When Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) premiered, it predictably opened to mixed reviews. Narrated by Maher and directed by Larry Charles, Religulous is a scathing criticism on what the filmmakers see as inherent ignorance and immorality within religion.
Critic Brian Orndoff wrote:
Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, Religulous goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs. Maher has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?
Indeed, the first third of Religulous concentrates solely on Christianity. However, Maher, who wrote the film, was raised as an American Catholic, though with a Jewish heritage. Often, writing is most effective when it focuses on what one knows, and Maher seems to know Christianity. Yet, what he primarily depicts is a particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. While polls vary in regards to the percentages of American “liturgical” Christians in contrast to “fundamentalist” Christians, few would argue that the latter comprise the bulk of stereotypes of the faith.
Maher’s perspective on Catholicism suggests he believes it resembles a Protestant evangelical faith. Most post-Vatican II Catholics today would not identify with such views. One could even question the extent of Maher’s exposure to Catholic education, even in a pre-Vatican II environment. His portrayal of Revelations as a literal doomsday book is undeniably filtered through an evangelical lens. Yet, from its earliest history, Catholic readings have predominantly interpreted it as a metaphorical work, written in a popular period genre. It is not viewed as prophecy but, rather, as a book of the past, which sounded a warning regarding the first great persecutor of Christians: Nero.
Neeley Tucker of the Washington Post addressed Maher’s rudimentary knowledge of religion:
One of the rules of satire is that you can’t mock things you don’t understand, and Religulous starts developing fault lines when it becomes clear that Maher’s view of religious faith is based on a sophomoric reading of the Scriptures and that he doesn’t understand that some thoughtful people actually do believe in some sort of spiritual life.
While Maher was not writing an academic paper, his film could have
benefited considerably from consultation with theologians. Maher’s goal, however, wa to make an entertaining and amusing documentary. The late Roger Ebert concurred:
It’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it’s about it. This movie is about Bill Maher’s opinion of religion. He’s very smart, quick and funny, and I found the movie entertaining, although sometimes he’s a little mean to his targets. He visits holy places and talks with adherents of the religions. Or maybe talks with is not quite the right phrase. It’s more that he lines them up and shoots them down. He interrupts, talks over, slaps on subtitles, edits in movie and TV clips, and doesn’t play fair. I took a guilty pleasure in his misbehavior.
Of course, Maher doesn’t have to play fair and anyone who can identify with being targeted by unethical, nonsensical, overzealous fundamentalists could, likewise, revel in Maher’s intellectual bad boy approach. Indeed, as a humorist Maher accomplishes what he sets out to do and, in the process, reveals that proverbial fire-behind -the-smoke cliché is authentic.
There is an almost equal amount of fire behind the smoke in criticisms that Maher’s film is biased, takes cheap shots, and picks easy targets. Yet, for too long the antics of extreme right wing evangelical kooks have been dismissed as the rants of an inconsequential, extreme fringe. While the moral majority is certainly not a majority, and their interpretation of morality can be debated, their influence is vast enough to warrant Religulous as an imperfect but essential documentary.
Religious ignorance is seen in many media-worthy examples. Daily, we read of murders motivated by religion. Or, on a more cartoonish level, an embarrassing example can be found in the scores of people lining up to purchase greasy chicken in a show of support for a fast food magnate’s expressed desire to deprive same-sex couples of civil liberties. An equally absurd illustration might be found in ratings spikes for the television series “Duck Dynasty” after its star publicly delivered a religious diatribe against the LGBTQ community. American-styled evangelical Christianity audaciously made a potential celebrity martyr of a gun toting camouflaged hayseed who blows off the heads of ducks for Jesus.
We may claim that these are caricatured archetypes, far removed from the theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, and Julian. However, it is this barbaric parody of religion which holds sway with evangelical masses. In such a climate, Maher’s lack of civility can easily be justified.
Maher is not above using religious texts against adherents. He consistently refers to the words and teachings of a literary Jesus from Nazareth as being in direct opposition to rightist portrayals of a die-hard deity. When confronting these contradictions, Maher is either met with blank stares or passive aggression, verifying the latent illiteracy which monopolizes Western Christendom. Some of the most disturbing vignettes depict Maher’s interactions with Arkansas senator Mark Pryor. Maher understandably takes issue with “leaders who believe in talking snakes.” In defense of his childish religious beliefs, Pryor counters, “you don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.”
Crude retorts from the “faithful” are hardly alarming to those of us who were raised in an evangelical climate. With a film crew behind him, Maher is equipped with an armor of sorts (which he needs in light of his extroverted sarcasm). Without the benefit of cameras, Maher’s “peddling of doubt,” would most assuredly have been countered with a flying fist to the face in any number of the Midwestern charismatic parishes I was forced to attend in my youth.
Maher was aware that the right-wing talk show pundits would demonize him. Feeling much was at stake, he does not care, tackling religious patriarchal mindsets with an equally patriarchal-styled skepticism. There may have been validity in this approach; he may have felt it was the only language religious Neanderthals will understand.
A criticism that I leveled against Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (1997) was that the film depicted Pentecostal charisma as stemming from an impassioned love of God. Such was rarely the case in my own heritage. More often than not, charismatic outbreaks were born of intense, apocalyptic fears. Maher knows of what he speaks when issuing a warning about “self-fulfilled” prophecy. Reasoning is impotent against those with the capacity and desire to compose a Biblically inspired promenade to Armageddon.
Among the sharpest humor points is Maher’s impersonation of a Scientologist, followed by his getting kicked out of the Vatican, and discoursing with a Jesus wannabe who claims to be descendent of the old boy himself. Maher and Charles’ use of cheesy animated footage to caricature a long history of Christian violence, nonsensical beliefs, and Mormonism (among other faiths), coupled with clips from crass Hollywood Bible epics, is the equivalent of fighting fire with fire. One of the most unsettling vignettes proves to be one with a Holocaust-denying Hasid.
Despite claims to the contrary, Maher does briefly engage with a few intelligent clergymen, and covers Islam and its crimes extensively (if not as much as Christianity). Hinduism and Buddhism are noticeably absent from Religulous, but the latter religion is predominantly pacifist, and its adherents often describe it as a philosophy as opposed to a faith.
Maher makes no hypocritical claims of subscribing to a fair and balanced report, yet he is as either/or in his agenda as the fundamentalists, which is where Religulous stumbles. With leadership and/or adherents, all religions have succumbed an either/or outlook. Even religions initially based on eclecticism (theosophy, et. al.,) eventually adopted an attitude of being correct in opposition to other “incorrect” religions.
In fairness, religion is hardly alone in this. The Surrealists imploded once Andre Breton began dictating the movement’s bullet points, made atheism a mandatory tenet (which reportedly prompted Salvador Dali’s departure), and took an aggressive tactic against rival art movements. Comic book fans wage into internet wars over blasphemous portrayals of their characters, damn rival comic book companies (DC or Marvel), or even issue death threats to film critics who dare to give negative reviews to the latest celluloid treatment of their funny-paper deity (as they did with the last Batman movie). These subjects share attitudes we see in religion.
Religulous and Maher both have built rabid fan bases, as well as enemies. Peter Travers of Rolling Stones magazine was not far off the mark when he wrote that Maher would have burned at the stake in an earlier age. But atheism is no more immune to black-or-white vision than any other religion, movement, and revolution. Militant atheism is a new, much bandied-about catchphrase that is actually not so new. State-mandated atheism has proven as immoral as state religion. Indeed, more people were butchered in a single day of a secular revolution (Russia) than those murdered in the whole Inquisition’s history.
Where Maher’s one-sidedness and naiveté becomes most glaring is in his failure to see and grasp the positive benefits gleaned from religious imagination. In his two-fisted attachment to hyperrealism, Maher glosses over El Greco’s Assumption, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Mozart’s masses, Gauguin’s Nativity, Bruckner’s cathedral symphonies, and “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” all of which were produced from religious imagination.
Maher equates religion solely with a two-dimensional perspective on belief. Belief is not something one can see, smell, taste, or touch. It can be organic and metaphoric. The late Andrew Greeley puts his finger on the pulse ((Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Imagination. Berkely: University of California Press, 2000.)):
The Catholic imagination invests stories with its distinctive sensibility, developing Easter lilies, Santa Clause, and the Feast of Corpus Christi. Its devotions include Mary, Jesus, angels, saints, statues, stained-glass windows, holy water, religious medals, candles. It is a verdant rainforest of metaphors.
Greely recounted the immense difficulty he encountered in his attempt to explain his aesthetic appreciation for religious imagination and mythology, divorced from dull, dogmatic concepts of belief, in his reflection on a television interview with Phil Donahue ((Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Myth. New York: Collier Books, 1990.)):
“Now, Fr. Greeley, don’t you think it would be better if all those dissenting Catholics left the Church? Wouldn’t it be better if only those who agreed with the pope remained Catholic? Shouldn’t all good Catholics agree with the pope-birth control, celibacy, abortion, the ordination of women?” How to explain in a few moments two millennium of history in which pious Catholics, even saints, disagreed with the pope? “Because they like being Catholic.” He threw up his hands in disgust. “What does liking have to do with it?” “Everything.”
Maher’s lack of bite is indeed adolescent, although not without value. In his total rejection of religion, Maher is simply at an adolescent stage of thought . He sees its unquestionably dominant tendencies towards oppression, lack of humanism, unethical proselytizing, and immoral, two-dimensional enforcement of systematic beliefs. Maher sees a mother of four being allowed to die in a Catholic hospital, rather than being permitted a life-saving abortion. But he fails to see religious work in social reform.
Maher calls out the moral contrast between imperial Vatican City and a destitute, first century Nazarene who died a criminal’s death, but he fails to credit a priest for also acknowledging this. Maher rightly points out that the Gospels are consistent in their condemnation of avarice (a fact which tends to be conveniently blanketed over in the empire of “religious business”). Unfortunately, he one-sidedly neglects to examine the extensiveness of Christian charity.
The literal minded, whether atheist or fundamentalist, lack the evolved attitude of a both/and state. Perhaps Maher’s non-belief will evolve. Still, even in its imperfect panorama, Religulous may be appraised positively as functional art.
If Maher’s film inspires even a scant few towards critical thinking, self-reflection, or identification, then Religulous has done its job. Maher’s methodology may be pubescent, but perhaps that is an effective salve to religions which are, alarmingly, still primarily locked in a primate mindset, even after thousands of years. Religulous is a trench fighter’s opus and a progressive half-step.