Near the end of Religulous, Bill Maher notes that “faith makes a virtue of not thinking.” While this is a valid point given that arguing something is “a matter of faith” often has the ability to shut down a conversation or obfuscate enquiry, it is something that Maher hypocritically makes a virtue of in his film. In fact, his “faith” in what he calls “anti-religion” does not involve a critical, even-handed examination of religion but rather a myopic, stereotypical, racist, classist, sexist ‘not thinking’ round-up (in typical Maher style).
The film opens and closes with Maher standing in the spot where, according to the Book of Revelation, the world will end. This is a fitting frame for a film that argues that religious belief may indeed bring about the end of the world and Maher’s claim that “religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.” While Maher more broadly frames the film around the question “how can people believe,” (and, in so doing, repeatedly references talking snakes, being swallowed by a big fish, and the Rapture), the underlying message of the film holds up (rather than undercuts) a number of key stereotypes – namely, that Christians are stupid and weird, that Muslims are violent, and that Jewish people are smart yet miserly.
The majority of the film focuses on debunking Christian faith. This problematically places Christianity at the center, as the ‘gold standard’ of religion, and, in so doing, entrenches Christian normativity rather than debunking it. And, although Maher criticizes the profit motivations of particular churches and preachers, he ironically makes many positive comments regarding the teachings of Jesus (such as pointing out that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality and his teachings are incompatible with nationalism). Thus, his claim to believe that all religion is equally bad doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Now, this can be viewed as an attempt to concede that some doctrines/beliefs are in fact beneficial and, this would be fine IF Maher also conceded that Islam (or other belief systems) also have some beneficial aspects…
So, while he makes fun of Christian fundamentalists (and the Creation Museum and Holy Land theme park in particular), overall Christianity is shown to be rather silly but fairly benign (in comparison to those Muslim crazies). Christianity is a religion, according to the film, that prompts one to hand over money to charlatan preachers, to believe you will ride away on a white horse after the Rapture, and to enjoy bible based theme parks/museum more than DisneyWorld. (Islam, on the other hand, makes you want to blow up the world).
Catholicism is treated with kid gloves as well. Maher interviews a Vatican astronomer who espouses that science, not religion, has it right. Another kindly Catholic priest asserts the bible is a book of nice stories not to be taken literally. Bill Maher offers no critique of the prohibition against birth control and condoms, and only passing jokes about pedophilia and condemnations of homosexuality. Mormons are treated a little more scathingly – although still along the ‘they are stupid’ line rather than ‘they are evil.’ The same goes for Scientologists.
In his brief examination of Judaism, Maher begins by interviewing an “anti-Zionist Jew.” Not bothering to define Zionism or place it within a historical context, Maher takes President Ahmadinejad’s comment that “Israel should be wiped off the map” out of context (as the vast majority of media/politicians have) and plays the “you are just a holocaust denier” card to the Rabbi rather than allowing him to speak. In the only other sustained examination of Judaism, Maher visits some sort of invention laboratory where Orthodox Jewish scientists work to create technology that will help people from breaking any rules surrounding working on the Sabbath. Yes, these inventions are shown to be silly, but in a smart kind of way. They require technological wizardry, unlike the the theme park Jesus or the lizard shoes of the Christian evangelical preacher.
Muslims (unsurprisingly) fair the worst. They are presented as terrorists, as imperialists, as violent extremists. The well spoken Muslim rapper Maher interviews is presented as intelligent until Maher reveals his ‘true’ violent intentions. The Muslim woman interviewed on the spot where a Muslim man was murdered in Holland is not allowed to complete any sentences without know-it-all Maher butting in – perhaps because her arguments are valid, even-handed, and intelligent and would thus undercut the broad ‘they are all violent terrorists’ brush Maher paints Muslims with.
No other faiths are covered – not even Hinduism or Buddhism. According to Detroit Free Press, Maher justified this exlcusion as follows, “they are so far afield from the experience of the average American or European moviegoer, you would almost have to do the whole film as a tutorial.” Yes, as part of the five biggest religions of the world, they are right down there with “Holy” – the fictional religion practiced by Preacher Bessie in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road.
Thus, while Maher argues that “religion must die for mankind to live,” his critique seems to indicate that the Muslim religion is the most dangerous and Christianity and Judaism are the most benign. There is no question that he is critical of religious faith, yet the way he critiques such faith frames Christians as incompetent loonies and Muslims as evil jihadists. And, while he argues that “human history” stands as evidence of “getting shit dead wrong,” he to gets a lot wrong in this film — in a film that claims “arrogant certitude is the whole mark of religion” he himself comes off as arrogant and all too certain.
Near the close of the film he call for “anti-religionists” to come out of the closet and not enable religious belief to negatively shape society. Yet, while I would consider myself an anti-religionist of sorts, and definitely an anti-religious establishment and anti-fundamentalist, I do not agree with Maher’s brand of anti-religionism. I concur with him about the problematic profit/power motivations of established religion, I agree that religion often is “selling an invisible product” in order to shut down individual thought/dissent, and I also would encourage what he calls “selling doubt,” and what I would call a questioning, analytical attitude towards any belief system. However, I don’t agree with the ranking of faiths that this film enacts – rather than questioning all faith equally, he most strongly condemns Islam. I also feel that a true, productive “anti-religionism” would more critically analyze the sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism of mainstream religions – not to mention the way religious texts have been interpreted and re-interpreted in order to justify slavery, war, oppression, murder, etc.
Thus, although the film makes many interesting points about the more insidious aspects of religious belief, it is also maddeningly hyporcritical. Yet, I suppose this is hardly surprising given that Bill Maher oft pretends to care about women’s rights and social justice, and then reveals himself to be a sexist jerk (for examples of this jerkusnous, see Unapalogitcally Female’s post here or Melissa’s post at Shakesville here or refer to the claim referenced in the title of this post, which he said on The Jay Leno Show a few night’s back).
If Maher set out to offer a meaningful critique of religion and to “sell doubt” (as he claims), well, he got a lot wrong. For a guy who is obviously smart and can be very funny, his non-catholic take on religion would have been greatly improved if he had dropped the “I am so much damn smarter than you” routine and not so blatantly warn prejudices on his sleeve.