Critique of Religulous

I recently watched Bill Maher’s new documentary, Religilous. I expected the movie to be funny, provocative, and offensive (it was). I also hoped (perhaps naively) that it would have some honesty, some thoughtfulness, and some serious interest in the issues it was raising (it didn’t). As a believer, I appreciate it when skeptics ask tough questions because it helps clarify truth, which is always the goal of faith. The issues involved in religion are important, and robust debate about them in our society is good. Bill’s movie, however, confused rather than clarified dialogue between believers and skeptics.

In the first place, it appeared from watching the movie that he got many of the people he interviewed to do the interviews by misleading them regarding what the movie was about. It also appeared as if he significantly edited the interviews in order to make his interviewees appear as unprofessional and clueless as possible, and on several occasions he was painfully rude to the people in the film. If this perception is at all accurate, then Bill owes the people he interviewed an apology. It is ugly and dishonorable to deceive and use people in this way.

Now regarding the film’s critique of religion. Some Christians have responded to the movie by claiming that, yes, religion is evil, but Christianity is not a “religion.” This is a valid distinction in certain contexts, depending on how you define the word “religion” – but I don’t think it is a very helpful distinction in this context. Obviously Christianity is a religion in the sense that it affirms the existence of God, the legitimacy of faith, the reality of an afterlife, and so on – and it is basic religious concepts like these that Bill Maher is critiquing.

My critiques of Maher’s presentation are:

(1) The majority of the people he chose to interview were relatively uneducated regarding their faith and unaware of what the movie was about. In fact, the only educated person in the film was Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome project, whose debut was extremely brief. And then from these interviews Maher draws conclusions about religion per se? By this approach any worldview could be easily debunked (including Maher’s “rationalism”), especially if you edit the interviews. Maher should have interacted with the best, not the worst, arguments and proponents for religion if he was really serious about drawing conclusions about religion in general (as he clearly was in the way he ended the movie).

2) Anyone with some basic common sense recognizes religion is very diverse and has been the source of both great evil and great good in the world. A thoughtful person, therefore, is willing to sift between the good and the bad, rather than just reject it all at the outset. To be unable to make distinctions within such a complex and diverse phenomenon as religion is shockingly simplistic. It is as simplistic as meeting someone of a different skin color who has some fault and then concluding that all people with that skin color share the same fault. It is as simplistic as seeing a particular political candidate fall into moral disgrace and then concluding that all people in his party are doing the same thing. It is as simplistic as hearing a story about a dog attacking its owner and then concluding all pets are dangerous.

Is faith good? It obviously depends on what the faith is in. If the object of the faith is good, faith is good. If the object of the faith is bad, faith is bad. Martin Luther King’s faith in a God who made all humans equal (and it was his faith that undergirded his social action) was good, while Osama bin Laden’s faith in a God who rewards terrorist actions is bad. Its a great fault that Bill is unwilling to make such basic distinctions.

3) Its also simplistic to divide people into (1) those who have faith and (2) rationalists, as Bill does. If postmodernism has taught us anything, it has taught us that everyone has faith in unprovable assumptions because everyone is finite. Rationalism, for example, cannot be proven. You have to assume it in order to use it. If you try to prove, you are assuming it to prove it, which is circular.

4) The climax of the movie basically claims that religion breeds violence and therefore must die out in order for humans to live peacefully with each other. Maher doesn’t mention that irreligion has been the cause of much more violence by far in the 20th century than religion, nor does he attempt to explain those who promote peace because of religion. Once again sweeping generalizations replace a discerning recognition of the complexity of the world.

In conclusion, there is obviously a lot of crazy and evil stuff that happens in religions, but to deduce from this that religion across the board is bad is an obvious misdiagnosis. The problem with the world is not religion: the problem is evil, which has religious, anti-religious, and non-religious expressions. A thoughtful person is willing to sift through different religious ideas and expressions and sort out good from bad rather than just reject it all.

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  1. your an idiot, you say he did not interview anyone that was educated about religion. I think i remember him interviewing a doctor, an actual pope, a senator, a few different pastors/priests. But i forgot you dont have to pass an IQ test to be on the senate

  2. I just watched Religilous and although he didnt go to deep on the issues (it’s hard to do in the short time you have in a movie) I must still admire Bill:s patience. I used to debate religion a lot but I seldom do nowadays. It’s all just to silly to be bothered about to begin with. As a non believer I have found it almost impossible to enable believers to get out of their “box of faith” and look upon their religion from the outside.
    I’m not an atheist, I’m an ignostic. I don’t know and therefore I do not believe. There is no logical reason for me to pick a religion over another since in thruth, no specific religion stand up any better than any other in an unbiased non-partisan examination. Sure, you can laugh about thetans and scientology, but in reality it is no stranger than virgin birth and resurrection.

  3. I think the movie was quite good, although I share the sentiment that Bill was being a little unfair while picking on some people who don’t really know as much as he does about the subject. On the other hand, those are the people led by religion. People are easily led when in crowds, and religion is a form of crowd. There are others, such as nationalism. All of us are susceptible, and it explains how so many ordinarily ‘good’ people end up doing evil things only to regret that later. When you are following the crowd, you don’t have to think for yourself. All Bill did is expose just how big a problem that is. He didn’t seem to offer a solution, though. His ending on the “end religion or the world will end” message was a little cheap in comparison to the more general message of the gullibility of mankind.

  4. Generally people who are uneducated believe in something as silly as god anyways, perhaps you should read “god is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens to shed some light on your own religious beliefs as well as what christianity and faith are really about.

  5. Gavin – I think you hit the nail on the head with this review. When the movie was over, I thought it was odd that what Mr. Maher was describing as Christianity (and indeed Islam and Judaism) has not been my experience at all. While I can’t say that the Bible Land Jesus or the Trucker’s Chapel speak for all of Christians, I thought that (almost) everyone Mr. Maher interviewed showed at least one trait often identified as Christian – patience. I wish someone would make a sequel/answer to Religilous, showing some of the positive aspects of religion: disaster relief, outreach to the poor, much of the Civil Rights Movement…

  6. I really find it hard to understand how we can continue to believe ridiculous storys thought up by primitive minds many thousands of years ago. These story’s belong in a museum, not continually shoved in our faces at every possible moment.
    I am certain that without religion, we would still find ways to help our fellow man, and we would also remove a method by which people proclaim superiority over their fellow man.

  7. This concept rather frightens me. Any segment of society contains those who are poor representative for that segment. Religion has zealots and those who are extreme, just like many segments of society. To lump everyone together because of a few extremest is not really fair. I have known, good, caring, loving, intelligent people within my faith. They don’t shove their faith in other people’s faces. Instead they do kind things to help others in need and they don’t expect recognition or new members in return. They help others because they really care. If you don’t believe in God, or if you simply can’t prove the existence of God and that fact keeps you from believing, then fine. But live and let live, don’t feel it is necessary to condemn those who do believe or to pick apart their faith because it doesn’t always seem logical. Logic and reason do not always make people happy. There is no logic behind loving someone, yet love hasn’t been put on trial yet.