I recently gathered with a handful of thoughtful friends to view an afternoon matinee of comedian/social provocateur Bill Maher’s Religulous. The upshot of this often funny film is that religion has been the primary cause of more evil, violence, and repression in this world than anything else, and is stunting mankind’s ability to logically move forward.
To prove his point, Maher consistently picks some pretty low-hanging fruit from the tree of faiths. He takes his share of shots at Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Islam, and Scientology, but primarily focuses on fundamentalist Christianity. And in nearly every case they are easy targets for scorn with their lack of common sense, their biblical illiteracy, or their outright hypocrisy. This often hits home in a comedic way because he has caught them being inconsistent. However, it would have been intriguing to see him interview thoughtful Christians who have explored more of the width and breadth of the faith like Os Guiness, Philip Yancey, Tim Keller, Ravi Zacharias, or Donald Miller. Not only would they have brought some counter-wit, but would have certainly brought more balance to the proceedings.
My friend, Vince Wilcox, who was in our group, made these comments: “First, Maher claims that logic and intellect always trump faith and experience, which he condemns as unreliable and laughable. Ironically, he seems to argue that while it is intellectually “honest” for him to admit that there are things he can’t understand, it is intellectually “dishonest” for religious people to say, “I don’t know…but I believe God does.”
“Under the pretense of honest agnosticism, Maher actually argues for an uncompromising atheism. Each seemingly benign “I don’t know” morphs into a “…therefore, YOU can’t know.” By doing this, he negates the possibility that someone else’s faith or personal experience–or even their logic or intellect–may lead them to the conclusion that true faith is not only possible, but preferable.
“Throughout the film, Maher makes the argument against the existence of Universal Truth precisely by insisting that his definition of truth should be universal. But, you just can’t have it both ways.
“Either Truth is objective and external, and we all better dang well pay attention to it..or Truth is subjective and internal, and no one has the right to criticize the values or faith system of another person. He totally sidesteps both options and refuses to acknowledge that Truth—like our Constitution—can be pure in principle AND poorly practiced.”
When, in the opening sequence, Maher stated “Before man figured out how to be rational and peaceful…” I nearly choked on my fruit punch. It really didn’t matter how he finished that sentence, because it appears he doesn’t read much history or current affairs, let alone get out of his Hollywood Hills lifestyle very often.
Maher makes the statement several times during Religulous that there’s been more killing in the name of God than all other sources combined. Any historian or sociologist will wholeheartedly disagree with that maxim. In ancient times the Medes, Persians, Assyrians, Mongol Hordes, Roman Legions, Huns, and Aztec Warlords all come to mind as bloodthirsty and vengeful empires that did very little in the name of a god. And when religion became less relevant after the Enlightenment, the world seemed to become even more violent with the outbreaks of World Wars I and II, Nazism, Fascism, and the god-less concepts of communist ideologies as brutal as anything the world has ever imagined via Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, etc. Not to mention the ethnic cleansings of the last 20 years that scarred central Africa. We are talking hundreds of millions dead as a result of these conquests that had nothing to do with religion.
Maher’s thesis here seems to be “Do we really need God to tell us that killing is bad?” I believe that turning that question around deserves even more consideration: “Is rationalism enough to make the world ethical?” It would seem that the answer is a resounding “No, it’s not.”
In his closing rant, Maher pontificates that “religion must die so that man may live.” I know what Maher was driving at on the surface, but I think he may have hit on a deeper note that he didn’t even realize. What sets Christianity apart from religion is that it is about a relationship with God. Nearly every religion is set up to create circumstances where we can somehow keep a deity from damning us for all eternity. What makes Christ’s message so unique is that He instructs and shows through His sacrifice what underserved grace and forgiveness is all about. What He offers is a gift, and there is no way we can earn it. Maher may have unwittingly hit the nail on the head when he said that religion must cease if we are to truly live.
I find it fascinating that Maher is rather fond of the teachings of Jesus (even though he claims that He may have never really existed). Bill is genuinely drawn to the Prince of Peace. As Tennessean columnist Ray Waddle puts it: “Maher is appalled that Christians don’t share his indignation about the un-Jesus-like buffoons of TV evangelism or the palatial architecture of the Vatican or the bloodshed spilled in God’s name. At times, he sounds more like a fiery 16th century religious reformer.”
Maher admits that he wasn’t born skeptical. He attended church as a child and sometimes found solace there. He claims that he was still making deals with God even into his 40’s. But Maher’s creed of “I Don’t Know” leaves him in a fairly untenable position. As David Wolpe wrote in his review of the film in the L.A Times, “It should not be hard to understand why someone might choose ancient wisdom over modern nihilism. It is not heroic to believe we are accidents of chemistry. Maher’s view of human nature as essentially animalistic (he repeatedly wonders why anyone would curb their sexual appetites) is dispiriting and plain wrong. Animals we are, but we are much more than just animals. He misunderstands God as a projection of human need. This is a common atheistic trope–your belief is based on psychological deficiencies, while mine is reasoned. In truth, the existence of God is not an antidote to fear but a consequence of wonder. God does not come about through faulty reasoning but through worshipful and humble orientation of the soul.”
Pure rationalism can’t explain Van Gogh, a baby’s smile, jazz, commitment, the majesty of a sunset over the Canadian Rockies, conscience, falling in love, thankfulness, the language of the heart, joy, and other illogical impulses. As Waddell puts it, perhaps in his next film Maher should “investigate where ethics, empathy, sacrifice, creativity, Bach, bluegrass, and Gregorian chants come from.”
“In study after study,” Wolpe adds, “religion proves to make people not just happier but more likely to give to charity and have stable marriages, to reduce drug and alcohol dependence and improve mental health. That does not make it true, but it is worthy of this thought: Why should something so “irrational,” a mere “neurological disorder,” be so helpful to society?”
I like how Vince summed up his response to the film: “Yes, we Christians are often our own worst enemies. And I’m not saying that all of Bill Maher’s criticisms are unwarranted. But I will suggest that if we ‘Jesus followers’ were more often characterized by our tireless service to others, our unequivocal commitment to justice and the poor, our lack of materialism and self-indulgence, and our profoundly sacrificial love, then Bill Maher would have had a lot smaller target for his ire. I mean, he didn’t pick on Mother Teresa…not even once. And perhaps if more believers came into his life with emotional transparency, spiritual humility, and intellectual honesty…then perhaps his next film about faith may be different.”
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