Religulous (2/10)

By the time the 75th television/internet/movie/news/archive footage clip is shown around the halfway point of the movie, it’s become excessively clear how little Bill Maher is interested in an honest and thoughtful debate on religion. And if a silly movie was one that he had made across the board, it would have been okay. But when the last three minutes launch Maher into a doomsday spiel that says blatantly, “Plain fact is – religion has to die for mankind to live,” sounding like the American more-smarmy-less-arrogant version of Richard Dawkins, you’ve got to wonder where in the world he gets this conclusion from.

Imagine you have a couple million dollars, a camera crew, and access to any location in the world, from the streets of the Vatican to the plains of Megiddo. Now pick a subject. Any subject. Let’s say it’s cooking. Let’s say your thesis is that cooking must die in order for mankind live, and so you choose about ten or twelve interview subjects who specifically make cooking look like the worst possible thing in the world, and two subjects who actually know what they’re talking about. Given these sets of circumstances, is there any way you could not prove that cooking was a threat to mankind? Sure, the “cooking” example is a little outrageous, but you get the idea. Add in all the “fun” little clips that the director Larry Charles hurls at the screen willy-nilly, change cooking to religion, and you have “Religulous,” an annoyingly pompous little film that is little more than a copycat in the atheism vs. theism debate that has risen to the public consciousness in recent years.

Besides the clear fact that you could make anybody you want to look stupid with the conditions that Maher has set for his film (heck, you could even make Maher look stupid with material from this very film if you cut it right), another annoying reality rears its despicable head – the first five minutes of the movie, wherein Maher wonders aloud to the camera why so many people who are rational in every other way also choose to believe in God. He then says he has to find out for himself why this happens, and in the ensuing hour and a half, he ridicules and ultimately demonizes religion without any concern for actual research – if you want to know why Christians and Muslims believe what they believe, why do you talk to only those people who believe in a completely literal interpretation of the Bible? The idea that every single Christian believes that Genesis was literal is ignorant, and if Maher truly (and his self-indulgent use of “the talking snake” throughout the film to illustrate the Bible’s tendency toward “fairy tales” quickly grows tiresome) wanted to know the answer to his question, this movie was not in any way the way to do it. He also talks to a couple of pastors at mega-churches, including one man who believes himself to be Jesus Christ reincarnated (yes, reincarnated through a bloodline, not the resurrected version), and another who spends about four thousand dollars on the frames for his glasses. Suffice it to say that with a few Bible verses these practices would be shown to be clearly condemned in the Bible, but does Maher realize that the fault lies with the men, not the word? People have killed because of “The Matrix” movies, does that mean they should be destroyed as well?

Why do you only talk to the crazy South or the extreme Jewish organization in Israel that finds ways to never use electricity on the Sabbath by building these extremely complex machines? Why can’t you talk to learned theologians, like Jurgen Moltmann and NT Wright? Simply because a certain person (or even ten people) can’t properly explain their faith or don’t have a full and complete understanding of every aspect of it doesn’t mean the faith itself doesn’t hold water – and Maher’s obvious belief that it does is so childish and, forgive me, stupidly ignorant as to be crude.

It’s easy to tell how Charles and Maher worked together to manipulate the footage – in several interviews with “prominent” members of the faith (like the tourists who preach about the end times or the small town Christian who sells Christianity trinkets and baubles in his little store, or the pastor of Can-Theism (a church dedicated to smoking pot)), camera cuts abound, “reaction” shots follow Maher’s questioning, and it’s usually questionable whether the long camera shot actually followed the question or whether it was a break in the conversation earlier. If religion really is that bad, if it really should be destroyed, why would they need to resort to these underhanded techniques? Not only this, in several interviews Maher blatantly talks over his interview subjects and refuses to listen to them – as one Muslim woman tries to explain to him how we have to understand religious texts in the context in which they were written, he cuts her off and says, “No no no no. That’s not how most people read holy books. They read it and say this is the word of God forever!” Really, Maher? Really? Thanks for telling about three or four billion people on this world exactly how they read holy texts, I don’t know how we could have figured it out without you. Not only this, as he’s talking with one scientist about disorders of the mind, the shots are snipped and clipped and clipped and snipped until you can hardly tell what the scientist is trying to say about religion at all – instead we get Maher obviously leading the interview to get the scientist to say that belief in God is a disorder of the mind – only that never happens, so in post-editing the quickest way to fix it was by chopping up the interview like a diced carrot, and the effect is embarrassingly obvious.

There are also facts throughout the movie that are demonstrably false. For example, the film attributes the following quote to Thomas Jefferson: “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!” Wow, Thomas Jefferson must have really hated religion, huh? Well, Maher’s ignorance about taking something in context is evidenced here as well, because the entirety of the quote goes a little something like this: “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 [figures from Adams’s youth mentioned earlier in the letter]. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite society, I mean hell.” Huh, seems like Jefferson’s arguing the exact opposite of what you are, Bill. Way to choose your allies wisely.He runs into similar problems when he tries to tie Jesus’s story to an ancient Egyptian God named Horus and gets more than half a dozen “comparisons” completely wrong. Interested readers can also click here for a description of a few of the poorly researched facts that permeate the movie.

“The plain fact” is that Religulous will quickly be forgotten in the discarded pile of attempts by prominent atheists or agnostics to completely discredit religion. I know I haven’t covered as much the other religions “Religulous” attacks, but the ineptitude with which it handles Christianity is evident across the board as it attacks Judaism, Islam, and a couple other religions. If you’re the kind of person who is already set one way or the other about religion, then this movie isn’t for you -in actuality, this movie isn’t for anyone who has any serious questions about religion; it won’t tell you anything you haven’t heard before, it doesn’t bother with serious fact-cheking, and you know a movie has no interest in being taken as a serious critique of religion when the director’s most famous credit is “Borat.”

And as if all this misunderstanding of other religions wasn’t enough, Maher doesn’t even get the statistics right on what percentage of people are atheists in this country. The movie claims that a survey revealed that 16% of people in the US are atheists – of course cleverly omitting that the survey in question only asked if people believed in the Christian God. There was no question about spirits, or a higher power, or anything supernatural. In reality only about 4% of Americans believe fully that “there is no God.” And on top of this, over half of agnostics and a fifth of atheists say they believe in “God or a universal spirit.” Some atheist country we live in, right, Bill? Maher’s embarrassingly childish tirade against religion need not concern anyone of faith, of that I assure you.


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