Religulous July 31, 2009

I just finished watching Bill Maher’s Religulous. Some of it is genuinely skeptical in a good sense, and a lot of it is funny, often in a helpful way. The best conversation partners he had were those who were not dedicated to taking themselves and their beliefs so seriously as to attempt to shield them from criticism or humor. And even some of those he spoke to that did not embrace a questioning attitude nevertheless made a good impression on him through their christlikeness.

But then Maher spoils it, not least by bringing in a bunch of bogus claims about Horus and alleged Egyptian parallels to Jesus. If he hadn’t bought into such nonsense so uncritically, he might have had a better conversation with Francis Collins than he actually did.

I suspect that a lot of liberal religious believers will be able to appreciate a number of aspects of Bill Maher’s movie. He asks good questions, much of the time. If he would only ask as critical questions about the claims about Horus and the like, as he does of Christianity and other religions, he could perhaps be a genuine open-minded skeptic. His advocacy for humble doubt and willingness to say “I don’t know” is commendable – but not applied as evenly to those who support his presupositions as to those who oppose them. And since the whole movie is precisely about religion doing just that, his uncritical acceptance of bogus pseudo-historical claims undermines his message, and serves instead as a warning that we are all prone to claim to be critical, but it is extremely difficult to actually be self-critical, regardless whether you are religious or not.

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  • You inspired me to get the movie. Indeed self-critical insight is the most difficult, and even more so when schooled with strong rationalizations skills. Thanx for the post.

  • sbh

    As it happens it's been awhile since I saw Religulous, and I retain only a general impression of the film rather than recalling specifics. I recall that some pieces of it struck me as quite funny; I remember thinking a couple of times that it had wandered into actual thought-provoking country–and then came that Horus garbage, and that was it as far as I was concerned. That has the same level of credibility as the Noah's ark discoverers, and Bill Maher certainly should know better. As far as I'm concerned he flushed the whole film down the toilet with that sequence–and please note, as a nonbeliever I am not saying this out of allegiance to any religious ideology.

  • Great review, I very much agree with the way the film was undermined by lack of consistent skepticism. Another thing I thought undermined the message was the closing. While the movie did a great job at many points of promoting critical thinking, I think the stridency shown in the closing would turn many away from listening to the other things he said in the movie. Even the way it was filmed, with the sunlight behind him, looked to be done for dramatic effect. I could see someone of a conservative bent could be confirmed in their mind that he was Satan incarnate at that point. The movie was plenty entertaining without those dramatic elements, and could have carried a much more strongly conveyed message.

  • Ben

    I think I pretty much agree with your sentiments in the post, though I would add the doomsday ending was a bit tacky. Ben

  • I too have posted a review of sorts: all it's lack of genuine criticism I found myself more sympathetic with its message.