Religulous: Replacing Ridiculous Religion with Ridiculous Rationality

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.

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6 Responses to Religulous: Replacing Ridiculous Religion with Ridiculous Rationality

  1. Julie says:

    I’ve always thought Maher was arrogant and unfunny. Good to know I’m still right. 🙂

  2. Laura says:

    Thank you, thank you, Michael. I really appreciate the balance, insight, and calm of your review.

    I have been noticing lately all the books published which argue that we need to get rid of religion altogether, and besides of course being an almost childish and simplistic response to the problems brought by religion, it is also a un-charitable and impatient and even hateful response to them. And, as you point out in the case of this film, it’s a response in which one takes on the very characteristics of the thing one is critiquing: an all-or-nothing kind of thinking, an impatience with the complexities of problems, etc… an impatience with other human beings, a judgment of them. And what else is that but the very thing Maher is supposedly critiquing?

    Anyway, thanks, Michael. I so very much appreciate your thoughtful review. You are one of those people in the world who… while OF COURSE I don’t always agree with you (again, of course not), I always like the WAY you think. Bravo, Michael.

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks, Laura. I’m not sure what to say after that glowing response. 🙂 Thank you.

  4. Pingback: Bill Maher’s “Religulous” « Cultivated Pages

  5. sara jameson says:

    Michael, you have hit on the very dilemma that two of my WR 222 students are in as they try to define (argument of definition) that religion = hypocrisy, but so clearly non-Rogerian (not that I have emphasized this, but probably should more) ranting against how ridiculous religion is. They say, prayer is useless. They say, religion does not belong in politics (they do not, yet, notice that Martin Luther King was a pastor who used his church to fight for liberal civil rights). Very Lockean (if I understand this correctly) – religion is entirely personal and has no place in the public because of “separation of church and state” (which they misinterpret). Yet, they also say, if someone who professes a faith makes even the least inconsistency or doesn’t follow that faith perfectly, then they are hypocrites. Subtleties are lost here. I’m going to try to work with them. Not so much because I would like to enlighten them to (what I see as ) a more tolerant and nuanced position, as at least to show them that ranting like they are doing will not be effective with most audiences. If they don’t care, well, then, OK.

    If it’s all right with you, I would like to share your blog post with them. Neither managed to cite the film which would have been an obvious addition to their argument (and we already talked in class about films as arguments of definition or personifications of terms etc).

    Thanks, Michael!

  6. Michael says:

    Sarah, it’s perfectly fine to share this post with them!

    You might also direct them toward this article by Jürgen Habermas. It might be pretty complicated, depending on their reading level, but Habermas used to argue similarly to these students and to Locke: Religion is a private affair, and our public sphere should be 100% secular. Now he’s calling our publics “post-secular.”

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