Posted on February 17, 2009 at 8:00 am

The most important moment in Bill Maher’s new documentary about the dangers and hypocrisy of religion is at the conclusion of his visit to a tiny trucker’s chapel. As he does throughout the movie Maher challenges the very notion of faith. One of the worshipers is so offended he walks out. But another explains he had once worshiped Satan and lived a life of carnal pleasures until he found Jesus. Maher of course shakes his head in disbelief that anyone would find that an improvement. But they pray together, or at least Maher stands in a prayer circle and listens as the others pray, thanking God for Maher’s visit, for allowing them to hear the voices of others. And then, as they say goodbye, Maher says, “Thank you for being Christ-like and not just Christian.”

Maher, the trenchant, provocative, sometimes outrageous stand-up comic turned political commentator, believes weapons of mass destruction have made humanity more powerful than we are wise (no argument there) and that religion, specifically the aspect of religion that relies on faith rather than reason, is more likely to catapult us into destroying ourselves than it is to inspiring us to listen to what Maher would probably not refer to as our better angels. Maher and his sister were raised Catholic by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, going to church every Sunday until it abruptly stopped when he was a young teenager. He continued to believe somewhat half-heartedly, even bargaining with God in a dire circumstance at age 40. But now he is not only a non-believer, he is an evangelical one. He advocates non-belief. One of the most unintentionally amusing elements of the film is how much in structure it resembles Christian testimony. In his own way, he is saying, “I was blind, but now I see.”

Despite his deep commitment to logic and reason (one might say he has a lot of faith in it), Maher never really makes his case. Instead of doing serious and thoughtful research, instead of presenting us with (admittedly less entertaining) data about the influence of particular religious beliefs or institutions, instead of investigating the good works of people inspired by religion or the benefits of faith-based programs, instead of trying to understand the appeal of religious faith, he seeks out the people on the fringes and pretty much makes fun of them. There is certainly plenty to expose in the hypocrisy and virulent influence of various religious groups and practitioners, but he stays away from that for the admittedly more entertaining selection of fringe people and groups. At least he is even-handed. He goes after Christians, Catholics, Scientologists, Mormons, Muslims, and Jews. And he is wide-ranging. He visits (and is escorted off the premises of) the Vatican, the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall, and the Holy Land Experience (that’s the theme park in Orlando, Florida, not the Mid-East).

And so the movie works far better as anthropology than argument, just because some of the people and places are fascinating and exotic. But it is filled with cheap shots and low blows. It is easy to make an obvious charlatan who sells himself to his followers as the literal messiah look like a con man. It is easy to make a couple of Orthodox Jews look silly for trying to create inventions to help people comply with the strict limits of Shabbat. And it is easy to try to trap believers with the Bible’s inconsistencies (especially when you have the final edit) about the differences between coincidences and miracles or the relevance of some Biblical references more than 5000 years later. Maher finds a scientist who (unlike 93% of his colleagues) believes in God and another one who says he can prove that religious belief is a neurological disorder.

Of course, Maher is preaching to his choir. Even if he was able to put together a very linear and thoroughly documented argument he would not persuade anyone because faith is not about persuasion. It is always worthwhile to consider challenges to belief because by helping define what we don’t believe we better define what we do believe. The strength and value of our faith is best proved when it is unafraid of heresy.

The film’s message is most that on a sign one character holds: “Don’t believe anyone. Including me.” And Maher is like the assimilated atheistic Jew in a story I heard recently from a rabbi. It seems the Jew sent his son to a school called Trinity because it had an excellent reputation and a secular curriculum. But the son came home and said, “Do you know what Trinity means, Dad? It means the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The father was furious. “Now listen to me, because I want you to remember this. There is just ONE God! And we don’t believe in Him!”

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12 Replies to “Religulous”

  1. Your D- comments are not consistent with your B- grade. Garbage is garbage, no matter what limited value on which you might put a positive spin. As they say, “put lipstick on a pig and it is still a pig”. No better phrase can apply to Maher and his maniical hate, lack of recognition of all the good that organized religion does, and ignorance of the multi-millions of human beings butchered by atheist dictatorships. Far, far more by one regime than all of those killed in all history in the name of God.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Tom. I’m glad my review provided you with the information you needed to decide that the movie was not right for you. But that does not mean that it has no value for anyone. The very fact that you rebut some of his ideas as you do shows the merits of having the conversation, however imperfect.
    I appreciate your taking the time to write and hope you will return and comment often.

  3. I’m just wondering why you gave this a B- grade when you didn’t really say anything good about it in the whole review, except that it was sort of interesting in its freakiness….I always enjoy your revies and find them helpful, and I’m just seeking some greater insight into the way your grading process works in your mind…It almost sounds like you’re giving it a higher grade for the sake of free speech; because you feel he’s sincerely motivated in some way to speak his point of view. Does that have something to do with it…?

  4. Thanks for asking, Nancy. I try to evaluate each movie within the context of its own aspirations and ask myself how well it meets the expectations and wishes of its intended audience. Despite its advocacy tone, this movie is not intended to change the minds of either believers or non-believers. But for those who are inclined to see it because they like Maher or because they want to see what he has to say about their own faith community or that of others, I think this movie does a pretty good job of delivering what they are looking for. It is entertaining and provocative. Two of my friends who are committed Christians had very different reactions to it. One liked it more than I did and one liked it less.
    I thought my first, fourth, and sixth paragraphs said some positive things about the movie. At least, that was my intention. The movie is not anti-God or anti-belief but anti-religion in the way it is often practiced by humans. There are a couple of charming Vatican priests in addition to the devout truckers; not every believer in the movie is portrayed as a nut. That adds to the movie’s sense of fairness and its watchability. Maher is not someone I’d like to have lunch with, but he made a movie I was glad to see.
    I appreciate your comment. If you see the movie, let me know what you think.

  5. I saw Religulous this afternoon. I think your B- grade was fair, though I might have assigned a B+. Were I the producer I might have suggested less stuff about Bill’s life – it added very little and seemed too much like padding. I guess it was intended to justify his positions. I agree it was less about faith and more about religion, However he did take several pointy sticks at the balloons of faith that keep some people aloft not in the times of crisis but in the day to day mundane elements of life. However I laughed loud and long at some of the segments, especially the prosperity gospel preacher.
    My personal favorite segment (and my son’s as well – post-adolescent agnostic that he thinks he is) was with the renegade priest (I was going to say “maverick” but that word has been effectively neutered) outside the Vatican. Also I was stunned and impressed by the sequence inside the Dome of the Rock. Wow, well done indeed.
    The pieces in Amsterdam seemed like Bill had stayed too long in the Church of Cannabis. That he included people who were basically p*ss%d off and angry at him simply added to his credibility. One of the characters I was sort of impressed by was the trucker that stayed and tried to explain his faith (though his story seemed to stray a bit as he tried to use evangelical “churchy” images).
    One of the best parts was unscripted and happened only in our theater. Toward the last few minutes of the showing the sound would go to near zero or simply off. During one of the longer stretches of near silence a voice in the back of the theater suggested “Maybe we should pray for it” That was the biggest laugh – and totally appropriate.
    I think the film would have better with less Bill – he is simply too smug in this and even on his old show. I did like the clips from his earlier routines on the Tonight Show and others. It is too bad he did not choose to include the religious riffs from some other notable comics – like Cosby’s “Noah” (a work of true genius). But the B+/- is a solid grade for this. It was certainly time better spent that that on “Obsession” – a vile waste of electrons.

  6. Personally I can’t wait to see this film. Maher exposes the whackos for what they really are every time he steps on the stage and I applaud that he’s not afraid to do it. I think it’s his way of saying ‘enough is enough’ with the likes of Bush and everyone else appointed to his administration for forcing their beliefs down our throats. And Sarah Palin is no different. It’s time to move away from the notion that free-thinking is bad or evil. I agree with Maher that it’s perfectly possible to be a good person without all the handed-down, overly-translated and highly edited religious doctrine we’ve had over the centuries. Hiding behind a religion just because you fail to understand something or because you’re afraid to think for yourself is no way to go and it’s time to move on and evolve.

  7. I think Maher was very courageous to make this movie and to sit down with some of the people he interviewed. In addition to making his points with great humor, I thought his film contained a very powerful conclusion, when he pointed out with vivid contrasting clips how scary it is when you have two opposing religious groups, Christians and Islamists, who are willing to face mutual annihilation to prove the other wrong. We need to think about this film for the sake of all of our future survival.

  8. I think the B minus grade is exactly correct. This is a fun and entertaining movie, very interesting and obviously thought provoking for people of faith as well as those removed from it. I actually didn’t laugh all that much though. I was mildly appalled throughout.
    “Interesting that Mahr said nothing about Hinduism and Buddhism,” I said to my husband as we left the theater last night. “Any criticism of those belief systems might have offended Maher’s politically liberal and fashionable ‘base.'”
    My husband and I disagree about whether or not our fourteen-year-old son should see this film. My hubby thought it would be intellectually simulating for him. I came down with a very heavy “No, absolutely not. He shouldn’t see this film now.” He’s just starting back in Hebrew School after a year off. Things are coming together for him in other contexts. It’s not the right time to take anything apart.
    Though I am a searcher and a progressive person, I found myself longing for the movie’s inclusion of suitable religious explainers and lay leaders…but the best ones I know of are dead–William F. Buckley and Malcolm Muggeridge. Those two guys used to have conversations about faith on “Firing Line,” that helped me see that religious observance and practice is, for the intellectual, drenched in doubt and dark nights. I don’t think Maher gets that. He just went after the zanies who happily see a grandfatherly God in the sky…This film skirted the deep questions and modulated discussions, passing by significant religious thinkers. Cheap shot! Fun movie. B minus is right.

  9. Interesting but not surprising! It seems that so few every understand the difference between religion and Christianity. However I should not be surprised … “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” I Cor. 1:18. Breifly, the difference between religion and Christianity is: Religion is what man does to try to gain heaven … Christianity is what God did to bring man to heaven. Religion is man’s attempt to earn heaven … Christianity is a gift from God. Movie is difficult to rate! I have worked with kids of many religions all of my life … what a different when God uses the insturment of Christianity and touches their hearts. The greatest line in the entire movie. “Thank you for being Christ-like and not just Christian.” Great! Great! This is the most powerful line in the movie. Very difficult for me to rate.

  10. I don’t really get Bill Maher at all. I have no problem with his being an athiest. It’s his life and his decision, and I respect that. What is strange to me is why he is so obsessive in his disdain for people who have a different view or belief. Whatever happened to “live and let live”? Isn’t he supposed to be a part of the “liberal elite” who avow “inclusion” and “open-mindedness”? He demonstrates exactly the opposite in his movie. I have my own beliefs, and he has his. Why should mine matter to him any more than his matter to me? Get over yourself, Bill.

  11. Robyn, Maher’s point is that the religious beliefs of others are a threat to world security and therefore not deserving of tolerance. But instead of addressing that question in a thoughtful and consistent manner, he take cheap shots and makes easy jokes, as I said in my review.
    Thanks for writing, and please comment again. I appreciate your thoughtful remarks.

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