Bill Maher uses the silver screen as a bully pulpit in the new film Religulous, his sometimes strident, often hilarious exploration of the absurdity of religious faith. As an atheist myself (and having endured the religious nature of American discourse for just about three decades), I will declare that, despite my dedication to rational thinking, it is impossible for me to divorce myself and my own experience from this issue; I walked in the door rooting for Maher. Why not?; Atheists have been named the most despised group in America (47.6% of Americans “disapprove if their child were to marry an atheist”) and despite the fact that as a minority, we are larger than most other minority groups (Maher uses the conservative count of 16 million), we have almost no voice in American public life. So, forgive me for wanting to see the atheist point of view presented in an entertaining way, but it’s about time.
Walking out of Religulous however, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun to watch believer after believer unable to answer rational questions, misinformed about the details and history of their own beliefs, and universally failing to address their own doubts with intellectual honesty. On the other hand, never once was Maher evenly matched and never once did he play fair; Using the editing booth as a way to revise the structure and depth of his interviews is one thing, but I never like seeing subtitles and cut-aways used to undermine another person’s point. Obviously, Maher’s subjects don’t have the option of going into an Avid suite after the conversation and correcting and mocking Maher’s opinions, and these typically dirty tricks, despite the fact that they are often very funny, load the deck so overwhelmingly in Maher’s favor that the veracity of his arguments will probably take a back seat to a discussion of his tactics. That said, when you tell lies on camera, lies that can’t be verified until after the fact, you get what is coming to you; The snarky subtitled corrections are less offensive to me than having people lie or present half-truths as facts. A better interviewer would have challenged those lies during the actual interview, but hey, you can’t win ’em all (unless, of course, you have a solid post-production budget).
Bill Maher and Larry Charles’ Religulous
While Maher is a celebrity with the keys to the movie’s engines, never once does he find an opponent of the same caliber and stature as himself and as a result, he can come off as a bullying presence when using his razor-sharp wit to cut his meager opponents down to size. While I know that many will find this distasteful, I, on the other hand, think it is an incredibly important part of the argument that must be made to everyday people of faith; If your beliefs can’t stand up to an articulate comedian with a handful of facts at his disposal, what have you got? You have to wonder how on earth the believers haven’t already asked these questions of themselves. Religulous’ most shocking revelation for me was the fact that faith, for most believers, means the end of asking questions and the comfort of absolute certainty. The film’s frightening finale, a crescendo of footage of religious violence and hate, does an excellent job of bringing the argument back to earth, of showing the price our planet has already paid at the hands of religious certitude.
The best and most charming moments come when Maher finds allies in the religious world, like a scientist and Catholic priest who refuses to see the Biblical story as being literal and a hilarious Vatican spokesman whose knowing analysis of his own flock undermines the self-seriousness of the papacy in one fell swoop. But, it should be pointed out, Maher remains mute on the relationship between class and biblical literalism; while overwhelmingly represented in this film as a blend of pretentious preachers and working class believers, the faithful who believe that every word of the Bible is literal fact are clearly the least educated about their own beliefs and the most misinformed about religious and historical scholarship. It should come as no surprise that 93% of scientists are either atheists or agnostic; the more one comes to know about the laws of the universe and the history of belief and the origins of the Biblical story, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a serious relationship with blind faith in Bronze Age myths. Unfortunately in America, we have become a nation of calcified thinking, where education is seen as a threat to the religious status quo, and instead of asking questions, many of us seek to find only the facts that confirm what we already think we know. I’m starting to think that serious listening and the fair consideration of the ideas of others is, for the most part, dead. While I don’t see Religulous changing many minds, I have to salute Bill Maher for giving it an entertaining shot; despite its flaws, it was pure catharsis for a person like me.