The New Atheists’ Easter message? ‘Grow up or die’

Religulous, Bill Maher’s religion-baiting documentary, confirms what modern atheists hate most about religion: its humancentricity.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Twenty-five years ago this weekend, I was called on to do the job that every altar boy dreads: the Stations of the Cross.

It takes place on Good Friday and involves following the priest around the church as he stops at each of the 14 Stations, explains what it depicts, says a prayer or two, stands in silence, and then moves on. Wearing sweat-inducing red-and-white vestments, carrying a ridiculously heavy gold candle that dripped hot wax on to my fingertips, and battered by sniggers from schoolfriends and looks of thin-lipped fury from my parents if I so much as looked like I might yawn, by the time I got to the ninth Station (‘Jesus falls for the third time’) I knew how He must have felt.

The editor as an altar boy.

This Easter, as an atheistic editor rather than God-fearin’ altar boy, I’ve had to endure something even more bottom-numbingly dull, hectoring and pious than those Stations, and without even the promise of redemption that is contained in the phantom ‘Fifteenth Station of the Cross’ (which is very occasionally included in some Catholic churches’ décor: ‘Jesus rises from the dead’): that is, I watched Religulous. In a cinema in Covent Garden. In my free time. Surrounded by people who, I’m convinced, were not really laughing at the jokes (there weren’t any) but rather were audibly guffawing as a way of sending smug signals to one another: ‘I hate religion, too!’

I felt far more preached at by American comedian Bill Maher’s road movie-style atheistic documentary than I did by that priest who made me follow him around the church like a candle-carrying muppet a quarter of a century ago. Religulous – a hilarious mixture of the words ‘religious’ and ‘ridiculous’! – confirms what today’s shrill opponents of religion, variously described as ‘New Atheists’, ‘Darwin’s pitbulls’ or ‘Dawkinites’, really hate about religion: its humancentricity. Never mind its authoritarianism or obscurantism, it is its treatment of man as special – as more than a biological being; as capable of rapture; as having, in the words of Genesis, ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and every other living thing that moves on the Earth’ – that really gets their goat.

Religulous goes for laughs so cheap they would be judged too downmarket for the bargain bucket at Poundland. Maher travels around America and Europe – more accurately: he visits Alabama, home of crazy Christians, and Amsterdam, home of crazy Muslims – to try to discover why people are so stupid that they turn to religion. He visits a Creationism Museum where exhibits include animatronic Stone-Age children playing with animatronic dinosaurs. He goes to an admittedly scary Holy Land Theme Park in Florida where you can walk around Palestine as it looked 2,000 years ago, only peopled by white Americans in smocks selling religious tat rather than Arabs selling sheep or myrrh. He tries to convince Jesus of Florida, an all-singing, all-dancing Fabio lookalike who is crucified once a day in the Passion Show, that He – the real JC – never actually existed.

Sometimes Maher thinks being offensive is the same thing as being funny and clever. He interviews a perfectly reasonable Muslim spokeswoman in Amsterdam, who says that most Muslims are not violent and that Mohammed Bouyeri – the nutjob who killed anti-Islamist Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh – was a rarity. How does Maher respond? By interspersing her words with images of things exploding in Iraq. Or it might be Afghanistan. It’s some crazy place where Muslims blow things up. It’s the kind of thing which, if the Sun did it (which, notably, it doesn’t anymore), Ken Livingstone would haul it before that Pontius Pilate of contemporary public debate: the Commission for Racial Equality. Yet when a New Atheist does it, it’s funny apparently, even insightful, the kind of thing that makes PC cinemagoers in Covent Garden think: ‘You know what, Muslims are crazy!’

Maher also interviews the imam of a mosque. Halfway through the interview, the imam receives a text message on his mobile phone and the filmmakers flash up subtitles imagining what it might say: ‘Ur orders are: kill that infidel Bill Maher :-)’ Now, I must admit, this was quite funny, but it’s about as good as the film gets and it doesn’t explain the accolades it has been receiving, such as from the British reviewer who said it would make people ‘engage their brains while choking back tears of laughter’ and might even transform the ‘po-faced right-wing Christians who still believe God Loves America and vote accordingly’ (1).

In fact, and ironically, those po-faced Yanks, the spectre in every good liberal’s nightmares, would probably enjoy the bits of the film that show Muslims as loons who, in Maher’s seemingly Bush-inspired words, might create a future ‘decimated by the effects of religion-inspired nuclear terrorism’ (2). Actually, scrap that: the Bushies in fact tip-toed around Islam, frequently describing it as a ‘religion of peace’; it is good, liberal, Democratic-supporting, NPR-patronising, God-doubtin’ media men like Maher, backed by big atheist players in DC, NYC and trendy parts of London, who now depict Islam (alongside Christianity, of course) as the potential destroyer of the world. What a bizarre turnaround. What a striking insight into the ugly prejudices that can spring from an atheism built more on fear and sneering than, in Darwin’s words, on the subtle promotion of ‘freedom of thought’ and the ‘gradual illumination of men’s minds’ (3).

Maher’s aim is to bring religious people crashing back down to Earth. He does this by mocking their grandiose claims and arguing that, in reality, man is nothing special; in fact, he’s a bit shit. In contrast to the ‘arrogant certitude’ of religionists, Maher describes himself as ‘humbly’ agnostic. ‘Doubt is humble’, he says, ‘and that’s what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong’. The real reason he despises Christianity and Islam (he’s a bit softer on the Jews) is because they propagate stories that present mankind as having been created for some purpose, as having a special role to play on the planet and in history, when in truth, says Maher, mankind is a fuck-up that continually ‘gets shit wrong’ and has ‘spawned so much lunacy and destruction’.

Maher shows how depressingly biological, even bovine, the New Atheism is, and how stultifyingly soul-destroying The Science can become in the hands of political activism. To counter the wacky Christians’ claim that mankind is profound and has some relationship with a ‘higher being’, he enlists DNA and human-gene experts to tell us that, in fact, we’re a collection of cell-like data, much like any other animal. He describes religious belief itself as a ‘neurological disorder’, a warping of our animalistic internal grey matter (4).

After interviewing a very strange ‘former homosexual’ who now runs a Christian Conversion Ministry to make other gay people straight, Maher talks to a scientific expert who claims to have discovered the ‘gay gene’. See, says Maher, gayness is really a genetic trait and thus not susceptible to manipulation by Christian homophobes. Here, he unwittingly exposes how a gene-obsessed view of human nature and behaviour can be even more backward than the religious outlook. At least that bit of the Bible which describes homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ that should be avoided by all men recognises the elements of choice, consciousness, desire, attraction and temptation contained within human sexual relationships; in the New Atheist, DNA-sprayed view of mankind, sexuality springs from a pre-programmed gene and is simply a biological instinct, like going to the toilet. Well, we are merely ‘the close cousins of chimpanzees’, as that other New Atheist Christopher Hitchens argued in his book God Is Not Great, and just as male chimps sometimes fondle and fuck each other, so do male humans (5).

Having disabused viewers of the idea that mankind is anything more than a bundle of genes (presumably Maher was born with the Unfunny Gene), he then argues that the central problem with religion is that it is distracting us from the real threat facing the planet: no, not Satan coming to destroy it with hellfire, but, er, manmade global warming coming to destroy it with hellfire. Without even a whiff of irony – and I am not making this up – Maher concludes the film by giving a sermon on a mount in Jerusalem in which he talks about climate change and war and terrorism and religious craziness, and says that as a result of these things ‘the world could actually come to an end’. Humankind must ‘grow up or die’. Here, he echoes other vocal New Atheists who talk about manmade apocalypse: Hitchens talks about the coming ‘heat death of the universe’, while Justin Keating of the Humanist Association of Ireland says, Revelations-style, ‘As never before, the survival of humankind is threatened. The source of the threat is human action [destroying the environment].’ (6)

Indeed, Keating says the Bible is ‘wicked’ because, in talking about man’s ‘dominion’ over nature, it is a ‘validation for all those who believe in the cult of more growth and more consumption… For two millennia, Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived by this teaching. In that period scientific advances in agriculture and medicine have given us a world not peopled by the pair in the Garden of Eden, but by something between six and seven billion and growing. We are deforming the Earth.’ (7) So religion puts too much faith in humanity, gives us too much credence, is too humanist, when in fact, say ‘the humanists’, mankind should be more meek and accepting of our role as, well, animals, living in ‘symbiotic harmony with our surroundings’ (8). Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

‘Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve around himself’, said Marx (9). Many of the great atheists of old recognised that religious stories – of some ‘great man’ who created us, of our inner souls, of a future paradise – were attempts by individuals to envision humanity’s greatness at a time when it seemed impossible, or at least very difficult, to make that greatness a reality on Earth. Religious belief sprung from our alienation from our own humanity. The New Atheism represents something far, far worse: alienation from the very idea that mankind is special or distinct or rapturous or purposeful; hence it viciously attacks those who still propagate stories about higher purpose or superhuman gods: the religious. I would far rather go back to the little church in north London this weekend and listen to the priest talk about ‘love’ and ‘redemption’ than watch or read or listen to any more shrill New Atheist propaganda.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Watch the trailer for Religulous below:

(1) Why right-wing Christians need to see Religulous, Guardian, 21 October 2008

(2) Religulous: Memorable Quotes, Internet Movie Database

(3) See Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, Rational Atheism, 19 August 2007

(4) Religulous: Memorable Quotes, Internet Movie Database

(5) God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 2007

(6) ‘The Greening of Humanism’, Justin Keating, Humanism Ireland, January-February 2009

(7) ‘The Greening of Humanism’, Justin Keating, Humanism Ireland, January-February 2009

(8) ‘The Greening of Humanism’, Justin Keating, Humanism Ireland, January-February 2009

(9) See Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right by Karl Marx at

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