Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Reflection by Rev. Durrell Watkins

“Test everything! Keep what is good.” St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians 5.21

Last week I saw Bill Maher’s new documentary film, “Religilous.” It was actually a very well done film that intelligently challenges religious people’s inherited assumptions and preconceived ideas. Maher especially shows how dogmatic certainty and intolerance can lead to violence and suffering in our world.

It may seem odd that I, someone who is PROFESSIONALLY religious, would enjoy this of all movies! But my religion isn’t threatened by science, humor, critical thinking, or questions. Maher may be doing religion a very good service by showing us how we have too often allowed religion to become irrelevant or even toxic.

Where Bill Maher and I disagree is that I believe religion has great potential. I love the myth and poetry of religion. I love the people who are in my life because religion brought us together. I love the sacred texts that remind me that our ancestors struggled with many of the same questions that I have. They sometimes came to different conclusions than I might, but they stand with me (in my imagination) as I attempt to face the questions as courageously as they did.

Religion, at its best, reminds me that I have enormous potential and that at the center of my being I may be infinitely better than I’ve ever realized. Religion reminds me that I am part of the Web of Existence, an integral part of the vast Universe, an expression of infinite Life. Philosophy, art, transpersonal psychology, or quantum physics might offer me a very similar message, but religion is the discipline that communicated the message to me first. I tend to dance with the one who brought me!

So, yes, I may be “religilous,” but I think that’s good. Someone needs to offer religion in a way that allows (and even expects) progressive attitudes, new learning, critical thinking, and expanded understanding. I don’t believe the world was created in a week a few thousand years ago! I don’t believe that my religion is God’s favorite and all others are at best wrong and at worst evil. I don’t believe religion should be used as an excuse to justify homophobia. I don’t claim to know anything about the afterlife, and I know that our scriptures are full of human opinion, imagination, prejudice, error, and norms from cultures different from my own. Religion is not, in my mind, the enemy of science, and for me, myths, parables, idioms and symbols can be philosophically or psychologically true without being historically factual or accurate.

I’m not religious to keep me out of afterlife prison, nor am I religious to get wishes granted or to feel superior to the non-religious. I’m religious because I’ve experienced religion as a liberating, encouraging, comforting source of optimism and I want to share that with others who may need it. I especially want to offer a generous, liberating, joyous alternative to those who have been excluded or harmed by the misuse of religion.

As a religious person, I consider myself an ally of people like Bill Maher who use their voices to challenge religion when it becomes superstitious, narrow-minded, or oppressive. So, as a religious person, I encourage people to go see “Religilous.” Laugh when it’s funny. Feel free to disagree with whatever you don’t find persuasive. And allow it to show you where religion needs improvement. As religious people, we may discover that we are the ones to offer the healing religion needs.

Rev. Durrell Watkins
Sunshine Cathedral


Anonymous said...

I find it odd that you praise such a shoddy excuse for scholarship. First off, there were a number of factual errors in the movie, such as the assertion that there is no actual proof that Jesus existed. Josephius was a Jew, Tactus was a non-religious Roman. However, both these men attest to the existence of Jesus in their annals. Secondly, Maher contridicts himself. In the beginning of the movie, he says that he "doesn't know" the answers to the questions of God's existence. In the end of the movie, he says there is no God. Also, he interviews almost nobody of real intelligence (truckers, dogmatic fundamentalists, etc..) no scholars of religious study except the one in the Vatican, whom he asked no real questions. When backed into a corner, Maher makes a joke or simply insults the lack of rationality in believing in God. One should note that faith and rationality are not meant to co-exist. This is clearly one of the least scholarly works on religion ever produced. Maher is the very thing that he hates, a narrow-minded, dogmatic, fundamentalist. He is fundamentalist in the sense of his unwavering believe in the fact that there is no God. I am quite shocked at your positive reaction to what can only be called trash.

Durrell said...

I'm sure that it was meant to be scholarship. It's a film maker's point of view. I don't even agree with it entirely, but I do appreciate his raising questions and promoting this very sort of discussion. Maher doubts the existence of God (and I admire his honesty about that). And, he finds religion to be guilty of some extreme and dangerous behavior (and, frankly, he's right). He doesn't invite scholars into the discussion (though he has on his television program), but then religion isn't just practiced in the academy. He was questioning the people for whom religion plays such a central role...ordinary people. So, whereas I have a higher regard for religion than Maher does, I still enjoyed the film and am glad for his thoughts. I need not agree with every point to respect the effort. It may not have been "scholarly" (Maher is a comedian and not a historian, theologian, or bible scholar), but it was thoughtful, provocative, honest, and presented Maher's point of view clearly enough. You may not have enjoyed it as much as I did, and you may not have agreed with much of it, but I must disagree that it could "only be called trash."

Durrell said...

Sorry...that should have started out, "I'm NOT sure that it was meant to be scholarship..."