As seen in issue 55 of Closer Magazine, published on 2009-01-06 in the "Fashion" section.

The Atheist Parade
Bill Maher's Religulous
By: Brandon K. Thorp

Bill Maher's Religious is the latest salvo in the new, popular war on superstition and tribalism.

As you read this, Bill Maher’s antitheist documentary, Religulous, has been out of theaters for at least a month. If you wanted to see it you probably did, and if you didn’t, then I am unlikely to persuade you to add it to your Netflix queue.

That’s fine. Whether or not Religulous is worth watching is a decision I’m not addressing. The film’s most savage critiques have come from the secular left, who dismissed it as “preaching to the choir.” Theists simply won’t finish it. The film will confuse and embarrass them, reactions they will misidentify as “disgust” or “pity.”

So do what you will. But there is no denying that the last three years have seen anti-theists seize the high ground in the culture wars. Every human being interested in the unspooling conversation of American pop culture knows the story: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and now Bill Maher have made unbelief hip.

Attempts by the mainstream press to cover this movement have been depressing. Our most liberal dailies and most serious monthlies have treated the antitheist superstars as a freak parade. Prior to the Presidential election, Newsweek published a polemic by Harris, which questioned the wisdom of handing control of America’s nuclear arsenal to an attractive young religious extremist from Alaska. Harris titled his essay “In Defense of Elitism,” but his editors retitled it “When Atheists Attack: A noted provocateur rips Sarah Palin — and defends elitism.”

The implication--that Harris is an eccentric-- has the accidental effect of making science and empiricism seem eccentric as well; exotic and weird, and probably not worth taking seriously. It is the kind of language you’d expect to see applied to Flat Earthers, or to opponents of the germ theory of disease (crazily enough, Bill Maher is one of these).

You’d think everyone but Sam Harris takes daily tea with God The Father Almighty. They don’t, of course, and no amount of condescension will turn stones to bread or heal the sick. It takes medicine to do the latter and nanomachines to do the former--science, in other words. And in an era of lightspeed communication, the marketplace of ideas has become … Darwinian. Only the strong survive, and it may be that cable modems, blogs, and iEverything have created a situation in which verifiable facts are increasingly more muscular than mutated snippets of Bronze Age mythologies.

Americans have yet to acknowledge the ascendency of atheist chic as anything other than a curiosity, but that will change. Atheism isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it is older than any religion currently practiced. The Neolithic undoubtedly had its share of instinctual skeptics, and ancient Greece contained a few as well: like Democritus, Socrates and Epicurus.

Those teachings are tenacious because they rely on empiricism and reason instead of revealed truth. And while one revealed truth can always be replaced by another, reason and empiricism are irrefutable. One can examine the natural world and readily come to conclusions like those of Democritus, while no amount of observation will naturally lead one to the conclusions reached in the Book of Revelation.

And so atheism has always been kicking around, awaiting the embrace of curious minds. But it wasn’t always easy. If you were an atheist at the dawn of the century, you came to your unbelief through the slow absorption of information from hundreds of different sources. You didn’t think of unbelief in terms of its moral superiority, and you didn’t stop to wonder if it constituted a movement.

No more. Harris, Hitchens,Dawkins, and now Maher, have ennobled a movement that, until recently, didn’t even know it was one. And because their core ideas are based on reason and empiricism, they are likely to have staying power--just like Socrates, Darwin and Einstein.

Which brings us to the point: If anti-theism is now hip and intellectually sound, then it doesn’t matter if you see Religulous or not. No matter how your favorite news outlet treats this development, it is a sign of things to come.

If you were to rent Religulous, here is what you’d see: devoutly religious men and women from a dozen different confessional traditions, insisting that their particular brand of theism is the only correct one.

You would see funny things: In one scene, preacher Teddy Pendergrass, late of the Blue Notes and the O’Jays, tells Maher of a young man in his congregation who was so in love with a girl that “he was about to kill himself or something.” Pendergrass wonders what the kid could accomplish if he redirected his enthusiasm towards the God of Abraham, to which Maher responds by cutting to a clip of a suicide bomber blowing up a car.

And you would see frightening things: at The Holy Land Experience, in Orlando, young children are treated to a musical version of The Crucifixion, with bleeding Jesus lashed and nailed to the cross. You would see John McCain explaining that that America was founded as a Christian nation: a statement which would be merely silly from some other source, but which becomes treasonous when dropped from the lips of a sitting senator.

Even if you choose to see none of this, you will only be able to avoid it for so long. If the godless have seized the silver creen, then the small screen, the monthlies, the weeklies and the dailies can’t be far behind. It’s hard to get rid of an idea, especially if it happens to be right.

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3, Ballad for Estonians

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