One of the great things about our Constitution is that it guarantees both the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion. Individually, we are free to practice whatever faith we choose or no faith at all. These two freedoms meet head-to-head in Bill Maher and Larry Charles’ new documentary, Religulous.
Throughout the first hour and forty minutes of this hour-and-fifty-minute-long film, comedian and talk show host Bill Maher interviews Christians, Jews, Muslims, and “Other,” all of whom are largely fundamentally conservative in their faith. To these believers, he poses questions regarding their faith and beliefs, specifically about the “plausibility” of their sacred stories and the relativity of their moral/ethical guidelines. What the believers’ answers reveal, to a large degree, is a lack of self-examination and a fundamental disconnect with the basics of their sacred texts. To counter these conservative viewpoints, Maher consults more “liberal” members of the same faiths who represent alternative opinions and theological/religious worldviews.
Along with these interviews, the film also provides a glimpse into Maher’s family history and his own faith journey. Maher’s father was Catholic and his mother is Jewish. For thirteen years, he was raised Catholic until his father left the church, for what his mother says was over their use of birth control. Maher described his time in church as something like war…long stretches of boredom with flashes of terror. Maher gradually grew away from the faith of his parents, unable to rationalize the tenets of either Christianity or Judaism with his need for a more intellectual and rational approach. Maher is now something of an agnostic, a vehemently evangelistic one at that. At one point, he says, “I preach the gospel of ‘I don’t know.'” He argues, frequently, that the most appropriate attitude is doubt, because it implies humility. In the end, he argues that we cannot know, and therefore should not claim to know, for certain issues that can so drastically affect the future of the world. For Maher, it is intensely problematic that politicians who seem so assured of the approaching end times have some use or control over nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, as so often is the case, Maher just can’t help himself. For the last ten minutes of the film, Maher enters into his usual polemical sermonizing on the evils of religion, even going so far this time as to say that for humanity to live, religion must die. He highlights the perilous relationship between end times prophecies and our nuclear capabilities. At the beginning of the film, Maher argues that, before, only God could have destroyed the world, but now, with nuclear armament, we have the power and ability and that religious fervor could provide the motivation. At the end of the film, Maher questions if what little peace and comfort religion provides its adherents is worth the unspeakable suffering that has been propagated in the name of God throughout history.
In the end, to make his claims, Maher must ignore a significant portion of history. His complaints about the suffering caused by religion and in the name of God could not be more accurate. However, he blindly disregards the great social changes that have occurred throughout history with religion or devout religious people as their main catalyst. Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. should immediately spring to mind. After seeing the preview for the film several months ago, a friend commented, “All he’s doing is picking on the low-hanging fruit.” For the most part, this is the case. Maher cannot and does not engage with intellectuals who take their faith and religion seriously, because, for him, the two are oil and water. On his HBO series, if anyone pushes him on his one-sided view of religion, he just bangs the drum even louder.
Despite my fundamental disagreement with his central opinion of religion, I do appreciate the agnostic attitude that characterizes much of his film. I could not agree more with his call for a more doubting, and thus humble, approach to knowledge/belief/faith. However, his doubt overflows with pride. Maher does not seem to be keen on discussing differences between knowledge/intellect and belief/faith and how the two are fundamentally different but can still coincide. Like his religious victims, he conflates the two to the detriment of both. In the end, I also appreciate his strong desire to separate religion and politics, especially the polluting link that is growing increasingly strong between Christianity and nationalism.
Despite these disagreements, Religulous is still a very enjoyable film, especially if you don’t take yourself too seriously. Director Larry Charles adds some great editorial touches with images from conservative Christian television and film, even though much of it has now become something in the way of stock footage for (mis?)representing all things religious. While Charles and Maher might be taking themselves too seriously, they do show the violent/dangerous results of being too critical of religious zealots, showing news footage of Islamic fundamentalists reactions to Salman Rushdie and Danish filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Yet a recent Entertainment Weekly interview with Larry Charles reveals that they approach this danger light-heartedly as well. When asked if he was concerned that he could become a new target for angry religious zealots and endure a similar fate like Rushdie or van Gogh, Charles responded, “If we get murdered, it’ll make a great DVD extra.”
Love him or hate him, Bill Maher has made a religious documentary worth seeing. Religulous should be shown in all faith communities and theological schools, because the questions he asks these unsuspecting believers, should be the questions that people of faith ask themselves every day.
Religulous (101 mins.) is rated R for language and some sexual material and is in theaters everywhere…maybe.