Religulous: Outrageously Innocuous

Bill Maher’s new “I hate religion” agit-prop indulgence, Religulous, is appreciatively passionate and occasionally funny, but all things considered, it’s a rather trifling little film.

There are numerous things to be said about it (both praises and criticisms), and you can find some of them in my 2 star review of the film for Christianity Today.

My reaction was not exactly what I—or Bill Maher—expected. I assumed that I would leave the film totally offended and perhaps a bit distraught. Maher no doubt was banking on me (i.e. the average person of committed religious faith) having a reaction like that.

But after seeing Religulous, I didn’t have much of a strong reaction at all. Maybe it’s because I’d seen all of this stuff before. Maher’s film merely pulls up all the worst, most unrepresentative spokespersons of these faiths. And that is nothing new. Jesus Camp did this in 2006; the “what is Pat Robertson saying this time” media does it on a daily basis.

Religulous is offensive, yes, but not in the sense that Maher hopes it will be. It insults the audience’s intelligence not only because it tells them they are dumb to believe in a deity, but because it assumes—counter to all statistics—that large portions of the potential viewing audience agree. Maher’s film presents an achingly narrow view—the view that religions are all dumb and religious people all stupid—and it doesn’t seem to recognize just how marginal such a position really is.

Bill Maher lives in a bubble if he thinks that there are many people in the world who share his opinion that “religion is the most dangerous threat facing humanity.” He seems ignorant (perhaps willfully) of the fact that most of the smartest people in history have been religious, and that most reform movements and humanitarian aid has had religious origins.

Ultimately, this is why Religulous is so disappointing. It is too wrapped up in itself, too out-of-touch, to have anything to say to anybody. It can be cute, and funny (and frequently is), but it’s not important. It’s intellectually boring. And for a movie so devotedly about a “call to arms” against religion, intellectually boring is the last thing you want to be.

Lest you think I’m uniquely harsh on the film, here is what some other critics are saying:

Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times: “Because [Maher] wants to be amusing above all else, he takes his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to the assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion just as they do the fringes of atheism. The humor he creates at their expense proves nothing except that dealing from a stacked deck benefits no one but the dealer.”

Rafer Guzman, Newsday: “It’s a nasty, condescending, small-minded film, self-amused and ultimately self-defeating. Its only accomplishment is to make atheists look bad.”

Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter: “The problem, if you’re going to take Maher’s inquiry seriously, is whom he chooses to question and where he chooses to go. For the most part, he verbally jousts with evangelical charlatans and redneck whack jobs… Maher doesn’t risk questioning a learned theologian.”

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12 responses to “Religulous: Outrageously Innocuous

  1. Pingback: What One Critic says about Religulous « Simply Ecclesia

  2. Yeah, whenever I see a preview for it I can’t help but not be offended— he’s obviously trying so hard to provoke a reaction, but, at least judging by the trailers, doesn’t even bother to make arguments, but merely constructs a series of incredibly flimsy strawmen and then waggle his eyebrows at the camera.

    The whole thing reminds me of Terry Eagleton’s response to Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion.

  3. Another indication of his out-dated fairy-tale wannabe modernist understanding of religion is his exclusive focus on Western religions. What’s up with failing to diss the millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Animists out there? Eastern stuff has had a certain cultural cache for a long time now, so it kind of fits with Bill’s implicit posturing as the coolest populist religious thinker out there. No, Bill. You are not cool. You are not a man of the people. You are not provocative. You are mildly entertaining and pathetically vulgar. And also, “Abu-gooo-goo-voobu; I love you.”

  4. Thanks Will, for the reminder of the film’s best moment. Is there a clip of that “I love you” moment somewhere online? I have to see that again.

  5. Did you see An American Carol yet? I’d be really curious about your take on it.

  6. Brett, I posted a link to your CT review on my blog, This Lamp. One reader has taken quite the exception to your review, and I would like to invite you to respond to a couple of his responses. I know you’re busy, but I would appreciate the dialogue.

    You can find my post and his comments at
    http://homepage.mac.com/rmansfield/thislamp/files/f8db7e88c961c80e494c92aaf20e8c00-730.html

  7. Just FYI, I think it is fairly evident that Maher isn’t an atheist, but agnostic. He states throughout the film that he doesn’t have the answer. I also think he chose to skewer Christianity as opposed to Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., because the majority of U.S. citizens practice it. That’s just my guess however. I thought the movie was hysterical. I also think Christianity is a joke, so go figure.

  8. Pingback: Bill Maher’s “Religulous” isn’t very good « How good is that?

  9. Pingback: What One Critic Says About Religulous « Rule of Christ Jesus

  10. Pingback: What One Critic Says About Religulous | Mosaic Mercy

  11. Pingback: What One Critic Says About Religulous | Mosaic Mercy by David Knapp

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