Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bill Maher's blind spot

Throughout Bill Maher's movie Religulous the comedian deservedly skewers his subjects for the absurdity of their beliefs. A reasonable person would of course agree with Maher - the myths of the bible and other 2,000 year old religions are so patently false and absurd - not to mention un-edifying - that an inquisitor like Maher can find no cogent reason why people believe them.

On his show Real Time last week Maher had as a guest Sam Harris, the famous debunker of religious myth who pins the blame for religious belief on a "social disorder" that prevents non-believers from pointing out the absurdity of modern religious practice. Harris also rightly pins approbation on moderates who are tolerant of religious mythology, no matter how dangerous it is, with basically a live-and-let-live perspective, unwilling to confront others on their beliefs. Maher only half jokingly mused that religious belief might somehow be rooted in a neurological disorder.

And therein lies the key problem both with Maher's movie and his views about religion in general: Even though he posits as the reason for his work the quest for why people believe religious mythology, he actually shows no insight into what people get out of it, or why they cling to it so tenaciously even though it is so obviously false. This lack of understanding robs Maher's work of an empathy for his subjects that would make it that much more powerful. I find no reason why Maher would not understand this important point, given that Ernest Becker explained it all so elegantly more than 30 years ago in his seminal book Denial of Death, built on the work of Freud's associate Otto Rank.

People believe in religions, no matter how absurd, for one main reason: As the only creature on earth capable of understanding their own eventual demise, humans require a death-denial strategy to merely get through each day. So haunting is the specter of death and nothingness that people are willing to believe almost any myth to avoid the paralyzing fear that would basically render them unable to act. The fact that we now rely on 2,000 year old myths that were nutty to begin with doesn't help things. But in matters of life after death, any promise of eternal life will do in a mortality stormTM.

People's belief in religion is not a neurological disorder, as Maher joked, nor a social disorder, as Harris speculated. It is a somewhat logical and handy, if increasingly ineffective, coping mechanism for dealing with the fear of death. These beliefs are what Otto Rank called "necessary lies" we tell ourselves in order to get through each day. In Ernest Becker's words, these lies we tell ourselves are the reason that to be neurotic is actually to be normal. A dearth of death-denial lies leaves a person anxious and fretful and unable to act. Rank believed that the quality of our lives is in a large sense determined by the quality of our immortality lies. Those that take a large toll on our time, our reason or our compassion, i.e., are inferior to those strategies that allow us to fully use our minds and hearts in ways that don't fundamentally hurt ourselves or others, and allow us to comfortably expand into our own private universes.

This hole in Maher's world view deprives his work of empathy for his subjects who so distort their lives with religious faith. Maher's work would be that much more convincing if he was able to show sympathy for his subjects, elevating it beyond the mere (deserved) mockery of religion.

The fact that modern people cling to their religion so tenaciously actually points to its fundamental weakness. And in fact, though people admit to religious belief most are not actually believers. Money and medicine are the real backstop of immortality today. Doctors are the equivalent of the ancient priests - they even wear white "robes." Just look at how people fight disease, even when they are death's door. If they really believed in heaven why would anyone even seek medical treatment for catastrophic disease? After all - if you're on the way to heaven why would you subject yourself to something like chemotherapy? You wouldn't.

So even though people don't really believe in the immortality promises of religion they cannot afford to take chances in the realm of final death. Modern man finds it is more comforting to cling to the weak and unbelievable promises of ancient religion, while hedging his bets with piles of money and the priests of modern medicine.

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