Religulous Proves P.T. Barnum is right, but not much else
directed by Larry Charles
written by Bill Maher
review by James Harleman
There’s a sucker born every minute. It’s not scripture, but fairly accurate. Unfortunately, when any wiseacre wants to make a modern day mockumentary to prove a point, this reality comes in very handy. This is what makes Religulous funny, but ultimately hollow.
Combining “religion” with “ridiculous” to get his title is fairly inventive (says the guy who combined cinema and synagogue). The film follows comedian-turned-commentator Bill Maher as he purports to examine the current state of world religion. From a trucker’s church to the Vatican, from mosque to Mormon Utah, Maher discovers truly laughable and ignorant characters around the world (or manages to creatively edit and subtitle them into hilarity). He even street-preaches Scientology in London, which had the theater rolling. I saw the film with a Christian friend, an agnostic, two atheists and an anti-theist in a packed theater, and we all laughed pretty hard. However, this is from the director of Borat, so to think any deep truths about America or global religion are revealed would be stretching things considerably.
This isn’t a documentary, and maybe we shouldn’t judge it in that vein; Bill is trying to get a laugh, or a rise, out of his subjects, and even takes different sides of arguments about Jesus and the Bible to get chuckles from the audience. All the questions are loaded, which plays to a reality-television crowd, but does little to examine the impact of religious belief. Give me any religious group, any political party, or any particular group of hobbyists and you can traverse the globe and find rubes to make any of these look insipid. To be fair, he does this well, and could be unleashed to comedically eviscerate other demographics in the future with great success. The formula works, so long as we don’t pretend it’s telling us truth.
Does the Holy Land theme park Bill visits irritate me personally? Absolutely; Christians clapping and cheering a performance of the crucifixion as the soldiers beat Jesus to a pulp seems disturbing. Moreover, the fact that no one even tries to engage Maher in philosophical debate or leverages traditional or presuppositional apologetics bums me out. The fact that he exposes idiocracy and hypocrites in just about every religious camp at least levels the playing field, but he doesn’t talk to the average agnostic or atheist which, if you stop folks in a grocery store, reveal the same general level of education and understanding of the world around us.
Bill Maher grew up Irish Catholic with parents that made him go to church, but didn’t regularly attend themselves. While he feels like he “outgrew” his faith, the evident reality is that he never really bought into it. His mother admits church wasn’t about giving him Jesus, but rather a moral compass. He confesses that he “doesn’t know” what to believe, but vacillates in disposition between “agnostic but curious” and “irritated atheist” upset that anyone has ANY assurance about God OR the afterlife. His incredulity is his own undoing, and as he tries to land the plane at the end of the film with the tired old argument that religion is to blame for war and conflict in the world, his own religious zeal misses the mark.
Religion is not usually the cause of conflict, but convenient fuel. My good friend’s two year old son bullies the younger son because he wants control of the toys. Cruelty and force are the easiest way to satisfy his innate hedonism. He’s not old enough to justify it with an appeal to God; when he’s older, and the toys are money or oil, he may use a higher power to rally other bullies to his cause, but without a god to appeal to he’s just going to pick another persuasive rally-cry. Most crusaders weren’t killing for the god of the Bible, they were killing for the booty promised by the religious leaders. Blaming the flammable liquid for the arson is “religulous”, and even atheism fuels its own Mao’s and Dahmers. Even in the decade of my life when I was agnostic and borderline atheist, I knew this argument was shallow and trite.
“How do you REALLY know?” is one of Bill’s questions. It’s a fascinating exploration worth following up with a “mixed worldview” group of acquaintances following the film. While I think there are fascinating philosophical arguments for God’s existence, agnostics and atheists often like to call Christians ignorant for believing there is a God without much more explanation than “I just know.” Is this answer really that absurd? Bill’s mother (who the credits sadly mention passed away) sent him to the church to get “moral grounding”. This begs what morality means to those who don’t need religion and find truth subjective… which ultimately leads to right and wrong being subjective, and ultimately leaves men like Bill Maher with no basis to contend that war itself is wrong. This usually results in some kind of appeal to “common sense”… that certain things are right and wrong because “we just know”. Sound familiar?
Morality can be self-evident, but God apparently cannot (even deist founding fathers knew that inalienable rights don’t hold up to logical scrutiny apart from a creator). The agnostic or humanist is ultimately left with the same argumentation as the Christian, (we just KNOW) only they’re contending that we goose-step to a “common sense” without any clear articulation of its origin or trustworthiness. That’s not enlightenment, it’s actually an even tighter and more “ignorant” reasoning.
”Grow up or die,” Maher challenges, evincing the arrogance in our contemporary culture that somehow recent scientific advancement and evolution have made us more intelligent and atheism is a new step in our maturity. Sad to say, thousands of years ago atheism was alive and well. It’s what prompted King David to write in Psalm 14 “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”
Is that arrogant? Not for Christians, because next to God Christians know we are ALL foolish, and that all have sinned, (including Bill, and the admittedly undereducated truckers who earnestly pray for him). In fact, Christians are even documented by the Bible as being some of the worst offenders when it comes to foolishness. In talking about His people, 1 Corinthians illuminates that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong… so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
Honestly, Maher’s characterization of Christians corroborates the Bible (thanks Bill).
Apart from the god Bill Maher thinks is no more real than the unicorn, how does he stand on a foundation that asserts peace is the best ascent for the human species? We could point to overpopulation and climate change and reasonably assert that another global war might help cull the human herd. How does he argue against conflict as an acceptable modus operandi for the human animal? Loving thy neighbor is truly a religious concept, and if Bill is right perhaps we should deem it “religulous” as well.
Brilliant review. Thank you.
Thank you for a very insightful and tasteful and witty review.
Have you considered this film (http://www.thegodmovie.com/) for a review or have you already reviewed it? I was taken by surprise by this one. I thought it was going to be a Super size Me type facts only movie. Instead it turns out to be this weirdos public denial of the Holy Spirit. Can you comment? And if you chose not to acknowledge this movie I can live with that to. It is total trash in my opinion.
Jesse, I haven’t seen it, but thanks for pointing me in the direction. Sounds pretty strange…