Not too long ago, while having after-work cocktails with a friend, we found ourselves in a discussion about religion. As if often the case, she wanted to talk to me about the subject because her beliefs, while being completely mainstream Christian at their core, blurred a tiny bit around the edges where they came into contact with the elements of Eastern thought that are everywhere in today’s society. These conversations often have interesting outcomes, given that I follow completely one of those Eastern paths.
When having a conversation like the one a few weeks ago, I am very careful not to come across as judgmental or condescending about another person’s beliefs, and even more careful not to overplay the strength of my own faith. If I’ve learned anything studying and writing about religion these last six years, it is that the stronger one holds his or her views on spiritual matters, the more sensitive they are when presented with another’s rationalization for a radically different set of religious perspectives. (Obviously, there are some generalizations in that statement, but it has been my experience that it holds true 70 percent of the time.)
Toward the end of the discussion, my friend, who I have a great deal of respect for, asked me a pointed, serious question: Sean, what if you are wrong?
I’m reminded about that question after seeing Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous. Like his political comedy, the movie is an equal-opportunity offender, though not in the way one might expect.
True to form, Maher’s ire is primarily directed at the people whose beliefs put them at odds with what most would consider rational thought – individuals, for example, who believe that the Bible is an infallible, literal account of what they say is the Earth’s brief 5,000-year history.
At three or four points during the movie, Maher is asked by his grave-faced interview subjects, Bill, what if you are wrong? In each case, he solemnly responded, But what if you are wrong?
I have always found Maher’s perspectives on religion interesting, and in many areas, we probably have overlapping philosophies: I strongly believe that religion has absolutely no place in government. Politicians who publicly pray for God’s protection, guidance, intervention, etc., in any number of domestic and international affairs are way out of line in my view, though I can certainly find ways to express my feelings on the topic without offending people who actually believe in the same big-G supreme being.
I also believe that religion is at the heart of most of mankind’s historic (and modern) conflicts. We have used religion as the grounds for (or to justify) our most heinous, barbaric behavior: slavery, homophobia, state-sanctioned mass killings, sexism. All of this, despite the fact that main message of the great religious teachers in history has been one of love.
I’ll admit that I laughed out loud at some of the interviews in Religulous, and groaned in discomfort at some of Maher’s stereotypical knocks on Jews, Muslims and fundamentalist Christians. I have the same issues with Bill Maher that I have with people like Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation: while they make sound academic arguments about the role that organized (perhaps, in their view, manipulative) religion has played during the last 2,000 years, they border on / spill over into the realm of intolerance for all forms of religious expression, which in many ways is just as bad as those who would kill in God’s name.
Side note: of the top five world religions, only Buddhists were spared Religulous scrutiny, though I suspect that is because Maher doesn’t know much about regional Buddhist beliefs (e.g., the origins of some of the well-known bodhisattvas are based on legends that are as extraordinary as a divine virgin birth).
With all that said, I think my answer to the question posed a few weeks ago – what if I’m wrong about what I believe – was the best one. I told my friend that if I’m wrong, and if God is as compassionate and loving as everyone says he is, then I don’t think he’ll fault me for using my rational mind (the mind the he gave me) to reach conclusions that are in synch with my ability to understand the world around me. After all, I have always contended that God wouldn’t have created us and given us such a short amount of time on Earth to earn our places in eternity, just to send us to Hell because we disagree with him.
For all that has been said about him throughout history, I have to think that God has a sense of humor about this one.