Movie Review: Religulous

Bill Maher, the always provocative comedian-cum-commentator, has a new movie out called Religulous, a round-the-world documentary on the irrationality of religion and those who believe in it.

I saw it last night. There were many laugh out loud moments and some truly frightening scenes of religious extremists off the deep end. Occasionally the movie was sad more than anything, such as the scene of John Westcott who was once gay but has “cured himself” and now, in the name of the Lord, helps other gay men rid themselves of homosexuality via Exchange Ministries. The irony is the guy still looks so obviously gay — haircut, voice, etc. Or the man who told Maher he believes in miracles and as evidence relayed a story of how one day he prayed it would rain and 10 minutes later — wait for it — it started raining! Unbelievable!

While I’m sympathetic to Maher’s basic points I have one stylistic complaint and one philosophical complaint. Stylistically, he repeatedly interrupted his interviewees and brought to the conversations a clear agenda for the answers he was looking for. Philosophically, he treated all believers the same — bozos through and through. The movie opens with Maher visiting a “trucker church” — a very small trailer in the middle of nowhere America where truckers gather together and pray. Maher, the smooth talking, blazer-wearing, L.A. comedian berates the overweight, blearly-eyed, not well educated truckers for their lack of skepticism about their faith. Huh? Why not let them be religious in peace?

Here’s the thing: Maher is convinced religion on the whole does more bad than good in the world. I entertain the notion that in the end religion does more good than bad. Take the truckers with whom he opens the film. Sure, I’m concerned about the slippery slope argument (if you’re willing to suspend rational faculties in this area, what else might you be irrational about?) but on the whole I bet these truckers derive a certain comfort and security from their weekly prayer sessions.

Later on, Maher interviews a senator and prominent God-believing scientist with these folks I do share his concern about how they’re letting religious doctrine influence their thinking. I’m totally fine with a trucker talking admiringly about God. I do get concerned when President Bush says God’s will informs his foreign policy, or when a CEO cites God as reason for doing something.

At the end Maher insists that if you’re atheist and quiet about it, speak up! To wit, his prime audience: passive atheists. Hard core believers won’t watch a movie like this, hard core atheists will love it but they were already sold. It’s the light weight non-believers who just might be moved.

One last point. Religulous suffers from the limits of the medium (film). It’s very hard to explore a topic like religion in any kind of depth and near impossible to resist the kind of emotional cheap shots that video and music and animation allow. Just like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is a perhaps entertaining but shallow way to understand the lead up to the Iraq war, Religulous is a rather shallow way to explore the atheist argument.

Bottom Line: As entertainment and comedy, Religious is well worth it. If you want an atheist treatise on religion, there are many books which explore the topic better.

10 comments on “Movie Review: Religulous
  • I agree with a lot of what you’ve written here. Even though I tend to agree with Maher on the topic of religion, I found it odd how he was so concerned about the fact that very religious people are generally judgmental of those who do not share the same beliefs.

    It came across as odd because Maher himself appeared extremely judgmental of those who did not share his own beliefs.

    I must say, though, I really do like his stated philosophy of simply not knowing the answers to many of the questions that religion aims to answer, and being fine with not knowing. That’s spot on with how I feel.

  • Ben — why do George Bush and other God-loving politicians get elected at such high rates? A large part has to do with the fact that those truckers vote for these politicians in droves. If we are going to give every citizen in our country the franchise, then they must be critical thinkers.

    I am not sure how to deal with it, but it seems unfair of you to be “concern[ed] about how they’re letting religious doctrine influence their thinking” without blaming the chief cause of that problem. I agree that individually religion probably does more good than bad but collectively it has accomplished some very scary things.

  • So-called “noble lies” are black swan bets. They only have to blow up once to undo all the good they ever did. One single time when you pray to God after discovering a lump, instead of going to a doctor. That’s all it takes to undo a life.

  • Eliezer,

    Isn’t Pascal’s wager also a Black Swan bet?
    How do you resolve that?

    I guess, I resolve Pascal’s Wager, by concluding if I accepted it, there would be infinitely many high impact, but extremely low probability things I would have to believe in, such as a powerful flying spaghetti monster.

  • Also Andy brings up a good point, about voting based on religious beliefs.

    It seems like the general sentiment is if the trucker’s derive meaning and purpose from praying and don’t harm anybody else in the process then it is Ok.

    But I think we have to look more closely at whether they really are harming anyone. Voting is one good example, though the impact they make is marginal if they are minority, which thankfully is the trend.

    But why should a trucker be held to a different standard than a CEO?
    I think the answer is impact.
    So although a middle aged trucker probably isn’t ever going to completely change his lifestyle and eventually have a large impact in the world, what about a precocious child in their community. What if he has brilliant mind for science but abandons pursuing science due to conflicts with religious doctrine. Don’t you think this is a problem?

  • Andy – are there any data on voting rates of the religious vs. non-religious?

    Eliezer – point taken – though I can’t think of too many other examples outside the medical realm when believing in God represents a black swan bet.

  • Ben- I am happy to read your review of the movie. It is the first review I have read where there isnt a shoving on an agenda.

    I have seen the movie twice and liked it both times.

    I would be curious to see if there is any voting data also.

    Max- Good point about how raising a child a certain way can/does heavily influence their minds.


  • Upfront claim: I am a Christian.

    I would say that the cure for bad theology is not no theology, but good theology.

    Science did not grow up in a black box, the first science came out of religion – the former explores the world from the details up, the latter works to understand from the larger concepts down. Just as we don’t yet have a grand unified theory of physics that seemlessly connects gravity to nuclear, so too there are current points of incomprehension between our understanding of the microspectrum of physcial details of our lives and a larger picture of God. An intelligent Christian understands that facts discovered about the physical world *inform* our interpretation of Scripture. Sometimes this takes a while (see the Galileo affair), and the pride that has to fall is damaging to the church. The only excuse is that there have been plenty of “scientific” discoveries that are later recalled — this is a human failure, not necessarily a spiritual one.

    I will not deny that there are certain aspects of faith that people can misinterpret – if they come up against a tough question, they cling to “belief” rather than rigorously explore the issue. This has been shunted by several in this age, and things said by prominent Christians today can still make me cringe – but setting up the strawman of the of the average instead of Augustine is unbecoming. All scientists are not lumped in with eugenicists.

    I am alongside you in the battle against ignorance. Poorly understood and explained Christianity has been the cause of tremendous ills in this world. But to ignore the good is…unscientific.

  • just want to point out that maher is not an atheist and considers atheist as crazy as those who are religious. Maher is agnostic and the movie is a treatise on skepticism, not being an atheist.

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