October 5, 2008


Part rant, part search, part public discourse (much needed), part documentary, part propaganda, part comedy routine, Bill Maher's "Religulous" (soft "g") is nothing new. No new questions, no new answers. 
It's rated "R," but aside from several seconds of a woman's breasts and crude language, it could be PG-13. I'm glad it's not, because young people--with no background, context or guidance--might get confused by Maher's self-proclaimed doubt mongering, at a time in their lives when they're doing very well in the doubt department.
Kudos to Maher for starting off with full disclosure of his own religious upbringing and views. His mother was Jewish, his father was Catholic (presumably Irish), and he was raised Catholic until he decided it was all bunk when he was a teenager. His father also stopped going to church around then because, as his mother candidly says, "We were using contraception, and the Church doesn't allow that." (When's the last time you heard that kind of plain and simple honesty?) 
Maher's premise is threefold: a) We can't know anything about God with certainty, so our stance should be doubt. b) Religion is a destructive and harmful force that belongs to an unenlightened age. Since God isn't talking to us, others are filling in for Him with their evil and pernicious agendas. c) Religion is a neurological disorder. 
What keeps "Religulous" fresh is Maher's approach. He's a comedian by trade, and a bright one, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He asks questions that he really wants to know the answer to, and is willing to be surprised, speechless and look foolish (and cause the same in his interviewees). He is extremely inconsistent in his own purported lack of belief, notwithstanding his final "religion-will-bring-about-the-death-of-us-all" tirade at the end. He asks Christian truckers to pray over him. He relates a story of some bargain he made with God when he was forty and wanted to quit smoking. He's obsessed, really, with religion, and I'm sure now has an army of believers praying for him to see the light. If you stay for the credits, you'll hear him (consistently inconsistent) say to his mom--who passed away in 2007, but is in the film--"See you in heaven." 
Being the moviemaker, Maher has the upper hand in correcting (via witty subtitles) misspeakers, while his own inaccuracies go unchallenged. (I'm sure a subtitled rebuttal will follow on YouTube.) There's much misinformation tumbling forth from Maher's mouth, but it doesn't feel blasphemous because Maher just cares so much about this stuff. He seeks almost LIKE a teenager, and it's astounding that he hasn't resolved certain basic universal human quandaries yet. The religionists he interrogates don't quite clinch the deal, and take him only halfway. (But I'm betting the editing killed many good answers and comebacks. The brilliant scientist/Christian apologist Francis Collins was only on for a suspiciously short time, and he has some incredibly compelling arguments for belief.) 
Maher's anger flairs mostly at fellow Jews, and at the Jesus-actor from a Bible theme park who seemed to touch a nerve when he says that sex and drugs and other escapes may be used to fill the God-shaped hole in each one of us, but it's never going to make us complete and happy. Maher also ponders what "Jesus" said to him about water having three properties: steam, liquid and ice as an explanation of the Trinity. This seemed to make a great deal of sense to Maher. 

Maher is comfortable talking to anyone: ultra-orthodox Jews, former Mormons, televangelists, evolution-deniers, radical Muslim jihadist rappers, and an extremely grumpy Vatican priest. 
In general, the Catholic Church comes off looking fairly OK, especially when, exasperated with fundamentalists, Maher turns to astronomer Fr. George Coyne, SJ, of the Vatican Observatory (not the grump), who tells him in no uncertain terms that the Bible is not a science textbook. Coyne calls fundamentalism a "plague," and reiterates John Paul II's famous statement that "neo-Darwinist evolution is now more than just a hypothesis." 
So, when Maher later insists on interpreting the Bible literally, citing "talking snakes" and the Jonah story, we KNOW that he knows better. This is intellectual dishonesty and a real smoke screen behind which he hides. And he's just stumped by the Virgin Birth (as are many theologians), returning to it over and over. He puts it on a par with Scientology's creed. 
There's much to agree with in "Religulous." Bad religion is bad religion. Bad actions of religious people are bad. But what about the good religion has done? No mention. (Whatever good religion has produced, Maher believes is available without God.) The most guileless folks that seemed to touch Maher's heart were the black and white Southern Christian truckers, crammed in their tiny trailer chapel, and the "ex-gay" dude, every bit as worldly-wise as Maher. 
Unlike Richard Dawkins (who is an atheist, while Maher is an agnostic), Maher frequently sticks up for Jesus, dissociating Him from his followers, something Jesus never did. ("Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?") Like Dawkins, however, Maher pompously blunders about the religious world without the most basic theological concepts. And if, in his travels, he was apprised of any, those interviews were cut out completely. (E.g., Maher judges the writers of the Gospel by 21st century news-reporting standards.) 
Maher thinks religion is for "comfort," and that that comfort comes at the price of religions annihilating each other and the world in some great, inevitable, "will of God" doomsday delusion. He's half right. There are far too many scary Christians who believe it is OUR duty to provoke a violent apocalypse so that Jesus will come back.
In a media world of cynicism and spin, at least the jesters are taking religion seriously, even while trying to discredit it.


  1. Anonymous11:13 PM

    Thank you Sister ~ I've been waiting for your review on this movie. Now, I think I'll see it. :-)

  2. i wish "religious people" were as "fervent" about religion as bill maher! ha ha ha. i have hope for bill.... (i'm one of those people praying for him.)

  3. You have it right when you say that Maher is "obsessed" with religion. If not, why make a movie about it?
    Thanks for your insightful, balanced critique.

  4. I am grateful for your review, S. H. I truly feel that in the film Maher is depicting his own journey and struggle and that he is seeking. His "see you in heaven" comment one example of why I believe that. In hearing his interviews on TV regarding the film (including his feedback on what he perceives as non-constructive criticism) I think his issues are with religion moreso than faith, i.e., that the structures of religion -- and the faultlines of those structures -- have gotten in the way of his relationship with God. It will be interesting to see where the journey takes him but more importantly how we react to the questions his film raises. Bill Maher is an interesting person. One thing of which I am sure, although I don't see eye to eye with him on everything, is that he is a person just trying to make his way. We can't fault a person when grace hasn't graced them; we can only try harder to be instruments of grace.