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RELIGULOUS: Not so Ridiculous?

Bill Maher’s Religulous is a bracing slap in the face. Descendents of Moses or Mohammad may consider his cinematic rant a call to arms, another blow in an bloody duel. Christians may consider it an unfair fight, more low blow than gentlemanly engagement. At its best, Religulous serves as a wake up call, a slap to attention, to do more homework, to better inform the faithful.  So how does it strike you?

Maher is an equal opportunity offender. He takes shots at the three major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Religulous also mocks the more bizarre elements of Scientology and Mormonism. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism get a free pass, perhaps because they are perceived as less doctrinaire. There is something to offend almost everybody, but Religulous delivers on its first goal—to entertain. I overheard two women exiting the theater say, “It was entertaining, but it wasn’t very educational.” The laughs come often, but enlightenment proves elusive.

Christians should see the film, if only to understand how we continue to be perceived. As the Barna Research Group found in UnChristian, we’ve become known for what we’re against. Maher points out how anti-intellectual, anti-homosexual, and overtly political we’ve become during our failed culture war. To fight Religulous’ fire with fire would be folly. Sometimes, it is important to give heed to your enemy’s warnings.

There are plenty of places where Religulous doesn’t play fair. Director Larry Charles employed the surprise bait and switch tactics with Borat. Confident rubes agree to be interviewed for a documentary and then only after the cameras are turned on, does Bill Maher appear. (See some of their valid, off camera complaints here.)   While Borat unnerved his conversation partners with absurdity, Maher berates believers with an array of objections. I found myself agreeing with his attacks on prosperity preachers, gay bashing ministers, and young earth creationists. His interview with self-proclaimed messiahs like Jose Miranda, illustrate how profitable packaged Christianity can be. 

The faith of followers can easily be abused by charlatans. Even in Rome, a self-effacing priest admits even the splendor arising within the Vatican seems incompatible with Jesus’ ascetic practices. Religulous rightly exposes those who have turned a religion born out of sacrifice into big business.

Maher’s greatest fears arise from the merging of nationalism and religion. He begins and ends the film in Megiddo, wondering if prophecies about violent last days will become self-fulfilling in the Holy Land. Surely the west has valid questions about how terrorism can spring from Islam, a religion named for ‘peace’. Whenever God and country get conflated, Maher (and I) get nervous. It is tough to defend killing in the name of God from any humane standards.

Where Maher appears most insincere is in his claim to seek answers. Maher veers more towards the snide Christopher Hitchens, than the scientific Richard Dawkins. He picks on some very easy targets, as when he crashes a worship service at the Truckers’ Chapel. Maher ultimately thanks the truckers for being “Christlike as well as Christian.” Their sincerity and patience with his hijinks demonstrates a way forward. Character counts in an era when almost no one is listening.

Unfortunately, Religulous is more of a monologue than a dialogue. It reminds me why we made Purple State of Mind. Our highly politicized era has turned faith into a divisive lightning rod. But while Religulous opts for easy laughs, in Purple State of Mind, we aspired to something more—to genuine disagreement and ongoing respect. We decide to live together in disharmony rather than merely dismissing each other.

Having pointed out the leaps of faith needed to accept Jonah’s three days in a whale or even the Virgin birth, Maher concludes with his own bit of proselytizing. He is an apostle of doubt, suggesting we’re all on the road to nowhere. While he wants religion to die, it is not clear what he proposes in its place. Does he really have such faith in humanity’s ability to self-regulate? He would disdain the efforts of ecumenical religious leaders to create a brotherhood of man or a commonality of faiths. Is reason alone supposed to suffice? Didn’t the myth of progress already come crashing down in the bloody 20th century?

Religion can be dangerous. But we’ve also witnessed what gulags and gas chambers resulted from a world that devalues humanity, where might make right. In his closing rant, Maher says, “Faith makes a virtue out of non-thinking.” We’ve seen unfortunate examples of blind faith in death cults and suicide bombers. But why can’t we advocate faith and reason, encouraging more thoughtful religious expressions? Religulous exposes how nationalism, creationism and capitalism can become substitute religions. Like the prophets of old, Maher seeks death to false religions. But rather than following his road to nowhere, I exit with a renewed hunger for a rigorous Christian faith.  How about you?

Thankfully, a refreshing alternative is enroute.  Check out the trailer for the upcoming documentary, THE ORDINARY RADICALS.

Tags | Film


I haven't seen Religulous and I don't know if I will. I'm so short on time (and money!) that I'm not sure I have either to spare towards catching this film. However, I am very thankful that YOU have seen it and you've posted your commentary. And I agree...Christians will be wise to be as objective as possible when viewing this film. The perception of the church by anyone not associated with it is important information, worth analyzing, worth processing, and worth causing us to examine how accurately we are living as the hands and feet of Jesus.

The only way we can fight people like Bill Maher is with sincerity and love in action. Thanks for the review so I don't give them satisfaction of spending my time and $!

Mr. Detweiler,

I have a question. My background before I started trying to follow Christ was atheistic (a tad more agnostic, I believed in God as the demons do!), so I tend to be a heavy thinker and can relate with atheists and their struggles. But, coming from that background, how do I relate while at the same time draw the line? Because, like you, I find some of Maher's critiques spot-on, but I am also disturbed by some of his reactions. In some ways, he speaks for my frustrations, but, in other very clear ways, he absolutely does not! When I first started trying to follow Christ one of the things that attracted me to Him was the fact that He is not like, and against, hypocritical religious leaders (because that is what turned me away from Him; that misconception). But, again to restate my question, where is the line drawn? Are there any scriptures you may be able to refer or any insight you may have on those scriptures that you think may help me?

Thanks for this thoughtful response, Joel. Maher seems to be trapped in a 20th century version of faith versus reason. He (and several of the people he interviewed) want to place the burden of proof upon religion. And while we can engage in detailed discussions about the reliability of ancient texts or the frontiers of science, I think we need to recover the truth of scripture as STORY. C.S. Lewis called Christianity a myth that is also true. In other words, it connects with what we see, hear and know about the world experientially as embodied in the transformative life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Also, I would suggest we need to recover forgotten books of the Bible that deal with the problem of pain. If the Proverbs reduce following God to a formula, "If you do this, then this will happen...", Ecclesiastes asks what happens when the formula doesn't work, when the wicked prosper, when bad things happen to good people. Biblical books like Lamentations and the Psalms reveal the darker aspects of life, when things don't work out like we want or expect. In those moments of suffering and doubt, God is still present. The suffering servant Jesus may be as important in our broken era as the triumphant Christ.

And finally, we have to figure out to recover the rebel Jesus of scripture. Why aren't we railing against hypocrisy or prosperity preaching or nationalism? Why do we leave it to 'outsiders' to critique our obvious abuses? God has always spoken through unlikely prophets. The challenge has always been to hear them rather than ignore or even kill them (like what we did to Jesus...).

I actually get into many of these issues in my book, A PURPLE STATE OF MIND. This isn't a sales pitch, just an extended way to interact with this recovery of a more gracious, fully orbed faith.

I agree with you that we should hear critique from the world. I just don't think this is a really valid critique. He seems to be picking on extraordinary examples, ambushing the unsuspecting with a loaded weapon (camera). If it's sincerity Maher is after in this 'documentary', I wouldn't consider someone sincere with their search who only looks at the fringes just as I wouldn't consider someone a war hero who attacked a hospital. If it's comedy or even slightly interesting insight he's after, he's certainly no Sasha Baron Cohen or Michael Moore.

Lastly, I find it incredibly obnoxious that he gives a pass to Buddhism and New Age. I guess it was easier to write material for the completely unthreatening Scientology and Mormonism.

And JoelP, it sounds like you're saying that most atheists or agnostics tend to be "heavy thinkers". I hope Mr. Maher's piece shows you that they can be just as muddle-minded as the soft-targets they pick on.

Lastly, I like what Mollie Hemingway had to say in the WSJ:


PS. Craig, Chinzorig is a good dude. We've gotten to have lunch a few times. Thanks for hooking me up with him.

Yeah, Maher's piece did show that. And I was aware of that, which is why I said that some statements troubled me. And that was why I asked the question, where is the balance?

And most atheists do tend to be "heavy thinkers", to me, but I did not mean this in a completely good way. It's like Solomon said when he mentioned how too much reading makes you tired. Heavy thinking can be a hindrance, especially in regards to bitternesses, since some things just need to be let go. I hope that clarifies what I was saying.

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Craig Detweiler, PhD is a filmmaker, author and professor. He directs the Reel Spirituality Institute for the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary.