Bill Maher’s new movie, cleverly titled Religulous (imdb), is a polemic against what Maher argues is the biggest ill of modernity: Religion. Throughout the film, he ridicules the religious for their dogma, intolerance, irrationality, and faith, offering forth both reasoned arguments against certain claims and at times hilarious juxtapositions to show just how ridiculous some of these religious beliefs are. Maher’s movie is, on the surface, is a call for Humean empiricism and skepticism, and a return to the Enlightenment values of reason and secularism, culminating in a call to action for the nonbelievers: make a stand against religion, or else our world will be led to the destruction by religious fundamentalists. These seem like laudable goals, but Maher’s execution of the film leads to a film that draws on religious narratives to make its own point and shows Maher’s own lack of liberal tolerance.
Maher’s film serves as an atheist’s jeremiad: the world has sinned by becoming too religious; if we do not change our ways, we are doomed. One of the film’s ultimate failures is its insistence that the religious and the rational are irreconcilable. That the film cannot construct itself outside of this narrative shows how deeply embedded we are in religious discourse. According to the film, the atheist is the model citizen, and those questioning their beliefs are just not trying hard enough to be rational. If we simply flip terms, the atheist is Maher’s “true believer,” the one to lead us to salvation not through faith, but through doubt, empiricism, humility, and reason.
Never mind that many of the ills of the world were not brought on solely by religion, but by the rationality of domination.
And never mind that Maher’s film is anything but humble. It is a romping parade of mockery. What Maher mocks the most (apart, perhaps, from the “fairy tales” of religion) is the intolerance of Christians and Muslims. But in order to do so, in order to chastise Christians and Muslims for their homophobia, he turns gays and Muslims into caricatures. The film’s stance against homophobia is incredibly homophobic: gays are all about sex (if anal sex isn’t allowed, there’s only the blowjob left, he claims) or extreme outfits and presentations, which are to be mocked as well.
While Christians and Jews are portrayed as coming in different varieties, Muslims are portrayed as only two kinds: murderous terrorists or folks who are denying that that’s what they should believe. The Bible and the Koran receive a double standard: The Bible, Maher suggests, must be read with the lens of history and shouldn’t be taken literally. The Koran, however, is a text that must be followed strictly. Christians are mocked for strict adherence to every word of the Bible. Liberal Muslims, however, are mocked for not following every law written in the Koran. Maher’s hermeneutics of suspicion leads to the conclusion that Islam is fundamentally a violent, war-mongering, hateful religion.
While Maher makes this suggestion about all religions, it comes down most monolithically against Islam. Blinded by his adherence to rationalism, Maher dismisses all religious experience without nuance.
The strength of Religulous‘s arguments, that we need to be skeptical and humble, is dismantled by the lack of humility of the film. But what I find even more disturbing is Maher’s swift dismissal of faith. How can you believe in something that you can’t prove? he seems to repeatedly ask, in various different ways. Maher’s call for empiricism is useless, however, without faith. We need faith, I’d argue, to believe that we can do better, that there is something to work toward.
Maher is right in one fundamental way: religion has been a problem in our world. But it is not, as Maher would like us to believe, the problem in our world. Our world could peacefully exist with religious people, I believe, because there isn’t an inherent problem with believing in narratives that guide you, even if they aren’t “true.” The problem lies in how we treat each other, a problem of politics and morals. Does religion often harm this? Yes. But Maher misses the insistence of various of his interviewees that some of the violence between Muslims and Jews is not about religion, but about politics. This is swept aside, a series of clips where each interviewee says “politics,” but with expedience, the film claims this is incorrect and claims the problem is obviously religious intolerance.
Where are the religious peace activists in this film? The Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, who have actively worked toward peace and who treat others with respect and care (a respect and care it seems that Maher lacks)? If Maher wants an empirical epistemology, rather than a dogmatic one, perhaps he should broaden the scope of his empiricism. Because as it is, his film is as religious and dogmatic as those he loves to loathe.