Monday, October 13, 2008

Holy War: Religulous

And on the eighth day, God said: “Pull my finger.” That isn’t a joke from Bill Maher’s Religulous, but it might as well be. Helmed by Larry Charles, the director of Borat, and starring Maher, Religulous is a documentary in the Michael Moore style in which religion is in the crosshairs and condescending jokes are the ammunition. Maher, standing front and center, takes us on an offbeat tour of several major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, etc), a few minor ones (a marijuana-using sect in Amsterdam) and those in between (Scientology). Maher interviews people at the Vatican, near the ruins of Megiddo, at a religious theme park in Florida and at other places across the globe. No matter which religion is being discussed or who it’s being discussed with, the conversation remains the same. Though Maher’s explicit arguments change on a case by case basis, the implicit theme goes something like this: “If you believe that, I’ve got some land near Chernobyl to sell you.”

The point of Religulous, Maher says, is to create a case for doubt. Maher notes, seemingly sincerely, that he just doesn’t know whether any of the world’s religions have it right or if there is a God at all. Thus he doesn’t subscribe to any religion, but he is careful to point out that he isn’t an atheist. To absolutely not believe in God would, in Maher’s view, cause him to commit the very sin of certainty that confounds him about believers. The trouble is, for a guy turned off by a made-up mind, Maher is so devout in his doubt that it might actually take a talking snake or a few days living inside the belly of a fish for him to see the light. After all, this is a man who calls religion “detrimental to the progress of humanity.” You’d have an easier time building an ark than finding doubt in that statement.

But if you think Maher’s imperfections as a listener render Religulous unworthy of your attention, think again. Maher himself doesn’t always play fair (his ideological battles in this film often pit him, a heavyweight debater, against novice lightweights), but as a whole his documentary gives voice to a shockingly silent though significant minority. According to a statistic cited by Maher, 16 percent of Americans are admitted non-believers. But while Bill O’Reilly throws regular fits about a mounting “attack on Christianity” taking place in the U.S., the fact remains that remarks disparaging any religion other than Islamic extremism are considered taboo. That’s unfortunate. If you believe that society is improved by a free market of ideas, Maher’s anti-God bullhorning isn’t just acceptable, it’s long overdue.

Of course, Religulous won’t be embraced by everyone. Many will be offended, by Maher’s smugness if nothing else. But is Religulous truly offensive? If you find yourself leaning toward yes, you might ask yourself why. All Maher does with this film is repeatedly call attention to the curiosities, let’s call them, of many religious faiths. Shouldn’t something as significant as a belief in God be able to stand up to such cross-examination? Why is it that something so profound all too often goes unchallenged? There are a few instances in Religulous when people walk out on Maher rather than stand up to his questioning. “I didn’t know you were making that kind of film,” they say. Translation: “I’m here to agree with you, but don’t you dare raise doubts.” Seems to me that though we tell ourselves we don’t discuss religion in public because faith is a private matter, perhaps the real reason we avoid the subject is because it keeps us from being asked questions for which we don’t have answers.

In case it matters, full disclosure: From as early as I can remember until I left home for college, I went to church every Sunday. I even went to a Catholic high school, though that was more for the benefits of a private school education than any desire (parental or personal) for religious influence. Looking back over my life, I can think of numerous positive encounters with representatives of the Church and not a single negative one. But I am no longer a practicing Catholic. The sticking point, if there was just one, came down to the Church’s cowardly, just-barely-tolerant treatment of homosexuals (revealed through a number of equal-rights measures going through my home state of Oregon in the early 90s). I failed to see how the Catholic Church’s stance was remotely in line with the spirit of Jesus Christ’s teachings, and that quashed any desire for affiliation. As of today, I haven’t altogether eliminated the idea of God, but I can’t say I believe in Him. I love the idea of an afterlife, but I’ve seen no evidence of one firsthand, and so I don’t believe in that either. I hope I’m wrong on both counts.

In the meantime, yes, I find it either arrogant or naïve to think that any of us has a clue who God is or what His intentions are. Maher doesn’t need to sell doubt to me. I already have it. On that note, if Religulous is meant to be a vehicle to spark a non-belief movement, I’m not sure it succeeds. The movie is peppered with observations that should give any thinking believer a pause, but these erudite points are lost amidst others that are flimsy and sophomoric. Time and again, Maher genuflects to comedy before honest conversation, and in doing so he is likely to repulse the very people he hopes to convert. In Maher’s ideal scenario, the gag-filled antics of Religulous make it the meat surrounding the bitter pill that is Maher’s truth. But, more likely, the dog in this scenario is Maher. He spends so much of Religulous wearing a grin of self-congratulations that he might as well be licking himself.

To be fair: America probably isn’t ready for the PowerPoint lecture in favor of doubt, ala Al Gore’s global warming wake-up call An Inconvenient Truth. Perhaps this was the only approach available to Maher if he hoped to reach a mainstream audience. But by that design, Religulous isn’t as funny as it should be or even all that bold. There are a few terrific gags (a Brokeback Mountain music cue, for one), but most of them are cheap or predictable. As it turns out, Maher’s smartest joke, borrowed from an old stand-up routine, doubles as his most cogent argument for doubt: First he lists some of the beliefs of Scientology, and then, after those get a laugh, he compares them to some of the beliefs of Christianity. The point? Most religions seem so wacky to outsiders that it’s hard to believe insiders have taken an honest look at themselves. It’s a gotcha moment for the audience, and it’s hard to avoid the trap.

At my Catholic high school I came in contact with various religious figures who encouraged me to challenge my faith. I doubt that most are so fortunate. Religulous attempts to take the fight to those who think their religion is above scrutiny. Believers shouldn’t ignore Maher or dismiss him as a bigot. They should welcome the challenge. Because if you have true faith, what is there to fear? Regardless, so as long as “In God We Trust” is printed on our currency and Presidents take their oath on the Bible and school kids pledge allegiance to the flag “under God” (terminology added in the 1950s, remember), religion doesn’t get a free pass. My personal wish would be for all those who rushed to see The Passion to put forth equal effort to see Religulous. It’s only fair. Besides, in the end Maher and Believers share a fundamental view: If Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any of the world’s religions are accurately advancing The Word of The God, well, it’s nothing short of a miracle.


Jason Bellamy said...

I'm going to be the first to post a comment here, so I can point readers over to Tractor Facts (the blog of regular Cooler commenter Fox), where a pointed critique of "Religulous" is followed by a respectful exchange of ideas on religion (including comments from yours truly). It's a conversation that wouldn't have happened without "Religulous," so I'm thankful for the film for that reason alone.

Of course you're free to leave your own thoughts here, or jump into the conversation on Tractor Facts.

Fox said...

Well, it looks like we are continuing on our own so far... but what's the harm in that?? :0) It's unfortuneate though because this is a great, great review. Well thought out and measured, as usual.

I like your point about religion - save radical Islam - being a taboo subject. It's true. As much as I dislike Maher's take on religion, he is correct that people are two sensitive about the topic even being breached. If it's the case that we should be able to discuss everything and anything freely in our society, then why should religion get a pass. While I don't think being snarky about is good form, people shouldn't get so offended when questions of doubt come up.

I'm usually irritated by the "that's offensive" charge in general (I think it's more a shield to open discussion than an actual emotion people have...), and I don't think Maher is being offensive, I just think he's a jerk.

Lastly, I really would like deeper into Maher's 16% agnostic/atheist statistic. Not that I doubt that information, in fact, I sometimes think it may be more. How religous are most people we encounter anyways. I know plenty of people that say they're Christian, but I continually get further and further away from knowing what that means... especially when they don't "act" like Christians.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Thanks. Some thoughts on religion and “Religulous” on a night when insomnia, I’m sure, is God’s punishment for my sins. (It’s a joke, folks. Everyone take a deep breath.)

* I saw somewhere (can’t find it now) that Maher’s 16 percent figure is faulty – based on a Pew survey figure that he distorts. I’m not endorsing such twisting, and sadly I know it isn’t the only example of such in this film. But in this case, I don’t think it matters. I don’t believe he mentions it in the film, but on his interview rounds Maher regularly makes what I think is a great point: It’s rather sad that a politician can’t run for high office without at least pretending to be serious about religion. The point: I think there are more nonbelievers out there than statistics would suggest, but the environment doesn’t support such an admission.

* “I don’t think Maher is being offensive, I just think he’s a jerk.” Amen, brother. Exactly. That’s totally fair. I wish the offended believers could take issue with Maher’s extreme smugness and lack of respect rather than whipping out the “offensive” or “bigot” card just because he disagrees. There’s a huge difference. Maher is a jerk. I agree with a lot of his points, but I can admit that. That said: I try to be very respectful of people’s religious views. I’m going to sound like Sarah Palin on gays here, but I have a lot of friends who are deeply religious. Fine by me. Truly. But I think a lot of the folks who cry “offensive” need to get over the idea that those of us who disagree need to be baby-soft about it. If believers can be open in their belief, nonbelievers should be able to be just as open in non-belief, right?

* For several articles on why Maher has it all wrong, I’d like to direct people to the nondenominational but definitely religion-loving I haven’t read all of the articles, but a few make terrific points and expose some of Maher’s faulty logic and/or slippery proofs. That said: Each of the articles I read are just as in-the-tank for their beliefs as Maher is for his. One attack on Maher that I keep reading is that he has it all wrong when he says that religion is a source of evil. “I’ll show him more signs of how it’s helped society …” folks keep saying. And that’s true. Sort of.

Example: The founder of Beliefnet was on NPR discussing the film and was largely fair to Maher. However, he noted how religion was a positive influence on civil rights. Hmm. Well, at least as far as Christianity is concerned, one might say that, yes, religion was for civil rights, but only after it was against it. People forget: The Bible was used to defend slavery before it was used to condemn it. The Bible was used to reduce the equality of women before it was used to demonstrate their equality. And over time, it’s not just man’s interpretations that have changed. The actual words in the Bible have changed. (If I got out my Bible and you got out yours, we couldn’t get through Genesis without finding at least subtle differences.)

Last point: There’s a church that I used to pass regularly on runs that has a rainbow flag hanging above its door. “All are welcome,” its sign reads. That the sign is even necessary underlines how divisive religion can be.

Anonymous said...

i dont kno much about Maher and ive never seen his movie but i think he makes valid points in just what i have read i to im not religous im not athiest but i to look at religion as where is the proof just because it is said in a book that was written befor many of us were born doesn't mean its law or even thats its right i believe people need to be as open about religion as they are about every day subjects no one is asking these people to prove there religion its just a way for people like myself to get more of an idea why religion is so big to some people and you know what i still havent found anyone to change my mind or even make me think twice to why i think the way i do

Anonymous said...

i dont kno much about Maher and ive never seen his movie but i think he makes valid points in just what i have read i to im not religous im not athiest but i to look at religion as where is the proof just because it is said in a book that was written befor many of us were born doesn't mean its law or even thats its right i believe people need to be as open about religion as they are about every day subjects no one is asking these people to prove there religion its just a way for people like myself to get more of an idea why religion is so big to some people and you know what i still havent found anyone to change my mind or even make me think twice to why i think the way i do

Tom said...

I think to read Religulous as a documentary is comparable to watching "Real Time:with Bill Maher" as news. The movie is a comedy. You mention early in the review that the director was also involved with Borat. Comparisons to that movie are apt, and I wish you would have explored that relationship. However you feel about Maher he is , at the end of the day, an entertainer. His logic may not be sound, and his shots may be cheap, but they serve their purpose: after the laughter dies you are forced to ask yourself the question "what do I believe and why?"
The question is what is important to Maher and agnostics in general. Personally I feel that the ability to question is being lost in our society. It seems lately that curiosity is being pushed to the margins by small but vocal minorities who have hard line certainty.
Good to read your reviews Jason. I have become a netflix addict, as of recently and stumbled upon your blog.
-Tom (of the infamous basketball video still making the rounds at WSU)

Jason Bellamy said...

Tom! The blog was getting bombarded by spam comments, so I had to turn on the comment moderation for older posts, but blogger didn't notify me when the comments came in, so I just saw this.

Gotta run, but I'll be quick to say: 1) Solid points, agreed; 2) Glad you're hitting the Netflix; stop back anytime; 3) At least I haven't posted the video to YouTube ... yet. :)