Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 28, 2011

A Review of Bill Maher’s “Religulous”

Bill Maher came out with a documentary entitled Religulous in 2008. In this documentary, Maher seeks to discredit the legitimacy of religious faith and argue that religion is dangerous for our world. I finally took the time to watch this documentary last night and thought I would offer a short review.

Some of Bill Maher’s concerns about religion are legitimate. Sadly, Maher does not have to look hard to find ignorance and bad behavior among professing Christians. For example, he interviews a televangelist who argues that Jesus was wealthy and never spoke out against greed, and he interviews ‘christian’ protesters holding up signs that say “god hates gays.” Many of the frustrations Maher has with the religious community are frustrations that we should share. Too often people who claim to be Christians simply contradict the gospel.

Maher also exposes the dangers of careless biblical interpretation. At one point in the movie a woman rightly challenges Maher for taking a text out of context and suggests that we need to interpret sacred texts carefully. Maher responds by saying, “but holy books are not read like that.” This is a valid response. Christians often treat scripture carelessly. We need to pay attention to things like historical context and genre. We cannot simply read each text “literally” with no reference to the original intent. Jesus, for example, did not literally mean we should cut off our hands if we lust. This is a literary device known as hyperbole, it was used by Rabbi’s to get our attention and emphasize the seriousness of the point.

This is particularly important when we seek to understand Genesis 1-3, which is debated a lot in the film. We run into problems when we treat this section of scripture as a scientific document. The creation narrative in Genesis does not answer the specific scientific questions of how the world actually came into being. Instead the purpose of Genesis 1-3 is to answer the questions “why” and “by whom” the world was created. When you place Genesis 1-3 up against the reigning creation accounts in it’s day, it becomes clear that it is making a theological point. The point of Genesis 1-3 is that there is purpose to creation and that God is intimately involved in our world. John Calvin made this point 400 years ago!

While Maher has some legitimate critiques of religion, there are also some glaring weaknesses in his film. As one Rabbi suggests, “Bill Maher is 100% right about only 10% of religion.” First, the genre of ‘comedic documentary’ does not facilitate a healthy and balanced debate. Maher is mainly interviewing religious fundamentalists that fit his agenda perfectly. Those with something significant to say do not get much air time, and when they are interviewed they sometimes get cut off abruptly.

Second, I find Maher to be contradictory in his overall approach to seeking truth. He slams people who claim to be certain about their beliefs; yet, he simultaneously asserts with certainty that religious belief is not legitimate. For someone who promotes caution and open-mindedness, he is pretty dogmatic about his belief that there is no God.

Lastly, I find Maher’s argument that religion leads to destruction and violence to be too simplistic. To be sure, horrible things have been done in the name of religion. I appreciate Maher’s statement, “when Revelation was written it was only God who knew how to end the world. Now, humanity knows how to destroy it.” Violence has certainly resulted from careless applications of sacred texts.

However, Maher presents a very limited view of the implication of religion. He never interviews religious moderates or Christian activists who are engaged in peacemaking and human rights projects. Instead he regularly shows footage of suicide bombers and crazy televangelists. What we have, then, is not a comprehensive critique of religion but a rant on fundamentalism and extremism.

There are plenty of examples of how Christianity has lead to the good of society. In fact, I wonder where Maher’s concern for human rights would come from if Western culture had not been shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Human rights is not a product of the enlightenment, it is rooted in the Christian tradition. Let’s not forget that hospitals, educational systems, social programs for the poor, and the abolition of slavery were born out of a Christian social conscience.

Let’s also not forget that the alternative philosophies of our day do not offer a strong foundation for human rights. I could cut out some sound bites from Nietzsche or Foucault that sound pretty chilling in their own right. Philosophies that offer no ground for moral accountability, or attribute no intrinsic worth to humanity can lead us in dangerous directions. Plenty of wars have been started from an atheistic philosophy – the National Socialism of Hitler is the obvious example.

This film certainly motivates me to work harder at equipping people to interpret scripture carefully, and to think deeply about what we believe and why we believe what we do. It also challenges us to learn how to remain intellectually honest and open minded as we seek to communicate our faith in a post-Christian, post-enlightenment world (See this post for some thoughts on how this might be accomplished). However, I am not willing to buy into Maher’s overall thesis that religion leads to violence and ignorance. On the contrary, I continue to believe that Christ, properly understood, offers hope to our broken world.

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Responses

  1. You are extremely tolerant to even be able to listen to what Maher has to say. I find him to be about the most revolting human on earth and can’t turn the channel fast enough when I accidentally surf his way. He takes such cheap shots at Christians and Christian Values while he enjoys living an extravagent lifestyle in a nation that has allowed him such liberty and freedom of speech; a nation founded and defended with the blood and sacrifices of patriots who adhered to the “one nation under god” ideal. Such arrogance and disrespect. Maybe he’d enjoy living in a middle eastern country or Somalia or Haiti instead.

  2. Hi Eric,

    Looks like I struck a nerve! Certainly understand your reaction to Maher, I agree that he communicates with a lot of “arrogance and disrespect.” The reason I take the time to disassemble his arguments is because he has received a lot of exposure through this film. I don’t think he has a lot to offer a healthy discussion on religion but unfortunately his ideas continue to inform public opinion.

  3. Phil,
    Your comment that films like Religulous “challenges us to learn how to remain intellectually honest and open minded as we seek to communicate our faith in a post-Christian, post-enlightenment world” strikes a chord with me. I find it tougher and tougher to find the right words to say to folks who really see no need for faith in God.

  4. Hey Randy,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m with you man. I think part of it begins not with the right words but with the right actions. This week we talked about interacting with our culture in the high school class. We looked at 1 Peter 3:15, where Peter gives some advice on how to engage with hostile non-believers. He reminds them to “be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in you,” which is a verse I think a lot of us know and quote. But he follows this up by saying, “but do so with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.”

    I think a good dose of humility, respect and integrity can go a long way as we seek to engage with our culture.

  5. I wouldn’t even put Christian in quotes when referring to Westboro Baptist Church. They are only a couple of families that have no ties to any other Christian organization. They may call themselves Christian but that doesn’t make them so by any stretch. I can call myself a rock star but that doesn’t make it okay to say some “rock stars” have no musical talent.

    I saw Religulous a long time ago and agree with your review. Though it didn’t motivate me to do anything. If anything it demotivated me because it was clear that it didn’t matter what you did people like Maher will find something to focus on and complain about.

  6. Thanks Bruce,

    I like your perspective on the Westboro Baptist Church! I also think you have a point about how Maher is simply out to find what is wrong with things. He is clearly not being very objective and is guided by a strong agenda.

    Though I do think that the fundamentalist form of Christianity has not done much to help the situation. One of the ironies of fundamentalism is that it seems to create it’s own enemies. When you look at the backstory to a lot of liberal critics, a lot of them were wounded by a dangerous, fundamentalist type of faith.

  7. Great thoughts and good research! You cause me to realize that I should read and re-read more.

    Atheism is an increasingly prominent worldview and a challenge for many Christians. Thank you for helping to equip us to confront it.

    Lina

  8. Hey Lina,

    Welcome to the blog! Thanks for the comments.


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