Busted Halo
October 14th, 2008

Seductive, Reductive, Religulous

Bill Maher issues a “call to atheist arms” in his latest documentary


Jesus and the Jets
One of the movie’s most transcendent sequences involves Maher’s visit to Florida’s “Holy Land Experience” theme park, where he’s greeted by people in first-century period costumes (think cheerful, biblical Disney characters).

He chats up the resident Jesus actor, asking him if he gets recognized at nearby restaurants (answer: yes). Later during a Passion play, while Jesus agonizes and a stolid crowd of tourist looks on, a jumbo jet flies overhead and interrupts the performance, mid-crucifixion.

To Maher’s credit, he denies the temptation—so off-puttingly irresistible to Gore, Stein and Moore—to portray himself as some kind of isolated warrior, alone and irreproachable in his crusade for understanding. Maher is frequently self-deprecating, and for most of the movie seems genuinely uninterested in attributing his travels to any weightier motive than simple curiosity. Often, he’s joined on-screen by his film crew. He even lets them get off some of the movie’s best lines.

An oft-cited—and fair—knock on Religulous is its narrow, biased sample of interviews. Maher begins with the view that religiosity is preposterous, and does little to challenge his own thinking. Instead, he lines up a parade of yokel zealots, greedy messianic hucksters, and angry Muslims who want him ejected from the Dome of the Rock.

As Beliefnet’s Steven Waldman has shown, Maher wasn’t above using trickery, particularly in arranging his few chats with coherent and/or credible believers.

Even so, the man who emerges as the most sensible person in Religulous is a Roman Catholic priest. Fr. George Coyne, an elderly Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican, coolly dismisses any fundamentalist’s attempt to derive science from Scripture, and articulates a place for faith in people’s lives that is modern, sensible, orthodox, and, above all, non-threatening.

It’s Fr. Coyne’s very sensibility, in fact, that highlights the chief shortcoming of Religulous. Maher and Charles couple nearly every defense of religion in the film with footage of suicide bombings and atomic warheads. The implication: the one unfailingly leads to the other.

Yet Coyne is proof enough to dismiss such reductive thinking, and proof enough of Maher’s ultimate duplicity. The comedian starts by assuring us doubt is his product, as if his journey is about softening people’s belligerent certainty. Unfortunately, it turns out, Maher just as belligerently wants to disabuse people of their faith altogether.

He imputes religion to neurological malfunction and, during a concluding screed that doesn’t match the rest of the film in tone or content, he implies our world has two choices: renunciation of belief, or nuclear war.

“The plain fact,” Maher insists as the music swells, “is that religion must die for man to live.”

Given the premise Maher sets out with, this ending feels like a swindle, and a reversion to the vulgar chest-thumping that has been his shtick since Politically Incorrect sank six years ago.

If Mr. Maher actually means to suggest that the mere presence of religion poisons a society, or that its mere absence guarantees some free, peaceful utopia, I’d advise him to spend a few weeks in North Korea.

The lasting image I took from Bill Maher’s Religulous is that of the jet passing over the Passion play. Funny in its own way, the airplane created a momentary disruption for the actors at the Holy Land Experience. Then it was gone, and the show went on as if nothing had happened. Similarly, I left the theater with a grin and a shrug and went to Mass. It was Sunday, after all.

At church, nobody set off any car bombs.

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The Author : Greg Ruehlmann
Greg Ruehlmann writes on humorous, religious and cultural topics in publications including McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Morning News, Busted Halo, National Catholic Reporter and National Lampoon.
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  • Phil

    “Sensibility”..”Let’s be ‘reasonable'”. I’m not saying fr. Coyne sold-out or know what his thinking is, but there’s no proof that the Big Bang and millions of years have passed since Earth began. It also need not be that that is the opposite of a 6 24 hour day creation either. Still, we have more proof for the latter being the Bible is inerrant, whereas the former is made up.

    As Anne Coulter has it in her book title, liberalism is a religion that is all about anything but God as king of the Earth and its inhabitants. The liberals will even believe in man coming from aliens. The Politically incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism has all the lies we buy about global warming (the descendent of liberalism’s godless eugenic past and its genocidal legacy). Somewhere, in that timeline, Piltdown Man (“discovered” by some, amongst whom was a Jesuit) was also accepted by “Big science” without the scientific method (and we are said not to care about science?!). All this–and those who rely more on the Bible than the just-so stories of the godless are the crazy ones? If anything, genocide has been done in the name of religion and irreligion. It all comes down to charity.

    That an intelligent comedian has come to making this movie only proves his denial of the hypocrisy of his irreligious patronage as well as his being sophmoric–or it just may be he’s a fellow traveler. The persecution of the “reasonable” ones done to those with another viewpoint, as illustrated in “Expelled”, is the hypocrisy of those who complained when “Big religion” did the same to them. Religion does not need a deity and so liberalism can be called a religion–one that has won over religious [who probably are ashamed of their religion’s teachings (as the Japanese guy in Western clothes in Jet Li’s “Fearless” wants the German to win over the “Sick man of Asia”), despite the fact the irreligious cannot test anything empirical regarding their claims about the origin of life, for example) and irreligious alike, who want to feel smart and reasonable before a modern(ist) society and “beat” the freaks in these times. There’s been a turf war, started by the Freemasons, picked on the Catholic Church, as that is Satan’s enemy, and I believe once light-hearted comedians of the ’80s endeared us to them only to play us along with their flutes that “tickle the ears” like the Pied Piper. At the end, following their illogic, thinking it wisdom, we’ll be put in a dark place like the boys who became donkeys in Pinnochio, but thank goodness we we’ll be “reasonable”.

    I think I’ll go check out that Kentucky Creationist Museum someday. It may not be accurate, but it’s at least backed by something inerrant and eternal (unlike man from Mars aliens, Piltdown Man and manmade global warming the “reasonable” ones of “Big Science” have given us) and the Church has no official say about it being definitely otherwise. If these are just-so stories too, at least they will be closer to fact and you probably won’t vote for eugenic mass-murderers bent on getting rid of “useless eaters” and the “feeble-minded” or crucifying their careers for having a different understanding of science or giving them Soviet-esque psychological counseling. That truly is religulous.

    check out audiosancto.org sermons related to this. The priest talking about it was trained as a scientist in this area. There’s also Jack Cashill’s “The Triumph of Design” (neither know me well so they may not approve of this message).

  • Domingo

    Great review!! Just one word I didn’t like: implication. Implication means logical inference. Juxtaposing sensible religion with images of missiles is something much less–it’s specious insinuation.

  • nora

    Greg- great review. I do find Bill Maher wickedly funny (and have often suspected him of being a recovering Catholic). I plan to see the film eventually but I feel like I’ve mostly heard this argument before and found that while many of the criticisms are deserved–there IS an awful lot of ridiculous religion flying around after all, especially of late–as you’ve pointed out, the conclusions are extreme.

  • Bill

    This is exactly the thing I would expect from Maher. He has made a career out of being intolerant of any ones views or plight, afterall he once equated retarded children to animals. I never have found him witty, let alone funny, and I wouldn’t spend the money on this film.

  • John Roach

    Thanks for the excellent review. I haven’t seen this film yet, but I heard Maher and Charles interviewed on NPR. I’ve always liked Maher for his intelligent and witty P. Incorrectness, and was rather saddened by his apparent decision in making this film to just ignore all of the light that “good” religion brought to the world, by focusing solely on the very real darkness that (fundamentalist) religion of all stripes breeds.

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