Friday, July 9, 2010

Religulous (2008)

Being aware of the basic premise of Religulous, I honestly cannot say I looked forward to watching it. But I appreciate that Bill Maher is an intelligent person and he feels a lot of hostility towards religion for a variety of reasons. I try to have an open mind, and force myself to listen to perspectives that are different from my own. I encourage my law students to do the same thing because it is often possible to find common ground that was not previously apparent. (And pragmatically, when common ground is not to be found, listening to different perspectives also helps you understand the position of others so that you can more effectively refine your own rhetoric.) With that attitude, I was hopeful that Religulous might have some beneficial insight for me on the role of religion in a secular society. I’m not sure I gained a lot of insight. Instead, in the end, I was just deeply disappointed in Maher.

Any person of faith who has had the awkward experience of having to defend his or her beliefs to a belittling skeptic with a gift for oratory would likely feel a flood of unpleasant flashbacks while watching this film. It can be painful enough to attempt in vain to put into words spiritual concepts that are frankly difficult to verbalize. But the task is even more uncomfortable when the belittling skeptic has prepped ahead of time with witty one liners, and the person of faith is essentially the victim of a barrage of hostility. That is essentially what happens through out this film.

At the beginning of Religulous, Maher declares he just doesn’t understand how otherwise intelligent people can believe in God and religion, and he wants the film to be an exploration of that mystery. However, the exploration starts out with Maher and his team heading for a humble North Carolina chapel for truckers to interrogate the men who are gathered for a modest worship service. Some of the men become frustrated and insulted when Maher’s bent becomes apparent and it does not appear to jive with what they had been told prior to the filming. As a result, the film often has a Borat vibe to it. Moreover, starting off with truckers in North Carolina seems to set an unfortunate, though accurate tone for the rest of the film.

Through out Religulous, Maher does not attempt to speak with theologians or philosophers who could eloquently answer his difficult questions because of their years of study. Instead, he picks on average Joes, whom he must know will not have sophisticated answers to his zingers. It is a little like if Venus Williams for some reason challenged me to a tennis match. I’m thinking Ms. Williams would never do such a thing even if she knew who the heck I was. I would be so outmatched if I had to play against her, she would look like a bully for even agreeing to step onto the court against me. Though she could definitely beat me in straight sets (and likely in record time), it would frankly be a waste of her time and energy to play with me. She would simply be humiliating me for no apparent reason.

There were numerous other examples of Maher picking on average Joes in Religulous. There was an “ex-Jew for Jesus” who earnestly tries to tell Maher about the “miracles” that led him to his embrace of Christianity; Maher cruelly rejects his experiences as unremarkable coincidences. There was a Jesus-portraying theme park actor who patiently listened to Maher’s belligerent questions and tried to answer them until Maher finally stumped him with references to obscure Mediterranean mystics who lived prior to Jesus Christ. These types of scenes leave the viewer with the inescapable sense Maher is not really exploring the mystery of faith; he is just trying to make those with faith look silly. In turn, this approach makes Maher look like a big ole bully with a giant chip on his shoulder, which is just not becoming or even persuasive. I can’t imagine it swayed any agnostics who were sitting on the fence. And poll after poll has demonstrated that most Americans believe in a higher power of some sort. So was Maher going after that small demographic of angry American atheists? Maybe I’m wrong, but that would not seem like a wise marketing ploy.

I’m not sure why Maher permitted this ugly, bullying tone in his film. For the most part, I do respect Maher. I disagree with him a lot, but he generally seems to be a sharp guy, he seems pretty well read, and he often has good insights on politics. And I admire his bravery to speak his mind despite all the flack he gets for it. I very much respect anyone willing to stand up and voice unpopular opinions publicly—whether or not I even agree with those opinions. That is not easy; it takes a lot of courage. And I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. For example, I am not inclined to think Maher is a bad guy who wants to hurt people. Indeed, he seemed quite familiar with the Bible and he seemed to admire Jesus a lot, though he was deeply cynical of Christian leaders whom he believes have corrupted Jesus’ teachings. However, because he seems to admire Jesus, I just cannot fathom why he would make a movie out of belittling people and insulting what they hold most dear.

When he was purporting to explore each religion, he certainly did not highlight a representational cross-section or the most shining examples of each faith. He focused on the low hanging fruit—those who were easiest to ridicule (or religicule?) such as wealthy Christian pastors preaching a “prosperity Gospel,” a man claiming to be the incarnation/descendant of Jesus Christ, an anti-Zionist rabbi, and gay Muslim barkeepers. Where were the missionary families who gave up their worldly goods to live in remote, impoverish parts of the world to minister to brothers and sisters whom the rest of the world has forgotten? Where were the Christians who rescue women from brothels and care for children in orphanages? Where were the Christians engaged in human rights activism? Where were the Christians working in American inner cities to give kids an alternative to gangs and the drug trade? Maher didn’t talk to any of them. Instead, the end of the film includes an over-the-top apocalyptic vision of mankind killing itself and the planet due to religion.

I’ve been concerned for quite a while about the degradation of public discourse in our society. Jefferson envisioned a well-educated, enlightened electorate. But the most cited representatives of right wing thought these days are demagogues who play on people’s base frustrations to incite their anger and their embrace of cynical anti-government political positions. Government needs to get out of our way; government is the problem, not the solution! (Isn’t that really just advocating anarchy?) By contrast, the most cited representatives of left wing thought are comedians who encourage viewers to mock politicians at the slightest foible. After all, they are all corrupt and greedy. (In such case, why vote?) Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher are entertainers, but people seem to disregard that fact and quote them as if they are deep political thinkers. In their line of work, they are successful if they get viewers or readers riled up or make them guffaw. Their success is not measured by the quality of their political analyses. I think Jon Stewart is a very funny guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m pleased that the Daily Show on Comedy Central is the main source of news for a large segment of young adults.

1 Peter 3:8-9 (Contemporary English Version)

“Finally, all of you should agree and have concern and love for each other. You should also be kind and humble. Don't be hateful and insult people just because they are hateful and insult you. Instead, treat everyone with kindness. You are God's chosen ones, and he will bless you.”


  1. What I don't think you understand about the purpose of the film is that the majority of people of faith don't know or understand what it is that they believe in, yet they are willing to fight to the death to defend it. There are few people that honestly fully understand the extent of the religion that they belong to.

  2. I'm a Christian and I don't agree at all. How is it hard or awkward to defend your faith if you truly know what you're talking about? It isn't. I've seen a couple Christian reviews of Religulous and I will admit your review was the most fair and I can tell your not an ignorant person like the other people. However, you said that Bill Maher didn't go to any religious experts. The truth is he did. He talked to priests and ministers and people who should know alot about the Bible because of their job. And the truth is alot of these people didn't know what they were talking about. I know more about the Bible then those "experts" and I'm 15. He also tried to talk to the Pope or some other high person in the Catholic Church, but the high and mighty, and often hypocritical, Catholic Church didn't want to defend their religion. Also, why should an "average joe" not have to know about the Bible? If Christians are supposed to help others see the light of God, then how can they do that when they know nothing about their own faith? Bill Maher also talks about other religions, but no one cares that he critisizes them. For whatever reason, in America people are under the impression that everything must revolve around God and nobody is allowed to have a different opinion and no one can question Christianity. My point is we all should be open minded and if someone asks us about God, we should tell them, but at the same time we should actually know what we're talking about.