Religulousness

Simba, you have forgotten me...I saw “Religulous” two Saturdays ago, and I’m just now getting to writing about it. I really ought to tighten up this whole blogging thing. Anyway, on with my brief review.

I went into the film not entirely sure what to expect. I’ll say straight off that I don’t particularly care for Bill Maher, and he’s not the first person (or even really in the top ten people) I’d want to see making a film criticizing the ridiculousness of religion. I’d really prefer someone who wasn’t hopped up on their own brand of crazy whacknut woo, someone who didn’t constantly walk the golden mean fallacy of agnosticism and proclaim that it made him better than either side, pointing out religion’s follies from a position of reason and evidence rather than from a position of not accepting the germ theory of medicine.

But, you know, I liked “Politically Incorrect” back in the day, so it’s not as though my feelings about Maher are entirely negative.

Anyway, “Religulous” tries very hard, but it’s not clear on what it’s trying to do. The filmmakers really seemed to be torn between two competing and more or less mutually exclusive ideas. On one hand, as the title, advertising campaign, and majority of the movie would have you believe, the film is about the ridiculous excesses, hypocrisy, and absurdity of religion and religious belief. To that end, Maher interviews the patrons of a trailer park chapel, an ex-gay minister, an ex-Jew for Jesus, Ken Ham, a pot preacher, the clientele and staff of the Holy Land Experience amusement park, and various others. On the other hand, the speech Maher gives at the beginning of the film and the last twenty minutes or so of the movie would have you beleive that it’s about the serious dangers presented by religion and fanatical belief, and the need for reason and reasonable leaders. To this end, he mostly interviews Muslims.

The problem with this is that his serious points are undermined by the amount of time and effort he spends talking with and mocking the ridiculous bits. Every scene with the pot preacher (for instance) already feels like a waste of celluloid, since I don’t think the guy said more than two lines in the whole thing, and that feeling is compounded by Maher’s vaguely apocalyptic rhetoric at the end. The result is a feeling that either Maher has trivialized the grave problems he describes, or that he has largely attacked softball targets rather than the fearsome ones he later decries. In any case, it doesn’t quite feel like he’s made his point about the dangers of religion; he’s made the religious out to be kooks rather than psychos.

Moreover, the interviews are heavily and obviously edited. I sincerely hope that unedited interviews are among the special features on the DVD, because it’d be interesting to see what people actually had to say, for better or worse. It’s also clear that Maher tried to steer many of the interviews toward more fertile comedic ground (such as his repeated attempts to gay-bait the ex-gay pastor), which makes him look more than a little juvenile. Besides that, there are lots of jump-cuts to bits of stock footage or other footage, which resonated unfortunately with everything I’ve heard about “Expelled“. On the other hand, I’m reasonably certain that he uses some of the same clips that “The God Who Wasn’t There” and the “Bullshit” episode on the Bible used, so he manages to create those associations as well.

Despite his fence-sitting agnostic position, Maher’s biases are pretty well evident. It’s clear throughout that he’s willing to give Jesus a lot more benefit of the doubt than Islam. He repeatedly talks about what a nice guy Jesus was, and how he’d obviously be against so much of what goes on in his name, particularly violence. He thanks the trucker churchgoers for being Christ-like, as opposed to just Christian. To be fair, his position is pretty common; back when I was a fence-sitting agnostic, I believed basically the same thing. Heck, my novel treats Jesus as a really nice guy whose good intentions just get twisted all out of whack. It’s easy to watch “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” and so forth and come away with the idea that Jesus was the nicest of guys with the best of intentions, and that all the bad bits of Christianity come from people failing to understand his lessons or twisting the church to their personal or political gain.

Like most easy things, that’s a vast oversimplification of the situation. Going by the four gospel accounts of Jesus–assuming they can even be reconciled into a single coherent person–he was moody, arrogant, and occasionally violent, he openly played favorites and admittedly didn’t want his message to be easily understood, he had a tendency to mix good and bad advice in equal measure, and he promoted a theology that ultimately was significantly more morally corrupt than what prevailed in Judaism at the time. Sure, you can cherry-pick details to make him look like the bees’ knees, but there’s no better rationale to do that than to pick the details that make him look like an unstable sociopath. And certainly the modern church picks and chooses which bits of his advice to follow or ignore, but I can’t see how following everything would improve the situation whatsoever.

Which boils down, to me, to making Maher look like he hasn’t done the research. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that most of the time when Christians say or do something outrageously offensive, Maher comments about how Jesus wouldn’t approve. Then, when Muslims later say something moderate and open-minded or peaceful, we get a jump-cut to an IED exploding or Osama bin Laden speaking. The whole point of sitting on the fence is that you don’t pick sides, but Bill’s sticking out so far into the anti-Islamic yard that he might as well be a plastic flamingo.

Which ultimately undermines the later shots that try to compare bin Laden with Pat Robertson and his ilk. Sure, the comparison is easy to make, but Robertson barely appeared in the film before that. The tactic would have been much more effective if he’d pulled the “let’s contrast their words’ with extremists'” trick on Christians and Jews, rather than just Muslims. Of course, it’d still be a fallacy to ignore that there are differences between moderates and extremists, but at least it’d be a consistently-applied fallacy.

There’s one thing I wish I could remember in greater detail: Maher’s interview with Francis Collins. That’s one I would really like to see uncut, not only because it was more intelligent than most of the softball interviews, but because Collins said something in it that made me sit up and say “you know, he’s right.” When you make Francis Collins look good in a debate about religion–especially right after he’s revealed his profound ignorance by saying that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses, I think you’re probably doing something wrong.

Gosh, I’ve been negative so far. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the film; there were lots of parts that I really enjoyed. There’s an extended segment toward the beginning where Maher is exploring his own history with religion, going so far as to bring his mother and sister in as interviewees. The segment is personal and intriguing, and feels overall very genuine. His speeches at the beginning and end, despite the jarring inconsistency with the tone of the rest of the film, are very well-written and well-delivered, and really communicate the urgency of the problems. He manages to pick a pretty good crop of interviewees overall. It was neat to see Tal Bachman skewer the Mormon church (sadly, he didn’t go after Joan of Arc or Aphrodite); former Vatican astronomer Jerry George Coyne and the radical priest outside the Vatican (who I believe was once on the cover of Newsweek) both provided nice examples of religionists who weren’t nutty in quite the same way as the rest of the crowd.

In many ways, “Religulous” would seem like a much better movie if it didn’t invite itself so readily to comparison with other recent religion-critical movies. It lacks the tight focus of “Flock of Dodos;” it lacks the personal narrative that served as the core and guiding premise of “The God Who Wasn’t There,” despite including something similar toward the beginning (which was necessarily abandoned for the last two-thirds of the film–Maher’s Catholic/Jewish history didn’t exactly lead into ex-Gay ministries and Muslim extremists); it was missing the matter-of-fact horror of “Jesus Camp,” though it had the frequent-shots-in-a-car direction down; and it didn’t have the calm, honest intellectual dignity of “Root of All Evil,” which I think was the biggest strike against it.

If I had to boil it down to my overall feeling, it was like an extra-long episode of “Bullshit.” There’s the same clear biases, the same lack of much in-depth coverage, a similar kind of humor, and the same tendency to think that maybe they’ve picked easier targets than they should have. It’s a decent movie, just as “Bullshit” is a decent show, but nothing about “Religulous” feels particularly well-done or original. It’s a shame, too, because I think it would have been a much better movie, one that stood out a little farther from its peers, if it had stuck to mocking the ridiculousness and excesses of religion.

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3 Responses to Religulousness

  1. quantumberry says:

    Oh, no! I’m in an infinite loop, clicking on your “novel” link. Whatever will I do?

  2. Will Staples says:

    I decided I’d stay away from this movie when I learned that Maher used the same techniques to get his interviews that makers of Expelled did — by lying to the interviewees and making them think it was for a different movie altogether.In his words:”We never, ever, used my name. We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it ‘A Spiritual Journey.’ It didn’t work everywhere. We went to Salt Lake City, but no one would let us film there at all”Cf. Expelled. The only difference is that Maher openly admits it.Besides that, though, I’ve just always hated Bill Maher and don’t want to put money in his pocket. His idea of debate is to invite one person with whom he disagrees onto his show and two people who agree with him and then gang up on the dissenter. He’s an obnoxious prick and the fact that I agree with his views more often than not changes nothing.

  3. Akusai says:

    I certainly enjoyed the movie (now that it’s finally at a theatre near me), but it was definitely meant more to ridicule than to level any real substantive criticisms. Overall, though, I think it fit with his theme: show folks how ridiculous this stuff is, and then tell them “Grow up or die” at the end. Moderate theists are often pretty good at mounting intellectual defenses of their faith when countered with rational arguments against it, so I think Maher’s open catastrophizing and ridicule was simply an attempt at a new angle.It’s like one of my favorite H.L. Mencken quotes: “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.”

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