is in enforcing the first, with a secondary interest in the second purpose. In other words, she wasn't so much concerned that Bill was going to spew rational thought all over their nice clean Bible-era costumes; she was concerned that images being transported out of the park would be twisted in ways that impinged on the rights of the ticket-holders to feel secure that their presence at the park reflected a decent purpose.

    Actually, even Disneyland/Disneyworld parks have this interest, and have "myth police" constantly combing the crowds scouting out infringments on their arguable property right to carefully monitor and groom the mythic/symbolic content of the ticket-buyers' experiences.

    I feel that, as long as Bill asked honest questions and interacted with people at the park, he was within his rights. But I personally feel that people who manage a park have the right to manage their carefully groomed image content; artwork, architecture, performances, periphenalia. When Bill and Charles doctor the sound on the dance number, I feel this validates this woman's concerns. Indeed, she seemed a little witchy to me as well, so I didn't enjoy seeing her validated. 10 points for the gonzo effect, but minus 50 for the bad-faith on the part of the crew.

    0:49:23 - 0:53:23

    This was an excellent showcasing of fundie pop-apologetics. One negatory here is that this is probably a bit "old hat" for most folks; most people have heard all this before.

    A redeeming plus is that the film does show Bill's interaction with the guy as he vends this (slightly) updated snake oil; and watching them both is a little instructive (more on that in a bit). A negatory for both Bill and religion is that neither of them seem to have any familiarity whatsoever with mystic approaches (e.g., Blake's) to the "question of evil" and, as Bill puts it, why God appears to be twiddling his thumbs while His creation burns.

    Now to put a fine point on my earlier dismissal of the "Jesus" actor's apologetics: Notice that most of the time Bill directly addresses something "Jesus" says, He changes the subject. And notice how he does this; his response is always clever (vs. pointed and engaged) and enormously colorful. It's a very deceptive aspect of much of fundie "pop" apologetics; If you can't answer the question, point over the mark's shoulder and say, "What's that behind you?" Sad to say, this works, for lots of people.

    Bill sort of alludes to this in the car ride on the following day, where he says that the guy had him for a moment with the solid/liquid/gas analogy; if even Bill could be shocked away from his considered opinions re the fundamental bogosity of religion, imagine how the average person will respond. Note that when Bill brings up the jealosy of God, the guy throws in a coin analogy, in which neither side of the illustrative "coin" addresses the question of God's putative jealosy; "What's that behind you?!?!?!"

    For an excellent one-page primer on the basics of practical, everyday evangelism, have a look at the Primer for Erisian Evangelists, by Lord Omar, of the Discordian Church. In one short page, it covers Bill's experience here, as well as pretty much all of the tricks of the evangelistic trade.

    It's hard to say what would have been the wisest way for Bill to handle all this: Bill chose to generally blow off the fact of the "Jesus" actor changing the rules, and follow him about as he moved from point to point. The advantage of that approach is that we get to see how shameless these folks are in their "apologetics." But, on the other hand, it would be nice to see a parallel universe version of this film where Bill seeks to nail the guy down; catch him trying to veer the conversation away from reason and pull him back on track; how long would he hold up?

    Bill lets this guy wander, showing off the bells and whistles of his pop apologetics, so that we don't have to. If you're confronted by this kind of fancy-dance argumentative shape-shifting, think of Bill in this segment and nail that booger to a tree. In a way, it's perhaps less satisfying (if you derive a sort of twisted pleasure from getting this kind of attention from The Faithful), but they'll get the point that you have standards of rationality they'll never be able to meet and they'll let you off the hook. Then maybe you can talk about movies or baseball or something.

    Or!: They'll say they'll pray for you! I like that: When someone says they'll pray for me, I smile, look them in the eye, and say, "Thank you, I would really appreciate that!" then either shake their hand or give them a hug—whichever seems appropriate at the moment.

    0:53:23 - 0:55:45

    Ah! The "Jesus-story-not-original" angle! Interesting! In a way, Bill is sort of trying to beat the fundies at their own game; dragging out the bag of (anti-)apologetic tricks; allthough he does, in this instance, at least do us the kindness of prefacing this lateral topic shift with the palatte-clensing phrase, "Moving on...."

    The guy's response; I just believe the "Word of God;" is, of course, lame. These folks go to church once a week to practice conflating believing and knowing. But in the real world, there's a vast gulf—semantically, philosophically, practically, common-sensically—between believing and knowing.

    It's actually a little maddening to see these "Christians" Straining the Gnat and Swallowing the Camel; they strain the gnat of "considered unbelief"—a "failure" to believe in unbelievable stuff—and swallow the camel of believing everything but that which could lead to an enlightened view of the true beauty of life.

    In a sense, both American fundamentalist Christians and their unbelieving scourges fall into complementary traps; the atheists/doubters fall into the trap of straining the gnat of blind faith and swallowing the camel that says the alternative to blind faith involves foregoing opportunities to learn truly great life- and love-promoting teachings from "religious" teachers, like Jesus and Buddha.

    The ink of the student is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.

                — The Prophet Mohammed

    This is the reason I stopped lurking about on Biblical inerrantist and errantist Internet "discussion" groups; I got tired of sitting and watching totally wasted antagonistic energy passing between two tragically trapped groups of people. I think the crux of any complaints one might have of Bill here, is that he kind of/sort of falls into that latter group. Every now and then he gives something away that seems to imply he sees the doorway—perhaps can even smell the sweet savor wafting through that doorway.

    0:55:45 - 0:56:55

    Interesting bit of source footage showing their passion play reenactment. They capture the way the audience is quite impressed and entertained when Christ gets a particularly nasty blow. The way they edit to give equal time to the Viewed and the Viewers is, itself, a special message, which I appreciate.

    0:56:56 - 0:59:08

    Scientology. A lot of detractors are saying the film goes downhill from here. The decision to go to Hyde park was a stroke of genius!

    0:59:09 - 1:00:07

    LDS (Latter-Day Saints; they don't like to be called "Mormons," so I won't call them that here). Bill & crew are kicked off the premises.

    It's interesting that LDS have a strong community policing program; they have to. When I first went to Dallas to prepare for a new job, my wife and I stayed in a hotel. One night we went to hit the bricks for a little fresh air, and we walked by an LDS church. We didn't know we were walking by any church. For one thing, it was quite dark.

    We were approached by a couple of guys in standard-issue masculine Mormon attire; suits and ties. They were doing patrol for the church, and asked us what we were doing there. After a few words ("Just out for a stroll."), they were satisfied that we were harmless. But I inquired about their doings, and they told me they were "on patrol" for their church. I asked why. It was because their church building was frequently vandalized; they'd just gotten a couple of bricks through the windows the previous week.

    I didn't ask, but I know why; because the "real" Christians see them as an affront to their faith.

    And Bill sort of begins to touch on this with the "up the ante" line here. Sure, he finds this effect weird and off-putting; but he needs to understand how the other half—the religious—also take umbrage. The reason American fundamentalist Chistianity comes over all bristly when faced with LDS is that deep down inside, in a place they refuse to cop to, is a guilty knowlege that, really, their spirits are more kindred than not; and that torments them.

    My ex-wife turned nutsy-fundie, and she had a sister who turned Jewish before that. Whenever we went down to Austin to visit her, and the sisters got to talking about things, it didn't take long for the conversation to turn to faith matters, and then, naturally, to turn ugly. And I used to muse that they probably would've gotten along better if they believed in different gods altogether.

    It comes down to this: LDS, and the "sectiness" of religion in general, is perhaps the most useful tool for non-believers: How much of what you believe is actually true, and how much of what you believe is "true," but only by dint of a social network that's willing to enter into a covenant of delusional mutual support with you?

    In short: The existence of LDS people gives "real" Christianity a bad name by polluting it with all these extraneous beliefs; and yet, very quickly, Christians suddenly find that the tools of sane judgement they conjour up to cast aspersions on LDS are in danger of turning on their own bogus beliefs, and that scares them.

    In the face of that, what's left to do besides ...I don't know ...throwing a brick?

    1:00:07 - 1:02:36

    Thank God for this segment! At long last the truth is revealed! There's really not much more to say. It's not a bad compendium of LDS tenets and practices.

    ...and also the idea [in LDS] that Christianity is American, I think, is an amazing entitlement to a people who are always trying to meld God and Country.

    I will point out though, that if you sit down with an LDS person and ask for the full explanation of their beliefs, what you get will be largely different from what you see and hear in this segment.

    But I'm still satisfied. After all, it's normal for a religion to put its most rational face forward to the potential initiate, and hold back the weird shit for after the person is committed. In a way, it's merciful for Bill to be emphasizing the weird shit, up front: If, after you hear this, you still want to convert to LDS, you won't be disappointed later. Whether LDS people know it or not, Bill does the world a wonderful service here, and they should thank him.

    I always felt this was also true about fundamentalist Chistianity; so many of its lay practitioners sincerely believe that it's more important to make a convert than to love other people; or even just be honest with themselves and others. And one of the sure signs that what I'm saying is true is to consider the considerable gulf between what "the faithful" tell potential initiates, vs. what they'll have to be swallowing later after they're "in the fold."

    On a related note, about a year ago I had a realization of what might be the true meaning of Christ's Parable of the Mustard Seed. Perhaps Jesus is in fundamental agreement with what I'm saying here, and the message of the parable is: true "Faith" has nothing to do with creeds, or "believing a bunch of stuff" in general. All you really have to do is start with a directly believable "seed"—perhaps the belief that love is real and that you can know true love in your lifetime. And, from there, you can start growing the (mustard?(!)) "tree".

    And perhaps this is the most daunting revelation for much organized religion. A lot of religion is based on the idea that it's largely creed-based, and can therefore be effectively passed through family tradition. And Christ made it pretty clear that, as far as he could see, families tend to be lousy conduits of genuine religious understanding. So the perfect religion may be the one where the child is given complete freedom to explore and discover the truth; even if that truth is at odds with the parents' ideas of truth. After all, the child may be able to supercede the parents' flawed notions of the divine. False religion is the one that, in this instance, vests parents with a bogus assurance that their take on religion is the last word. I know that in the real world lots of religious families in America face this issue; the kids reject the parents and sometimes these parents then have to face their own emotional and/or spiritual paucity. So I'm not just theorizing here; it happens.

    I was married to a woman who turned virulent fundie. Before our marriage completely dissolved, I had the privilege of giving our kids the most important religious lesson of their young lives. At the dinner table, after my wife had inveighed on something or other. I had a moment of great clarity. I cleared my throat, opened my mouth, and spoke thusly: "You know, kids; if you learn absolutely nothing else from me but this, I'll be happy: The most important lesson in the matter of faith and religion is to always remember that just because someone tells you something is true, doesn't mean that it is true; you still have to use your best lights—your best intelligence and judgement and knowledge—to try to reckon the truth-value of what that person is telling you. People think you "have no right" to use your intellect to reckon these things, but the truth is that there's no escape from responsibility for what you decide to be true, so you may as well prepare yourselves to make the best decisions you possibly can. Furthermore, if they tell you that what they're saying is true because 'God' said so, be doubly suspicious; there's a good chance they're citing an all-powerful authority figure's endorsement just to get around your intellect and possibly also your sense of fairness and decency." I astounded myself when I said this; it was completely off-the-cuff. And I think the kids got the message.

    1:02:36 - 1:03:54

    Hmm. Some good info, but it's just too scattered; therefore, blunted in terms of having the impact you expect from a documentary when they consult an expert.

    Yes, "glossalalia" is bullshit. Bill and Dr. Newberg sort of touch on it, but they don't drive home the point, verified by MRI scans, that "speaking in tongues" has nothing to do with what we think of as language, that is, meaning expressed vocally. It's been scientifically verified that speaking in tongues has nothing to do with expressing meaning, the way human beings understand that idea. By definition, this means that speaking in tongues may be linked to certain sought-after emotional states, but is nonetheless not a meaningful activity.

    And, strange to think, even the Apostle Paul could see this:

    1 Corinthians 14:18-19
    18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

    Actually, you should read the whole chapter to see how Paul is just hammering "speaking in tongues." Even he speaks in tongues, and yet has his wits about him enough to know that it doesn't make any actual sense, even to himself. It's a feeling. Feelings are OK, but Paul puts a premium on meaning, here; and you have to respect that.

    And I feel that coming to this conclusion is further validated when you consider that the values crisis associated with bad religion in America (and around the world) can be linked to the conflating of meaning and meaninglessness. And it's not just glossalalia; it descends down into, for example, preachers who spout shibbolethic nonsense from the pulpit which appeals to a kind of lower-grade ecstacy, albeit (again) divorced from meaning.

    On that last point—and bringing it back 'round to the issue raised by Bill here—I did read about the MRI study of glossalalia, but I haven't read anything about whether they've seen similar brain stimulation in people listening to pastors saying meaningless gobbledygook from the pulpit.

    These are the kinds of fine points Bill should have teased out of Dr. Newberg, but didn't. I guess I should make a list:

    This could have been quick and it would have given Dr. Newberg the higher-quality (and perhaps higher-quantity) screen time he deserved.

    And, at the end, Bill does this lame segue to the ultra orthodox Hassidic guy. Lame, Bill; and a little abusive of Dr. Newberg.

    1:03:54 - 1:06:19

    Okay, this is a mess. Let's break it down:


    Bill's basically right: The guy's got serious issues.


    Bill's wrong: You really feel here the conflict between two guys who want to control the conversational agenda. Unfortunately, this sheds light on the fact that Bill's need to control that agenda is sometimes o'erweening.

    Also, what is Bill's problem here? That the guy is politically incorrect (doesn't support Israel), or that he wears extreme doctrinal blinders that render him pretty silly-looking?

    Bill treats him like a pariah, when perhaps the guy deserves genuine, heartfelt pity; just like we pity kids raised up by religious crazies, because it's obvious that the parents' religion-inspired phobias threaten to seriously inhibit the kids' opportunities in life. This guy is divorced from his own sense of decency.


    As stated above, this guy reflects the worst of religion:

    Bill: [Didn't] Ahmadinejad say that he wants Israel to be wiped off the map?
    Rabbi: When did he say that?!
    Bill: He did!
    Rabbi: He never said that!
    Bill: What did he say?
    Rabbi: He said...
    Bill: What was the exact quote?
    Rabbi: He said that it should "disappear". He quoted...
    Bill: Disappear?! What is he, David Copperfield?!

    1:06:19 - 1:09:37

    It does seem that you are, to a degree, trying to outsmart God.

    I remember reading a true-life story set (I think) around the 1920's by bandmaster Eddie Condon—lovingly illustrated by Robert Crumb! He mentions an Irish boy who had a job carrying money for an Orthodox Jew on the Sabbath. Orthodox Jews have lots of little tricks like this, and Bill is right to point out the hypocrisy of these tricks.

    1:09:37 - 1:10:48

    God talks to people; people do weird ass shit. It's true! I'm presuming the woman shown being prosecuted is Andrea Yates.

    I came across a great insight on the Internet one day when I was snooping around for ideas about the psychology of fundamentalist belief, especially in relation to schizophrenia and abuse. And I struck gold.

    A common position taken by virulently anti-religious people is that, when an Andrea Yates pops up on the radar, they seize upon it as an example of how religion "makes" a person "crazy."

    Well, that's not quite true. Absolutely not true, as stated. But the truth is certainly more than bad enough. It's as follows:

    Fundamentalist religion does NOT "turn" people crazy: But certain extreme church environments can mask peoples' disconnections from concensus reality.

    I think this is an important idea, in that it not only sheds light on these stories of abusive behavior by the faithful, but also sheds a lot of bright light on the nature of these church environments.

    There are a few dysfunctional aspects of these environments:

    And all the foregoing adds up to an environment where people won't notice if someone is saying something extreme because merely speaking this homespun doctinal weirdness doesn't, after all, hurt anyone; and it's expected of everyone. We all say bogus stuff that makes us feel pious, and reciprocate by smiling and pretending to agree when others do so. And all this serves to mask the situation wherein one of the participants is having a serious break with consensus reality; like the break with reality that says it's ok to drown your kids if doing so salvages something more in-line with God's expectations for the future of the Christian family.

    1:10:48 - 1:15:34

    Jesus Miranda.

    One thing I like about this movie is the way Bill does give certain of his subjects room to breathe. It really does come down to how he "feels" about the subject. If he can sense basic good will, he loosens up and just lets the subject lead the way; and he does this with Jesus Miranda. If was a kind of palatte-clenser!

    And that's why I give religion one thumbs-up here; because Miranda captivated Bill.

    Bill says, "...and yet, you have a little...<chuckle!>...a little twinkle in your eye when you say it."

    Emergent theme: God's damnable penchant for "anointing" go-betweens of revelation. And then we're just expected to trust those go-betweens. Is that suspicious?

    It's an interesting question, with roots in the old "Problem of Evil"—"If God is almighty and good, then why does he/she/it 'allow' evil to run rampant?" My take on this, as indicated by the "Blake" reference earlier in these pages, is that God is playing a divine game and Satan is a sort of subcontractor.

    If that's true, then one might well expect that it's the rare person who rediscovers the divine order of things, and that person could be expected to provide a sort of leadership.

    Of course, this isn't what Bill's addressing here; He's pointing out that sometimes people just make outrageous claims and find themselves able to secure the fealty of gullible suckers. Sadly, that plainly exists, and is a deeply entrenched problem with religion, as practiced: And for that observation, Bill gets a star on his forehead.

    I would peg Miranda, amicable guy that he is, as a guy who falls under the rubric of carney trickster whose first mark was himself.

    Penn Gillette talked about this in the episode of Billshit where he takes on the new breed of psychic/spiritualist who convinces large groups of the bereaved that they have some kind of communication link to the nether world, and can relay important personal messages from deceased loved ones. Penn said that the ones who appear to actually believe they have those powers only piss him off more; when you wholeheartedly believe in yourself, you're just that much more effective at convincing others of your believeability; even if you're both just deluded saps.

    I should know: It's how I broke into the Canadian Nation Museum of Art in Ottawa one sunny morning. Ask me about that some time.

    A side note: I did observe that Bill shamelessly took some chunks out of Miranda, simply because English is Miranda's second language; Miranda doesn't notice that Bill is blaspheming—and having the time of his life doing so! That's perhaps a little dirty on Bill's part. But I'm not going to give it a thumbs-down, simply because Bill did such a nice job of cozying up to Miranda; they both obviously felt so comfortable.

    1:15:34 - 1:16:01

    "I wasn't born skeptical!"

    Whoa! Bill admits, as recently as when he was in his 40s, making a deal with God! I'm speechless! What does this mean? How does this inform his approach to his subject matter?

    He had previously bought in to a sort of Skinnerian "behaviorist" God—a God who buttresses a promise to quit smoking. It's a very interesting idea; that the underlying goals—get resolution on a problem, and quit smoking—weren't sufficient in themselves to motivate him.

    That's really what it comes down to, isn't it? It reminds me of Christ's "salt of the Earth" statement; if you fail God, then you might as well hang it up, eh? Thankfully, it appears from this little story that Bill did not fail God; he got resolution on his problem and quit smoking.

    How do you feel about that, doubter?

    1:16:01 - 1:17:26

    The canabis church guy. Does this guy know anything at all? Finally, Bill changes the subject and gets some timely intelligence, and we're off to the races.

    1:17:26 - 1:22:36

    OK, this is a bit of an intercut cavalcade, so I'm going to treat each guest in a separate section.


    Bill doesn't exactly catch Ms. Elatik on-screen with her mouth full of doo-doo, but we are treated to conflicting on-screen testimonial footage. Elatik says Muslims don't threaten anyone, and the truth is they do.

    Here's an instance where it pays to pay really close attention to exactly what Bill says. In a way, it's a tribute to the idea that a lifetime spent delivering comic material with impeccable timing has prepared him for this moment; because he really does deliver the goods:

    Lots of people think that free speech goes right up to this <gestures> point; and then when you're talking about religion—when you're talking about The Prophet—all bets are off.

    It's a perfectly formulated and modulated thesis, perfectly tuned to the target. Here's a Muslim woman, and what will she say?

    She simply denies the truth. Sorry, lady; you're in denial.


    Bill will break him down in a bit, but Propa-Gandhi's opening salvo is reasoned: Free-speech means freedom precisely for speech that upsets other people. He's right there; and he's also right to hint that the antidote is raising the level of intelligence applied to the debate.

    I suppose one could call into question the level of intelligence his lyrics apply to the matter at hand. Of course, Bill and Charles are cherry-picking his lyrics; does he not have some songs that reflect a hard (yet compassionate) realpolitikal look at the reality of life as a Muslim under occupation by western[ized], judeochristian powers? I know some will at least raise a brow for my saying this; but, as Bill might say, I'm just asking. I am.

    Again, Bill raises the question of dissent and looks for dissent fairness; "dissent parity," if you will. Will he get it?

    Islam has "schools of thought." Hm! Internal dissent! Who'd've guessed?!

    Although the question of what "schools of thought" encompass in the context of Islam might need a little nuancing. Does he mean schools of thought as in communities that compete in varied emphasis on "good works?" Or schools of thought that differ regarding which teachings from the Prophet are deserving of greater emphasis? Or is he talking about Sunni and Shia, where it takes pitiless strongmen like Saddam Hussein to keep people from cutting each other up into tripes over ages-old disagreements over disciplic succession?

    And bear in mind that there are competing schools of thought in Christianity, tho Christians have managed to put most of the killing over these differences behind them. But not all: The Irish situation is not that far removed, and certainly not a done deal.

    I disagree that Rushdie intended to provoke; well, at least, not in the sense that Propa-Gandhi means. Certainly, at some level all writers seek to provoke. Hell! if Propa-Gandhi isn't a provoker, I'll eat my hat!

    The question is whether Rushdie's provokations shed any light on anything. If he wants to come out and say that Rushdie was simply shitting on the face of The Prophet, he needs to come out and say it. I'm not under the impression that Rushdie is that kind of guy.

    Here are the Amazon and Publisher's Weekly reviews of The Satanic Verses [emphasis mine]:

    Amazon.com Review
    No book in modern times has matched the uproar sparked by Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which earned its author a death sentence. Furor aside, it is a marvelously erudite study of good and evil, a feast of language served up by a writer at the height of his powers, and a rollicking comic fable. ...Rushdie's powers of invention are astonishing in this Whitbread Prize winner.

    From Publishers' Weekly
    Banned in India before publication, this immense novel by Booker Prize-winner Rushdie (Midnight's Children) pits Good against Evil in a whimsical and fantastic tale. ...What follows is a series of allegorical tales that challenges assumptions about both human and divine nature. Rushdie's fanciful language is as concentrated and overwhelming as a paisley pattern. Angels are demonic and demons are angelic as we are propelled through one illuminating episode after another. The narrative is somewhat burdened by self-consciousness that borders on preciosity, but for Rushdie fans this is a splendid feast.

    The reviews are glowing, and reflect an observation that Rushdie wishes to wrestle with values in a way that challenges, for instance, manicheistic assumptions. The one sin Publishers' Weekly ascribes to Rushdie can be just as easily ascribed to Vonnegut and John Irving; two other authors who will certainly be given light treatment in any afterlife.

    At any rate, it's way off base from Propa-Gandhi's flippant characterization. I'm strongly inclined to trust these reviewers who saw in the Satanic Verses an ultimately redeeming treatment of life values.

    Then Bill gets his righteous rage-on—don't forget; he's had Rushdie on his talk show—and quietly but persistently pins the rambling rapper to the wall.

    Y'know, <makes 'yappy' hand gesture> all you've gotta say is, "It's wrong for someone to have to suffer a death threat for writing a book."

    And he does a great job. Anyone who thinks Bill gives the Muslims the kid-gloves treatment needs to watch this segment closely. He doesn't ream the rapper: He merely shows us through probing and heartfelt questioning the paucity of his "argument." Kuddos, Bill; and an extra scoopful of crunchies in the hubcap tonight.

    And...one more note: Bill has a wonderful chuckle, doesn't he? Completely life-affirming and disarming. I love Bill when he's like this.


    Interesting contrast; a legislator who plans to quietly raise consciousness about the anti-civic propensities of Islam.

    Short, sweet, to-the-point. Seems rational and (small-'r') republican. He could say worse. But what will he do?


    Weak; should have been left on the cutting room floor.

    This is the only reason for the Bill thumb-down icon for this section. A small sin, but you have to mention it.

    I mean, there may be a purpose to this interview, but it's blunted by Bill flopping around.

    Frankly, I think Bill is out of his element when it comes to the gay world. Maybe he should just avoid trying to deal with it. Remember his "Joe Fudgepack" comment on Realtime? I know I laughed; did you?

    1:22:36 - 1:22:53

    A little gratuitous faux philosophy with the canabis guy. Again.


    1:22:53 - 1:26:00

    OK, back into the belly of the Islamic beast; and it's about to heat up significantly, in terms of throwing off the veil and revealing what people really (claim to) believe.

    Let's cut to the chase. The Amsterdam Imam says that "it's all politics." Sort of like how some people dismiss the Irish situation. But Bill and Charles edit in footage that shows that at least some of it really does seem to be rooted in religion.

    Back to Ms. Elatik. What really strikes me about her rap is she sounds just like an American fundamentalist Christian when you ask them about the wicked shit in the Old Testament. Think about that for a minute.

    Bill says he thinks religious denial only kicks in when the faithful have to account for themselves to outsiders. Is that so?

    I think Bill's on to something, but may be drawing the wrong conclusions from the right data.

    Well, I seem to have developed a theory that, if it's true about one fundamentalism, we can expect some crosstalk over to other fundamentalisms. Do Christian fundamentalists behave the same way?

    Do Christian fundamentalists admit their problems internally and deny them to outsiders? Well, you do have the Barna institute, dedicated to equiping Christian leaders with solid social analysis of the fundamentalist subculture; and, of course, anyone can go and look at their numbers—which are sometimes quite injurious to favored myths of The Elect. And, you can look at these numbers regardless of whether your membership in the Jesus Club is up-to-date.

    Frankly, I think all fundamentalisms are the same, but the reality is actually a little more bland than Bill's formulation. It simply varies from person to person.

    Absent inquiring outsiders lodging their inquiries, fundamentalist "introspection" ranges from obliviousness to a modicum of guilt-ridden probity.

    Confronted with even well-intentioned inquiry, the response can range from angry resentment (and even rage), to carefully groomed "apologetics," to a cultish "if-you-have-to-ask-you'll-never-know" dismissal that only serves to betray the repression of an inner fear, to... simple aquiescence to the obvious facts of the matter.

    It's just occurring to me there is an important distinction to be made, between the implications of denial when you're dealing with, on the one hand, belief systems which do occasionally dally with murder as an expedient for dealing with the infidel vs. others whose worse excesses are verbal or psychological abuse, and rarely physical harm.

    Although... Come to think of it...

    Luke 12:4-5 (NIV)
    4I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.
    5But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

    ...so, maybe after all, psychological abuse can be arguably worse than physical abuse.

    Oh, and back to the topic of denial, I would be remiss if I didn't make at least an honorable mention of a very large, death-dealing denial in the Christian fundie community.

    I agree to a significant extent with Muslims who see Bush Jr.'s intrusions in the middle-east as a kind of "crusade;" a term Bush actually had the temerity to use in a public address.

    Remember: Jesus said that if you commit adultery in your heart, it's just as bad as if you went ahead and did the deed. Well, I think American fundamentalist Christanity has committed and continues to commit crusading behavior in its heart and 1) they should be good, practicing Christians and cop to that, and 2) they shouldn't be surprised if Muslims read this intent off the geopolitical landscape and act accordingly, by treating the marauding crusaders with all the contempt they deserve.

    OK, back to Islam.

    Ah, yes; the cellphone text message joke! Nice touch!

    1:26:00 - 1:26:25

    The canabis guy again!?!??!?

    Oh, look out!!!
    Your head's on fire!!!

    OK; the nice joke with the hair on fire. Very lovely! I'll give Bill a star on the forehead for keeping this one!

    And, one supposes, this partially retroactively explains the decision to keep that thread going with Bill and the canabis priest dude.

    1:26:25 - 1:30:33

    OK, it's about to get even more intense.

    OK: What's with people saying Bill gives Muslims a free pass in this movie? He reams them.

    We're at the Dome of the Rock with Dr. Hourani, from the "Center" for "Peace and Reconcilliation." One small question: "Reconciling" who with whom?

    Here are two anti-Islamic Christian fundmentalist chestnuts:

    Very interesting how Dr. Hourani says, I want you to take a look inside, very briefly, hurry hurry hurry! And he leads these guys to the rock. This is a fantastic metaphor for the way religion works and piece of goldmine footage captured by Bill and Mr. Charles and crew.

    In short, it showcases a kind of "divine furtiveness." It's as though religion (not just Islam, trust me) knows it's based on foundational dishonesties; that's why you have rules which wall off access and reinforce separate, inbred reality-spaces, like the actual temple rock's space. But then you have the other half of the unconsciously divided mind of Dr. Hourani knowing that somehow this is dishonest; that openness, curiosity, and probity are features of the genuinely seeking mind, which in principle should not be walled-off or otherwise shunned by a religion that touts itself as "true."

    Dr. Hourani needs to stop and take stock of the way his system of belief has schizmatically divided his mind. He needs to review this scene and learn from it.

    "This is the stone of God!" Well! So much for that!

    This is the Mount of Olives.
    A lot of Orthodox Jews want to be buried here 'cause they believe that when the Messiah comes, He will raise them from the dead and march them through that golden gate, and on to the Temple Mount.
    Which is why the Muslims have walled up the gate; the better to keep out the Jewish Messiah and his Kosher Zombies from getting in...
    ...although you'd think that if you had the power to raise the dead, you'd have the power to jump a fence.

    Back into the temple with Dr. Hourani. We meet a guy who's pissed off that infidels (Bill & crew) pollute this holy place.

    I never got that in "traditional" or Buddhist temples in Taiwan!

    Bill addresses misogyny; women have "a special corner" in the temple. How special! Perhaps that's sufficient treatment of this topic. It's one thing to have as a standard operating procedure of your culture the relegation of half your people to a second-class status. But it's another to sancify that status quo.

    One place where Bill drops things is where he says, "...not as equal...as in our culture." Hmm. If he wants to talk about religion, then he needs to compare apples and apples; not Islam's treatment of women vs. American secular culture's treatment of women.

    Believe me, the place of women in America is constantly under attack by religious culture. The larger culture is winning that war, but the missles are still flying, every day. Religion in America graciously affords women "their own corner."

    Bill talks (through a translator) with Yehuda Etzion.

    He refers to Dr. Hourani as a "Muslim scholar." Very interesting, considering that Hourani has internalized certain myths as absolute values in a way that strikes the western scholar as rather unscholarly. Heck, even Father Foster at the Vatican has a capacity to objectively scrutinize features of his own religion!

    But, again, we can also see this in American fundamentalist Christian culture, as well. There are lots of religious colleges in the U.S. where you can get a "degree" in your faith.

    It reminds me of a fascinating episode from my earlier interactions with fundamentalism in Texas.

    My son was a Boy Scout, and belonged to a "home-school" troop; all members had to be homeschoolers, which Merriman was. Naturally these were pretty much all fundamentalist Christians; I was the odd-bird at the campouts.

    I took Merriman to a troop meeting at a church. While the meeting was going on, I looked around the church. In the vestibule, I found a stack of impeccably xeroxed and stapled copies of the previous Sunday's sermon.

    Apparently, the pastor had a very scholarly bent—probably a star pupil at his Bible college—and he laid out a very exhaustive treatment of a sticky web of events from the Old Testament; around the time when Saul died and David became king. I don't recall there being much in the way of derived teachings about morality or courage or any other typically "Christian" virtues; it was pretty much a summarized, "I-waded-through-this-so-you-don't-have-to" sort of thing.

    And I was shocked! It seemed like a nonstop succession of spittings into the all-seeing eye of Jehovah! What's most interesting is that, if you just read the original Bible passages, the weirdness isn't quite as overt; but this Bible expert's exigesis only leant to the whole narrative a gonzo quality that I found shocking:

    The moral? Here's a guy who got a degree from some Bible college, where it appears he got a taste for thoroughgoing analysis of the texts. And yet, knowing what he knows about the Bible, he can still believe in inerrancy; that the Bible's a holy book that teaches the things of God in its entirety.

    This is what we see when we look at these religious "scholars" in these scenes.

    Bill & Co. jump back and forth between the Muslim scholar and the Jewish radical, and ably communicate a major disconnect: The Muslim scholar sticks with his story that Muhammed departed this Earth from the previous site of Solomon's Temple, but not before astrally hobnobbing there with others of his ilk from the region's reigning belief systems. "You cannot hesitate. You have to accept every letter, every word in this story." Yet the Jews correspondingly believe that Muhammed never set foot in the land of Israel. Which story is true? And, most importantly: Does it even matter???

    I don't get Bill last point:

    "Why can't the people of the different faiths get along? All three religions consider the same site to be holy. Is it not because it was conquered many times...?"

    Sorry; I miss his point. What does the fact of the site's control under a succession of conquerors (Israelites, Arabs, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Persians, et.al.), have to do with hardline mutual exclusiveness by religious loonies?

    [2009/01/21] OK, I think I figured it out. He's saying that desperate straights drive people to extreme ends. In the midst of a long history with numerous, violent claims to this middle-eastern land, mythologies that vest you with special rights of occupancy would be comforting and enabling. Gotcha. Is my slowness in picking up on Bill's intent here 1) my problem, or 2) poor editing/segue work on the parts of the filmmakers?

    1:30:33 - 1:31:48

    Bill waxes philosophically snide about the "under new management" aspect of religious succession, then makes a sort of lame segue to the ancient (prehistoric?) priapic hillside artwork in England.

    What's his point? I think including this in the film was a sort of mistake. Not that it's completely lacking any redeeming aspects—it's a nice observation about the idea of an ongoing and harmless maintenance of an impressive ancestral artifact; even if your feelings about it aren't "religious" in the usual sense of the word, you can still reap a warm and fuzzy benefit of feeling to be a part of something that spans a stretch of time significantly bigger than your little mortal stand. And all you have to do is clear away a bit of vetch that threatens to obsure a massive pictoral erection.

    So: Does Bill harbor any respect for this British country tradition? He sizes it up against the mainstream monotheistic faiths, and doesn't seem to want to cut it any slack; and for that I give him a thumbs-down.

    Because the very existence of this tradition seems to hint that God may actually retain a life-affirming sense of humor, I give religion a thumbs-up on this one.

    1:31:48 - 1:37:44

    The End of the World

    We're treated to a pageant of end-of-the-world fantasy, by the faithful.

    And back to Megiddo, for Bill's closing benediction:

    It [Megiddo] seems peaceful.

    But this is the very spot where a lot of Christians believe life on Earth will end.

    The irony of religion is that because of its power to divert Man to destructive courses, the world could actually come to an end.

    [Senator Pryor, in a way, agrees]

    [Quotes from Biblical/Koranic end-of-world prophesies]

    'Plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live.

    The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people. By irrationalists. By those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken.

    George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he didn't learn a lot about it.

    [Blurb from Bush "faith" voter]

    "Faith" means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.

    Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings, who don't have all the answers, to think that they do.

    Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, "I'm willing, Lord! I'll do whatever you want me to do!" Except that, since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people, with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.

    [Roberson deathwishing for a nuclear strike]

    And anyone who tells you they know—they just know what happens when you die?... I promise you, you don't.

    How can I be so sure?

    Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not.

    The only appropriate attitude for Man to have about the "big" questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion...

    ...but doubt.

    Doubt is humble. And that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of "getting shit dead wrong."

    [Lightning montage of True Belivers spewing their faith-based certitudes]

    [Talking with "Ex-Jew" guy: He longs for the end of the world]

    This is why rational people—anti-religionists—must end their timidity and come of the closet and assert themselves.

    And those who consider themselves only "moderately" religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you, actually comes at a terrible price.

    [Yet more religious death-wishing]

    If you belonged to a politcal party, or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers.

    If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of a religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let's remember what the real problem was.

    That we learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it.

    That's it.

    Grow up, or die.

    [Excellent religion/nuke montage]