Religulous Versus Expelled

What are the similarities and differences between Bill Maher‘s Religulous and Ben Stein‘s Expelled?

I haven’t seen either one yet (hopefully seeing Religulous soon), but the Orlando Sentinel‘s Roger Moore compares the two films.

First, the similarities:

Both use mockery, sometimes droll, sometimes nakedly hostile, to ridicule their foes. Both travel far and wide to find interview subjects, sometimes apparently hiding their purpose from those they’re chatting with. Both mix in some pretty comical straw-men for their stars to humiliate in interviews.

Both use editing to create mocking laughs at the expense of the folks they’re interviewing.

The differences, however, are huge and striking:

I hated Expelled, found it sneaky, dishonest and cynical. You can question evolution, test it, make fun of what you see as holes in it. But you can’t question it as a “belief.” It isn’t a belief. It is time-tested and evolving science. Expelled seems blatantly pro-ignorance. I honestly wonder if Ben Stein, star of it, actually believes the drivel he’s trying to sell here.

Bill Maher of Religulous, which I really enjoyed, never claims persecution, that his “freedom” is being infringed upon, as the disingenuous Ben Stein does in Expelled.

Unlike Stein, Maher is in the room doing all his own interviews. He may have couched his approach to the religious folks of various stripes as a movie about “doubt” and questioning religion to get them to talk. But virtually none of them back down when he comes straight out and questions their faith.

And unlike Stein, Maher freely showed his movie to critics, not hiding it from potentially angry reaction, fact-vetting and protest. His movie is anti-religion, anti-”irrationalists,” his name for people make decisions on belief rather than fact.

Also, — and I know this will make you think twice about seeing it — Christianity Today didn’t like Religulous:

Honestly, it’s not the hardest thing in the world to make a religion look silly when you only focus on the kitschiest, most grimace-inducing practitioners of it. Sure, we have to own up to these unfortunate (but fortunately fringe) elements within our ranks, but Maher shores up little credibility for his cause by refusing to talk with any opponent with an ounce of nuance of theological rigor.

Maher’s biggest problem with this movie is not that it is reckless or condescending (which it is), but that it espouses a point of view that, quite simply, is not shared by many people in the world. Maher’s ideology has no room for the miraculous or supernatural. Such things are all hocus pocus to him and cannot be believed by anyone with a brain. Faith of any kind (i.e., believing in something that can’t be proved) “makes a virtue out of not thinking,” according to Maher. Right there he loses about 98 percent of the world’s population.

Maher could have spent the movie looking at the inside of a megachurch and Christianity Today would be embarrassed all the same. There’s little difference between the religious kooks and the religious liberals in Maher’s eyes, and many Christians have a nasty habit of dismissing everyone who isn’t part of their own brand of faith.

And who would have “an ounce of nuance of theological rigor”? What arguments would CT like to have seen made? They don’t elaborate. They never say exactly what is wrong with the “weird” practitioners of their faith — I imagine that’s because you can’t dismiss them without dismissing so many others who act the same way.

CT says the movie suffers because it “espouses a point of view that, quite simply, is not shared by many people in the world” — it’s true that atheism is a minority belief, but that’s precisely why Maher made the film. That number needs to increase.

(Thanks to Ken for the link!)

  • Ken McKnight

    The figures aren’t finalized yet, but Box Office Mojo is projecting that Religulous will outperform Expelled on its opening weekend. After a massive advertising campaign which included contests and outright bribes to draw in church audiences, Expelled opened in over 1000 theaters and brought in $2,970,848 on its first weekend. Religulous is projected to take in $3,500,000 this weekend, in spite of opening in less than half as many theaters (502).

  • Aj

    There’s a difference between being nuanced and being intentionally vague. Theologians are practiced in obscurantism, if you catch them in a sincere mood they’ll come out with just as much nonsense. What the Christianity Today writer really wants is more dishonesty in the interviewees.

    People can’t be “fringe elements” when they make up a large proportion of a population. Creationists are not a fringe group in the US, they’re a significant minority, not much off the group that accept evolution.

  • llewelly

    Sure, we have to own up to these unfortunate (but fortunately fringe) elements within our ranks …

    Sarah Palin, Republican VP nominee, Pat Robertson, confidant of Republican Presidents, Reverend Moon, crowned by leading US politicians in a federal government building, are fringe elements.

    Got it.

  • Epistaxis

    I know this will make you think twice about seeing it — Christianity Today didn’t like Religulous

    That will make me think about seeing it twice.

  • Just little ol’ me

    Well I saw it once. I will almost certainly see it again. The parallels between this and Expelled are obvious but the differences are far more significant. Maher might have done himself a service by interviewing more so-called mainstream folks in addition to the so-called fringes, but to some extent, he has to take what he can get. People with a bogus viewpoint are not in a hurry to have that fact widely trumpeted.

    Will this film change the minds of many believers? Not bloody likely, but that is not his apparent goal in making it. But if it persuades more among us to stand up and be counted, demand our rights and freedoms, push back, and push forward, it will have been well worthwhile.

  • http://disco-igno.blogspot.com/ DisComforting Ignorance

    And there’s also a big difference between Bill Maher and Ben Stein with these comparisons I’ve seen (such as from AiG). If Maher says he’s going to be doing a documentary involving religion — what are you to expect? He’s a stand-up comedian and talk show host known for his ridicule of religion.

  • benjdm

    refusing to talk with any opponent with an ounce of nuance of theological rigor

    So a Catholic priest (can’t remember his name) and Francis Collins and Senator Mark Pryor are among the “kitschiest, most grimace-inducing practitioners of” Christianity?

  • prospero52742

    The claim that atheists are a minority – while true- is only a dressed up version of the old logical fallacy argumentum ad hominem which is no more than a statement of intellectual bankruptcy. If you are too lazy or too stupid to cope with the argument, pick up a side issue to discredit – in appearance – the disputant.

  • http://www.humanistmom.com Marf

    Responding to a couple of the criticisms in Christianity Today:

    Maher shores up little credibility for his cause by refusing to talk with any opponent with an ounce of nuance of theological rigor.

    What!? He does so talk to more rational religionists, and he even uses them to help make fun of the uber-crazies. He speaks to an astronomer from the Vatican and he speaks to a Catholic priest who is a Latin specialist while in Rome, right outside of the Vatican. Wait until you see the interview with the priest – it is hilarious how he laughingly dismisses a lot of beliefs held by adherents to his own religion!

    Maher’s biggest problem with this movie is not that it is reckless or condescending (which it is), but that it espouses a point of view that, quite simply, is not shared by many people in the world. Maher’s ideology has no room for the miraculous or supernatural. Such things are all hocus pocus to him and cannot be believed by anyone with a brain. Faith of any kind (i.e., believing in something that can’t be proved) “makes a virtue out of not thinking,” according to Maher. Right there he loses about 98 percent of the world’s population.

    So people shouldn’t criticize things which are very popular even if they might be dangerous or false? Yeah, those early opponents to slavery (I’m talking way before the Civil War when even Quakers had slaves) clearly had a big “problem” too.

  • justin jm

    The whole Christianity Today column sounds like a classic Courtier’s Reply.

  • PrimeNumbers

    If find the naunced christian approach leads to McGraths, who practice sophistry on the head and basically get themselves into real trouble trying to reconcile doctrine with their own moral sense.

  • cipher

    He speaks to an astronomer from the Vatican and he speaks to a Catholic priest who is a Latin specialist while in Rome, right outside of the Vatican. Wait until you see the interview with the priest – it is hilarious how he laughingly dismisses a lot of beliefs held by adherents to his own religion!

    Actually, the CT article did mention one of the priests:

    He goes to the Vatican and interviews some crazy Catholic priest

    The editors at CT believe that our ancestors got thrown out of a garden for listening to a talking snake, then rode dinosaurs to work. They aren’t crazy. However, a Catholic priest who thinks it’s all allegory – he’s crazy!

  • Milena

    I just got back from watching Religulous and I loved it. Of course Maher interviews some kooks – it just makes for good entertainement. And honestly, the Vatican priests were probably some of the best parts of the movie, because they provide such a great contrast between a rational religious person and the crazies, like the Creation Museum guy and the “Second Coming of Christ” guy. He also speaks with a Muslim woman at one point, who, I thought, presented herself as a rational proponent of the religion. All in all, no, it most certainly was not a balanced movie, but Maher was highlighting religion’s irrationality, so of course he provided mostly examples of said irrationality.

  • cipher

    I emailed the following to CT via a feedback link below the review:

    Brett McCracken states that Bill Maher interviews “some crazy Catholic priest”. The priest interprets the Bible non-literally, so he’s crazy – but Ken Ham, who believes that humans used to saddle dinosaurs and ride them around, is, in Mr. McCracken’s opinion, sane?

    I’ll let you know if I receive a reply.

  • Gabriel

    I am so jealous of all of you who have seen the movie. None of the theaters in my area are playing the movie. I hope it makes enough money that they will show it. Otherwise I have to wait for the DVD.

    I think that the crazy catholic priest holds a PHD. At least Maher claims that the prist did. I know that Phd doesn’t mean smart, I’ve known to many who aren’t but it doesn’t hurt any.

  • http://www.millionmonkeysmedia.com Kyle Byron

    I saw it today; best documentary-style movie I’ve seen in a long time. There was some talk that his tone and tactics weren’t that good, but I found both to be perfectly reasonable.

    At one point (in the “Trucker’s Church”) a congregant gets pissed and walks out. Bill just pauses, looks at the rest of the group and shrugs and says “I’m just asking questions.”

    That was pretty much the even-handed tone throughout (except occasionally when he goes for the obvious absurd joke – pretending to be a crazy homeless person espousing the tenets of Scientology and so on).

    The end is the best part, when he addresses the camera and says we need to “Grow up or die”. It’s just what we’ve got to do.

  • http://www.BlueNine.info Blue Nine

    Maher shores up little credibility for his cause by refusing to talk with any opponent with an ounce of nuance of theological rigor.

    Don’t they all say this? “I will reject all other religions/sects with just a glance, but if you don’t believe MY branch, then you just haven’t studied hard enough.”

    It’s not quite the Courtier’s Reply, but let’s call it the Greta Christina Reply (she’s one of the best atheist bloggers, so there are several Greta Christina Replies).

  • Pingback: Sikkdays blog » Blog Archive » PMOG Link Monday vol. 15

  • Skippy

    I just saw the movie Sunday and was actually a bit surprised by all the older folks in the theater. There were plenty of laughs, no one walked out, and there was even applause at the end.

    As far as the interviews go, I’m sure there was a bit of creative editing for the sake of entertainment but, there was a great assortment (in my opinion) of people Maher chose to talk with, as well as locations. He talked to people on all levels as well – church-goers, Jesus impersonators, park patrons, televangelists, priests, scientists, Muslim rappers, “converted” homosexuals, shop owners…

    I think Maher did a pretty good job when it came to selecting a variety of believers to speak with for this movie, and thought it was excellent.

  • Skippy

    Oh, also of note was a HUGE stand next to the queue with a schedule of upcoming church events… I don’t visit that theater often, but, I think I might’ve noticed if something like that had ever been there previously

  • chip douglas

    ‘Such things are all hocus pocus to him and cannot be believed by anyone with a brain. Faith of any kind (i.e., believing in something that can’t be proved) “makes a virtue out of not thinking,” according to Maher. Right there he loses about 98 percent of the world’s population.’
    - 98 percent of human population is completely retarded

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I agree with Skippy that Maher spoke with an interesting and entertaining assortment of folks in the film. But I do not feel that he made his case for the apocalyptic conclusion, voiced over images of disaster and mushroom clouds, that, essentially, religion will eventually destroy us. The conclusion felt very tacked on. He accepts it as a foregone conclusion, it seems, rather than building the case throughout the film for why that was so. For having such a heavy ending, the film provided little evidence for it, and it spent a lot of time going for laughs instead that had nothing whatsoever to do with the mushroom clouds.

    That, along with many other reasons, is why I ultimately didn’t like the film all that much. And I am a lifelong atheist who welcomes the increased exposure and debate regarding religion, but I’m still debating within myself just how much of a service this film does for us.

    I suppose ultimately that we benefit from a mainstream treatment of the subject, so I am grateful for that.

  • cipher

    But I do not feel that he made his case for the apocalyptic conclusion, voiced over images of disaster and mushroom clouds, that, essentially, religion will eventually destroy us.

    I think that fundamentalist religion has already destroyed us. I’ve become convinced that beings who are perfectly comfortable with the idea of abandoning billions of their human siblings to an unimaginably obscene fate, for all of eternity, simply cannot solve their problems. And there are hundreds of millions, if not billions, who think this way.

    This is a terminal species. All that’s left is for the fat lady to sing.

    (My apologies to the voluminously challenged.)

  • j

    Seriously, if there is a god then why is a talking snake ridiculous?

    Some of the things in the documentary just paint religion as this evil empire out to get you.

    He says that the words love your neighbor as yourself are killing this world? The bible is evil?

    Alot of people dont follow this and claim to be christians. Thats not the fault of religion that’s the fault of people.

    I did like the movie though :)…

  • SBsix

    If you’re genuinely interested in the differences between the two films, here’s the most obvious one…

    In his film, “Expelled”, Ben Stein interviews articulate individuals who have risen to the highest ranks of academia, including professors, award winning biologists, and even the big daddy himself; celebrated New York Times best selling author Richard Dawkins, whom many consider to be the the modern spokesperson for what some have dubbed, “Evangelical Atheism”.

    In stark contrast, in his film, “Religulous”, Bill Mahr interviews a group of possibly mildly retarded, toothless Southern truckers, a dim witted Senator whom admits that you don’t have to pass an IQ test to be a senator, some no-name actor at an amusement park who plays the role of Jesus in a play, another ‘nobody’ who started his own private ministry because he believes that he can pray the gayness out of homosexuals, and a number of other random non-accomplished, uneducated whack jobs. In the entire film, he interviews just two individuals who have even the thinnest shred of credibility (and it’s no coincidence that these happened to be the only times in the film when Bill Mahr didn’t really disagree with anything).


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