Bill Maher’s “Religulous” – Movie Review
by Jeff Stauffer
In Bill Maher’s documentary, “Religulous,” Maher sets forth on a journey around the globe interviewing various people with religious beliefs. He asks them questions about their faith, why they believe as they do, and challenges them to explain some oddities about their particular take on the supernatural. As a comedian, Maher is no stranger to poking fun at anyone who takes a stance on anything. If you’re a religious person by any definition, there’s something offensive in this film for you. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Scientologists… none are spared from Maher’s biting criticism, quick wit, and comical standup mixed in with his serious questioning.
This is by no means a fair and balanced “documentary.” Maher pursues some of the more egregious examples of religious groups society has to offer and presents them as the standard bearer for all who believe in God. He interlaces cheesy movie clips from old films in the middle of interviews, and overlays humorous text over his subjects as they try to defend their positions. The film is heavily edited, showing blank stares from many of his interviewees as they struggle to answer some of his questions. You get the sense that any rational or fair answers to his questions don’t make the final editing. All the while, Maher jet-sets around the planet giving follow-up commentary from his car as he struggles to understand how people could believe such “fairy tales.” He interviews a man claiming to be the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ. He asks a preacher (who enjoys his bling and says we can all be wealthy too if we just believe…) how much his alligator shoes cost. He goes to a trucker’s chapel and asks questions about the historical reliability of the New Testament. He meets a man playing the role of Jesus at the “Holy Land Experience” in Orlando Florida, and asks about other ancient pagan myths that parallel Christian stories. He even travels to Amsterdam to smoke pot with a man who started a church based upon cannabis! But we’re not done yet… Maher visits the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, the Vatican in Rome, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. He criticizes the Muslim threats towards anyone who criticizes their beliefs. He visits a Jewish sect that is developing high-tech gadgets to work around laws concerning the Sabbath, and he even stands on a street corner in London preaching the gospel of Scientology to a bewildered crowd.
As comedy, the 90 minute film is quite funny at times. But this is certainly not an exercise at getting at the truth. Just because Maher is able to find people who can’t fully articulate what they believe or why, this doesn’t provide an argument one way or the other about the validity of their beliefs. If Maher truly wanted to get to the bottom of some of his probing questions, why isn’t he interviewing theologians, biblical scholars or even religious philosophers? How about archaeologists? How about your average small town Pastor who works for low pay and long hours but loves the Lord and serves Him quietly? These don’t serve Maher’s purpose: to mock, criticize, and smugly look down upon as he drives off towards his next airport. For those already disgusted with religion in general, Maher’s “documentary” simply provides them extra red herrings to justify their determination never set foot in a church again.
We can shrug off films like this as simply being comical or light-hearted, if you can stomach it. But what worries me is some of his concluding statements. This isn’t simply a passive critique of the role of religion in society, it’s a call for atheists to remove religion altogether from the public square. Maher says things like, “Religion must die for mankind to live,” or that it’s all fantasy, nonsense, and irrational. I am curious what this would look like. How does Maher propose to remove religious beliefs from the planet? If “religion must die,” isn’t it a short leap to then say “religious people must die”? Why not flip the coin as well? Should we question his atheist position? Why is he so confident that his position is right? Isn’t that arrogant?
Maher’s film is not all deconstructive. He is disgusted by people who think they have all the answers and calls us to live more with an attitude of doubt and humility, not certainty. (Although I didn’t get much of a sense of humility from Maher in this film…) It is a reminder of how Christians and other religiously-minded groups are perceived in the world. It is a reminder that we need to be humble when dealing with others, to freely admit that we don’t have all the answers (but we’ll get back to you if that’s ok), and that doubt is a natural emotion that can challenge us to study, learn, and submit ourselves before an all-knowing God. It’s just too bad that Maher drew his conclusions before even turning on the camera.