At the urging of a few friends, I finally got around to watching the film Religulous. In it, comedian Bill Maher, who is known for his dry, cynical wit, sets off on a jaunt around the world to expose the hypocrisy and ignorance of religious folk. His thesis is that religion is a force for evil in the world and we would be better off if it were eradicated. The film shows Maher interviewing Christians, Muslims, Jews, and a couple Mormons as well (he also takes a quick potshot at Scientologists).
Maher is a very intelligent man and a gifted comic. It’s a shame that he’s used his talents to become bitter, jaded and cynical. And for all his intellect, he does an incredibly poor job at researching his chosen subject matter, as he uses outdated and puerile arguments to defend his position.
One of the most glaring examples of this ill-preparation occurs near the very beginning of the film. I’ve always called it ‘the Revelations sin,’ and I see it all the time. The Revelations sin is when someone refers to the last book of the Bible as ‘Revelations’. The name of the book is in fact ‘Revelation,’ and although it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss out-of-hand a person’s entire argument over it, this does bring up serious questions as to a person’s true intellectual integrity if they’re creating an entire film against religion and can’t even get a basic fact right about one of the central pieces of evidence for that religion. If I were to write a screed against Maher’s old television show and call it ‘Politically Correct,’ you’d probably think I didn’t really know much of what I was talking about, since I couldn’t even get the name of his show right.
Throughout the film Maher picks on people who are unprepared for his presence and those who simply can’t compete with his intellect. His interview subjects seem carefully chosen to extract maximum mockery. There are very few capable opponents chosen. Watching Religulous is like watching C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton in their prime debating an 18-year old freshman philosophy student. Or watching a comedy competition between Bill Maher and some kid doing stand-up for the first time in his life.
He also chooses many extreme, fringe, and highly fundamentalist subjects to interview, but steers far away from any mainstream moderate notables—you won’t find any N.T Wrights, Rob Bells, Brennan Mannings, or William Lane Craigs in this movie. Heck he could even have interviewed a musician like Steven Curtis Chapman and gotten deep, meaningful theological debate. No, instead we’re treated to interviews with a man who says he is the returned Jesus Christ, laypeople visiting a Holy Land theme park, and a Rabbi who invents kooky gadgets that allow Orthodox Jews to work on the Sabbath. But no one who is able to capably and professionally argue mainstream orthodox Christianity. Bill Maher clearly had an agenda while making this movie and that’s fine, but he only chose subjects who would support it. He’s not really interested in a worthy opponent. That’s just bush-league.
It seems clear that Maher’s true goal was not an actual investigation into the reasons behind faith, but a mockery of those who believe. The worst part about this movie is not that it is anti-religion or anti-Christianity. Heck, even I am anti-Christianity when it ceases to be about Jesus and becomes more about religion. No, the worst part of this film is that it is chock-full of intellectual dishonesty at nearly every turn. I’ve got no problem at all with people mocking our faith—and believe me I’ve heard it all. What I can’t abide is people being intellectually dishonest and willfully ignorant. So Bill Maher has a problem with religion in general and Christianity in particular? That’s great, go out there and find some answers! Alas, instead Bill hides behind easy cynicism, selective edits, and carefully chosen rubes, then smugly pronounces his word as gospel on the matter, implying that anyone who disagrees is unintelligent and backwards.
There are some good facets of this movie…not many, but they do exist. There are several segments during car rides to and from interviews where Bill interviews himself, and lets us in a little bit. His honesty and openness during these scenes is refreshing. He’s built a celebrity persona on being cynical, angry and bitter, and while these car scenes don’t change that at all, they at least let us inside his psyche and see where some of this pessimism comes from.
In my mind, the best part of this movie sees Maher putting his finger on what I believe to be the most critical failure in American Christianity today, which is the fact that there even is such a thing as ‘American’ Christianity. He astutely points out the tendency to equate religion with nationalism, to fuse patriotism with piety. In the truest line in the movie, Bill says, “Two things that are completely incompatible are Christianity as Jesus taught it, and nationalism.” He’s right. Jesus made sure to separate God and state. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” There is no Priority Express First Class Gold line to God because you are an American, and if you vote for a political candidate for the sole reason that he or she professes to be a Christian, then you may be voting for someone who is pandering to you, or even worse, someone who may be a good Christian but an incompetent politician.
I also want to give a special shout-out to the dude who plays Jesus at the Holy Land amusement park. He is the most sane, down-to-earth ‘normal’ person that Bill interviews. He doesn’t get flustered or defensive when Maher mocks his beliefs. And while Actor-Jesus isn’t quite able to match with Bill intellectually, he shows a gentle spirit without condemnation and judgment. He also is the only person in the movie who stops Bill in his tracks with an illustration of the Trinity that Maher thinks is brilliant. Unfortunately he then reverts to form and immediately discards it, saying “Of course it’s complete bull$#!@.” Wow. Nice analysis Bill. So glad we’ve got you to think these deep thoughts for us.
Maher does, however, bring up many valid objections to faith through the course of the movie, objections that honest and serious people have grappled with for centuries. It’s really too bad he’s not looking for serious answers. Oh well, I’ll try to answer some of them anyway:
1. “Why is believing something without evidence good?”
Excellent question, Bill. Believing something without evidence is not good. That’s why I don’t. Blind faith is never the best of all possible choices, in my opinion. The problem with Bill’s question is that he equates not being able to see something with not having any evidence for it.
In one scene Bill asks the famous scientist Francis Collins how he can believe something he can’t prove. The fatal mistake in Bill’s reasoning here is that he’s trying to use the same tests for proof that you would use in a lab in order to ‘prove’ historical events. That is impossible. Historical events cannot be reproduced and experimented on. If we relied on that kind of proof for history, then you wouldn’t even be able to “prove” that George Washington was the first President. Test tubes and quadratic equations are never going to be able to prove that the Roman Empire or Genghis Khan or the south side of Chicago ever existed. Establishing historical truth is a much, much different process than determining how many atoms are in a water molecule, and to try to fit one into the other is simply nonsensical—like trying to prove that two plus two equals four because your father beat you as a kid.
We as believers are not without fault in this regard, however. While talking about his faith, Francis Collins mentions the overwhelming evidence for Christ. Bill’s response to this was “I’ve never heard anyone say that there’s evidence.” That’s a problem. And that’s not totally his problem. That’s our problem too. If there are people out there who have serious and honest intellectual questions, and they have no idea that the answers even exist…well then we’ve done a poor job of marketing, so to speak.
Look, if there was no evidence to back the claims of Jesus, then I would not be his follower. But in fact there is all kinds of evidence for God’s existence in general, and the claims of Jesus in particular, out there, and Maher is free to believe or disbelieve as he sees fit. But it is out there, and it’s not hard at all to find. If you’re serious.
If, however, you hold your spiritual beliefs simply because ‘it feels right to me’ or because ‘that’s how I was raised’ then you are living an unexamined spiritual life and your faith is inauthentic. If you don’t know why you believe what you believe, if you can’t say why you think it is true and not just personal opinion, then you may indeed have the kind of blind faith that Bill chastises and I definitely suggest educating yourself, challenging yourself, and questioning yourself. After all, Jesus is not too keen on people remaining blind.
***Part Two is next!***
Truth poorly defended loses not its truthfulness;
Falsehood aptly defended loses not it’s falsity.