Beliefnet on “Religulous”

Posted on October 4, 2008 at 8:00 am

Beliefnet bloggers speak out on Bill Maher’s new movie:
From Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of Windows and Doors:
or starters, let’s stop giving Maher credit for attacking all religion. He doesn’t.

Instead, Maher selects the worst of religion and compares it to the best of secularism — hardly a fair fight. But he does make some very important points in this wickedly funny, if totally lopsided analysis of religion. And it’s the people who will be most offended by what he has to say that should listen the most. Why? Because religion shouldn’t get a free pass and it certainly hasn’t earned one.

Maher doesn’t have to go far, or look too hard, to find examples of truly frightening versions of religion, versions which are likely to get most of us killed. In fact, more people are dying today in the name of religion than any time since the crusades. And the more religious you are, the more that should bother you. It’s up to the faithful to clean up the mess that we have too often made of faith.
Over on Idol Chatter, in addition to my review, they have Paul O’Donnell:

If you’re going to see one movie that prowls the religious landscape, asking difficult questions and taking potshots at crackpots, see Bill Maher’s “Religulous.” Maher is no theologian, and even his grasp of international relations isn’t always firm, but this documentary, directed by Larry Charles, mixes the timing of a Chaplin short with the acidity of a stand-up act. In other words, you’ll laugh a lot. You’ll laugh despite yourself, no matter what you believe.

and Kris Rasmussen:
There is plenty to satirize about religion. There is plenty to debate about religion. But Maher spends time offending those believers of all faiths who are easily offended or fearful and never engages with believers who aren’t afraid of clever banter, witty one-liners, and cheap shots. Not only is there not much sport in that, but, come to find out, there’s really not much entertainment value in it, either…How much more interesting–maybe even funny–could the movie have been if Bill had really had the courage to go toe-to-toe with some of the more charismatic and intellectual religious minds around? But then maybe his pre-prepared zingers wouldn’t have seemed quite so clever. That doesn’t seem to be a risk Maher was willing to take.
I wondered what Steven Waldman would say about Maher’s quotes from the founding fathers about religion, since he wrote a superb and meticulously researched book on the subject.
In the beginning of the movie, he offers this quote from our second president, John Adams: “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”
Wow. That certainly provides stunning support for Maher’s thesis. Did Adams really mean that? Well, no. Here’s the full quote from Adams, which came in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817:

“Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’!!! But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly . Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite society, I mean hell.”

Slightly different meaning when you see the rest of the quote, eh? Sort of makes one wonder how scrupulous Maher was with the rest of the editing. Perhaps this is an anomaly.

Or perhaps not — Maher is a provocateur, not a scholar.

Reverend Barry W. Lynn of Lynn vs. Sekelow:
Here is the fundamental flaw in the film. Most devout Muslims, Christians and Jews have long ago moved away from the very thinking Maher is criticizing. Believe me, I know how damaging to the Constitution and to freedom the views of the Christian Right would be if they became law. I’ve spent much of my life stopping this movement. I am acutely aware that the Christian Right is 18-20% of the American electorate. I also know that most of the rest of us Christians have no interest in the very things this film justifiably criticizes: we don’t want to “convert” gays to heterosexual bliss; we don’t want to stop women from exercising their own moral judgment about abortion (an issue given short shrift in Maher’s film). We are happy to concede that all of the Gospels give differing accounts of the life of Jesus (and that the earliest description of Jesus, in the book of Acts, just says he was born, lived and then died, not mentioning any resurrection) and know that such is the result of the all too human construction of a book decades, even centuries, after events ocurred…

The last few minutes of the film, though, contain the documentarian’s dagger to his own heart. Maher spends several minutes speaking to the camera about how we must stop all religion–presumably even Barry Lynn’s–because it will lead to nothing short of nuclear conflagration. As he speaks, the most violent Koranic and Biblical passages are emblazoned on the screen, often accompanied by the detonation of nuclear devices. We are told: this is the inevitable result of religion. DO YOU HEAR ME AUDIENCE OF PEOPLE NOT AS SMART AS I AM–THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD! Look, to the extent this is a documentary it either makes its point in 90 minutes or its doesn’t. If you have to tell me what I’ve seen, it is you the filmmaker that has failed.

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