Bill Maher’s satiric documentary Religulous (2008, dir. Larry Charles) is a sustained editorial attack on religion. Maher sees religion—particularly Christianity, but the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well—as responsible for hatred, bias, racism, nationalistic bigotry, persecution, superstition, and ignorance that have been the bane of the civilized world for centuries.
Maher’s method is to visit various individuals and locations associated with religion, to interview or talk about them, to point out logical fallacies in what they argue for or represent, to use film clips from religious films, or messages scrolling across the screen, that have the effect of ridiculing them. He’s interested in making fun of his subject more than he is in trying to understand it
Maher is completely transparent about his goals in Religulous. He’s against religion. He’s out to show what’s wrong with it. He doesn’t try to be balanced or fair, though on a couple of occasions, when someone on the “other side” has made a good point, he gives them credit.
In one scene at a recreational park called “Holy Land,” Maher interviews a man impersonating Jesus—not as if he is talking to an individual dressed up as Jesus, but as if he is interviewing Jesus Himself. The costumed Jesus does his best to answer Maher’s pointed questions and to counter his argument, but he’s an easy target.
In another scene, Maher impersonates an evangelist preaching Scientology to a crowd gathered on a street corner in what appears to be London. The scene is hilarious, but the teachings of Scientology make another easy target.
Most of the people whom Maher interviews are easy targets—evangelists, right-wing Jews who deny the Holocaust, semi-coherent Catholic priests, amusement park characters and patrons, a self-described Jew for Jesus who runs a religious souvenir shop, a formerly gay evangelist married to a former lesbian who is convinced that gay people are not really gay (he doesn’t believe in gay people) but are “out of balance,” and so on.
The most interesting figure whom Maher interviews is a priest who is an astronomer for the Vatican. This is an interesting man who has succeeded in reconciling his own commitment to science with his faith in the Catholic Church—but Maher doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to ask interesting and probing questions about science, logic, religion, and faith. In general, he avoids talking with people of substance.
I have no argument with Maher’s contention that leaders of the world should use logic and education. I agree that it is disturbing to hear leaders invoking irrational and illogical principles, religious nationalism, astrology, superstition, zealotry, all in the name of whatever god they believe in. But Maher resorts to ridicule and satire to make fun of religion and of religious people. In effect, he’s guilty of the same sort of bigotry that he is criticizing. His film is amusing and entertaining but it lacks substance, and it lacks respect for its subject and even for its viewers. It will appeal to people already inclined to agree with its viewpoint but will do little to persuade others.
One could argue that Maher approaches his topic with the same lack of respect and understanding and tolerance that some religious people express towards people or topics with which they disagree—evolution, stem cell research, those who believe in other faiths and creeds, etc. The trouble is, of course, that the term “religious people” encompasses billions of individuals with a wide array of attitudes—you can’t stereotype all religious people as thinking the same way, as having the same attitudes. But Maher does.
To Bill Maher, religion represents illogicality, irrationality, and ignorance. He favors logic, reason, and enlightenment. I favor those ways of thinking too. But the divide between religion and science, faith and logic, superstition and reason, is not as simple or clear as he would have it.