Religulous: Outrageously Innocuous

Bill Maher’s new “I hate religion” agit-prop indulgence, Religulous, is appreciatively passionate and occasionally funny, but all things considered, it’s a rather trifling little film.

There are numerous things to be said about it (both praises and criticisms), and you can find some of them in my 2 star review of the film for Christianity Today.

My reaction was not exactly what I—or Bill Maher—expected. I assumed that I would leave the film totally offended and perhaps a bit distraught. Maher no doubt was banking on me (i.e. the average person of committed religious faith) having a reaction like that.

But after seeing Religulous, I didn’t have much of a strong reaction at all. Maybe it’s because I’d seen all of this stuff before. Maher’s film merely pulls up all the worst, most unrepresentative spokespersons of these faiths. And that is nothing new. Jesus Camp did this in 2006; the “what is Pat Robertson saying this time” media does it on a daily basis.

Religulous is offensive, yes, but not in the sense that Maher hopes it will be. It insults the audience’s intelligence not only because it tells them they are dumb to believe in a deity, but because it assumes—counter to all statistics—that large portions of the potential viewing audience agree. Maher’s film presents an achingly narrow view—the view that religions are all dumb and religious people all stupid—and it doesn’t seem to recognize just how marginal such a position really is.

Bill Maher lives in a bubble if he thinks that there are many people in the world who share his opinion that “religion is the most dangerous threat facing humanity.” He seems ignorant (perhaps willfully) of the fact that most of the smartest people in history have been religious, and that most reform movements and humanitarian aid has had religious origins.

Ultimately, this is why Religulous is so disappointing. It is too wrapped up in itself, too out-of-touch, to have anything to say to anybody. It can be cute, and funny (and frequently is), but it’s not important. It’s intellectually boring. And for a movie so devotedly about a “call to arms” against religion, intellectually boring is the last thing you want to be.

Lest you think I’m uniquely harsh on the film, here is what some other critics are saying:

Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times: “Because [Maher] wants to be amusing above all else, he takes his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to the assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion just as they do the fringes of atheism. The humor he creates at their expense proves nothing except that dealing from a stacked deck benefits no one but the dealer.”

Rafer Guzman, Newsday: “It's a nasty, condescending, small-minded film, self-amused and ultimately self-defeating. Its only accomplishment is to make atheists look bad.”

Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter: “The problem, if you're going to take Maher's inquiry seriously, is whom he chooses to question and where he chooses to go. For the most part, he verbally jousts with evangelical charlatans and redneck whack jobs… Maher doesn't risk questioning a learned theologian.”