I finally watched Bill Maher’s film Religulous the other night, which came out in early October of last year. What took me so long? I was uncomfortable with Maher’s admitted deception in obtaining the interviews for his film, which was akin to Ben Stein’s practice in producing Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. But while Stein presented his film as a sober documentary investigation, Maher’s work took itself far less seriously, a sort of mockumentary, along the lines of Sasha Cohen’s Borat, though underlying Religulous is a fundamental point about religion. Nonetheless, the film should be imbibed with a grain of salt. I got the sense that clever film editing created the many “stupefied reactions” so common among the film’s pious believers.
Maher’s aim is to expose the ridiculous beliefs underlying today’s religions (thus the film title). He doesn’t focus on any single religion, a tactic that won’t necessarily broaden the film’s appeal, but it does strengthen his case tenfold. Sure, everyone knows that the notion of a man flying up to heaven on a winged stallion is laughable on its face, but a man born of the union between a virgin woman and a deity really happened? Ok, right… You gotta hand it to Maher for studiously maintaining an easy joviality with his interviewees, upon whom it probably eventually dawns that Maher is not exactly friendly to their cause. I myself would stand flabbergasted at some of the stuff coming out these theists’ mouths, but Maher rolls with it in a completely disarming way, by supposing, it seemed, at least a little incredulity within his companion.
Two observations about the faithful from the film are readily apparent. The first is the shallowness of their beliefs. Many know the basic theological tenets, but it’s obvious they haven’t reasoned them out very well, a fact Maher exploits to their detriment (and the audience’s amusement). The second is how far believers go in rationalizing obvious contradictions between their faith and reality. The Muslims, for example, all unfailingly ascribe Islamic violence to “politics,” somewhat akin to how many Christians blame Christian hatred and violence on “deviations” from Jesus’s teachings (as if Christ never said “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live,” for example).
While for most of the film I bounced between laughing and crying, there were a couple moments that offered hope. One involved a retired Catholic priest who cheerfully dismissed fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the existence of hell. This reminded me of one of my biggest complaints about theists, the fact that few of them entertain virtually no doubt about their beliefs. This is the scourge of dogma, which is certainly not peculiar to religion, but which undoubtedly provided its main historical impetus.
At both the film’s start and end, Maher describes his animating concern, one shared by Sam Harris in The End of Faith. That is, in an age when humanity’s capabilities for destroying the planet grow practically by the day, faith-based, dogmatic belief is rapidly becoming a dangerous liability. Fatalism underlies too much of today’s religion, sapping our collective need to act, and increasing our proclivity for conflict. Watch Religulous for good entertainment, but keep in mind that the subject is ultimately no laughing matter.
Update: Valerie Tarico at Debunking Christianity just posted an illuminating article on knowing and certainty that segueways nicely with my objection to dogmatic religious belief. The money quote: “As scientists learn more about how our brains work, certitude is coming to be seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken.”