‘Religulous,” which recently opened in theaters, lies somewhere in the continuum between documentary and satire. Starring the ever-outspoken Bill Maher, the film takes no prisoners as it goes after the world’s major religions and, as the title implies, dismisses them as ridiculous.
As someone who is to the left of center, I have often agreed with Maher on many issues.
As a person of faith, however, I went into the film expecting to be mildly upset. Although I did find some aspects to complain about, let me start by saying that I found ‘Religulous” to be a fantastic film. It had me laughing hard from start to finish, and the editing in particular was skillful and creative (for example, inserting a clip from ‘The Flintstones” when interviewing a creationist who thinks that dinosaurs and people lived at the same time). The producers were very careful to ensure that there was never a break in the action. Even the sizable chunks of the film that consist simply of Maher sitting in a car and reciting his opinions are able to hold the viewer’s interest, mainly due to his delivery and skill as a comedian.
If anything, the film proves once and for all that choosing to be non-religious is indeed a noble thing. It carries with it a certain humility that is not found anywhere else. There is a great deal to be said for being able to stand up and admit, ‘I don’t know the truth.” The traditional viewpoint that associates atheism with immorality needs to be rejected, and Maher lays out an indisputable argument for this position.
One specific point that Maher makes is worth mentioning. If Christianity were a new religion today, he asks, wouldn’t most people find its basic tenets pretty crazy, much in the same way that a great number of people view Scientology? He argues that Christianity is only looked upon as OK because it is old. This point, while mildly insulting to those of faith, is certainly something that we in a modern society need to consider.
The film’s producers clearly aren’t worried about offending the viewers, but thankfully, they do not go out of their way to do it either. Maher just makes his argument and lets the chips fall where they may. While the overly dramatic music and imagery used at the film’s end may have been unnecessary, ‘Religulous” otherwise avoids falling into the trap of being too, well, preachy.
Perhaps the greatest inaccuracy in the film, however, is the assumption of uniformity within all religions. There is no attempt to draw attention to the variety of beliefs that exist within each faith tradition. Maher would have us believe that everyone who identifies as Christian must by default be in favor of invading Iraq, hating gay people and converting all of the ‘non-saved.” I myself do identify as Christian, yet I find myself feeling just as suspicious as most people, if not more so, when I hear a politician proclaim that he or she does not believe in evolution.
The majority of people do not fit into the neat boxes that some would like to put us in. In one scene, Maher briefly talks to a Muslim woman who tries to explain her moderate and peace-loving interpretation of Islam, but he abruptly cuts her off, as he does to many of the people seen throughout the film. Often times he interviews those with extreme viewpoints or colorful personalities in place of those who might actually have important things to say.
Take the example of our own Interfaith Chapel Director Alison Stokes who works every day to further the peaceful and constructive interfaith dialogue on this campus. Why don’t reasonable people of faith such as her appear in the film when others, like the man who claims to be the Second Coming of Christ and the evolution-denying ‘scientist”, are given the opportunity to be interviewed?
Another problem with the film is that it takes the issue of religious faith, something that is deeply personal and private, and puts it out as a public punching bag. Such an approach is not entirely helpful, doing much to confuse the role that religion plays our lives.
Maher is not the only one guilty of this, however. Religious communities should be just that: communities. They should not be clubs that require absolute obedience to a rigid doctrine. One’s beliefs are one’s own business, and Evangelical Christianity in particular has often failed to understand this.
Indeed, much of the problem with religion in this country is an increased polarization. The frightening intolerance of people such as Pat Robertson lies on one side, and the reasoned but insistent skepticism of Bill Maher is on the other. People of an open-minded and progressive kind of faith are often left with nowhere to turn.
‘Religulous” is an important film that has nothing to apologize for, but it is only a step in one direction. There is a much broader faith dialogue that needs to occur, and it has been absent from American life for too long.
Spink is a member of the class of 2009.