Jeremy, my son-in-law, reviewed “Religulous” on his Facebook page. I thought he presented some important points, and asked for permission to reprint his article here. The article is long, but I wanted to leave it in Jeremy’s “voice” rather than edit it for length.
Few things in life create more social tension than prying into people’s religious beliefs, particularly when the prying is done on camera. The 2008 Larry Charles/Bill Maher movie, “Religulous” does just that, and certainly takes no prisoners. The movie, for those who don’t know, is a comedy-documentary in which the host, Maher, travels to various places around the world to interview people from different religions (although the movie predominantly focuses on Christianity) so he can ask them questions about their beliefs, and why they believe what they do. Maher takes a very cynical and sarcastic approach in performing this task, often leaving his victims deeply offended, which subsequently provides (or is supposed to provide) its comical aspect. Ultimately, Maher reaches the extraordinarily philosophical conclusion that all religion is bad and people who believe in any kind of religion are morons. As this is a major area of interest in my life, I decided I should watch the movie and see if Maher could change my mind.
Now, before watching the movie, one should consider a few things. First, this film is intended to be a documentary, thus it will be (strongly) pushing a biased agenda, and as the film’s title suggests, it is a very anti-religious bias. Although I will be the first to admit that bias in and of itself does not make a viewpoint incorrect–we all have our own personal biases– it does create a high likelihood that false information will be presented in an effort to sway your opinion. Therefore, when watching this movie (or any movie intended to present an argument for the purpose of changing your mind) it is critical to be on your guard and watch out for incorrect facts, faulty logic, and personal opinion being presented as solid reasoning. All of these things are common tactics used by directors, writers, commentators, etc. when their hope is to make you see things from their point of view. This movie has no shortage of any of these. It is for that reason I am writing this article/review.
Before I begin my critique of the movie, I would like to point out at least a few positive things about it. I fully anticipated this movie being nothing more than a badgering account of poorly researched, old, recycled material being used to make the dumbest people from each respective religion look as stupid as possible. Although I was not entirely disappointed in that area, Maher did have some interesting– or at least note-worthy– things to say (I’ll talk about those in a little while). In fact, I was surprised by the number of reasonable arguments Maher presented. The movie was not quite the travesty I had expected. Furthermore, Maher even made me laugh once or twice, especially when dealing with some of the absurdities of a few of the more minor (or extremely minor, in some cases) religions. Indeed, the movie was not a total loss, even for those who see through much of Maher’s faulty tactics. I would even suggest that most “religious” people watch it. If you are offended, it might be because you are just as incapable of answering Maher’s challenges as were the people from the movie (who as I’ve mentioned, were seldom ever very bright). “Religulous” could, in some ways, be a wake-up call to those who do not really understand why they believe what they believe. Although I strongly disagree with most of Maher’s conclusions and opinions, I do agree that we should at least understand and have some rationale behind our beliefs. That being said, let’s move on to some critiques. (A quick note: As I am a Christian myself, I will be refuting Maher’s attacks on Christianity. Due to my own ignorance regarding specifics of many other world religions, I will not attempt to answer Maher’s challenges to any of them. My goal is to stay within my field of “expertise.”)
Despite my modest praise in the last paragraph, “Religulous” is full of bad logic, incorrect data, and the other traps I had mentioned. In fact, the movie has so many of them that I have decided to divide this review into several parts so you aren’t scared off by a 30 page essay.
My first major point of contention is something I’ve already stated, namely, that Maher clearly found some of the most ignorant people he could to help prove his case. This was particularly noticeable during the first part of the movie which focuses entirely on Christianity. Maher interviews a lot of sincere, but clearly uneducated Christians, in addition to some young-earth creationists, an actor who plays Jesus, and a pastor who calls himself a doctor, but apparently has no degree of any kind. As this is generally something most people will notice I will not spend a great deal of time pointing out that picking on the easiest targets available is a lame tactic. Maher managed to demonstrate the sheer ignorance of certain people, but really failed at an honest attempt to find decent answers to his questions. With the exception of two short interviews (which I’ll bring up in a second), Maher didn’t do a good job of seeking out any great Christian thinkers. There were no interviews with Hugh Ross, Craig Blomberg, Francis J. Beckwith, Norman Geisler, Michael Behe, etc. Rather, Maher opted to go the, “Look how many dumb people believe this stuff” route; a numbers game to show that there are clearly a lot of ignorant people who believe in God. I’m sorry, but for each dim-witted Christian I’ve met, I’ve met at least 10 atheists who should be proud to be considered morons. Number games simply don’t work when dealing with critical issues like this.
To his credit, Maher did interview two people who I would consider legitimate, intellectual experts of the Christian faith. The first was Francis Collins, who was part of (led, if I understand correctly) the human genome project and author of the book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Collins, no doubt, is an incredibly smart man. The second individual, Father George Coyne, is a former director of the Vatican’s observatory. Both of these men were very well educated not only in their respective fields, but also in Christianity/Biblical literacy. Amazingly, however, neither one of these men is interviewed to the extent that the ignorant Christians are, and in the case of Collins, any time he began to present a legitimate case for his beliefs, Maher simply interrupted him and said that he was wrong. Maher rejected, without trial, all mentions of true historical evidence for the gospel writers’ eye-witness accounts with Jesus and their subsequent credibility, and even the physical existence of Jesus as a human being. Had Maher done his homework better, he’d know that no legitimate historian really denies that Jesus lived, as even secular sources record aspects of his life. However, I’ll address this and other historical evidences for Christianity at another time. Thanks to Maher’s insolence and ignorance, what could have been a great interview with Collins was really quite pointless. Regarding Father Coyne, Maher simply had him verify that young-earth creationism (i.e. an earth only 5000-10000 years old [a matter I’ll also address later]) is false. Then Coyne shared his opinion that certain parts of the Bible are metaphorical and that the Bible is not intended to be a science book. Although I’ll address those points later, as I do not agree with them, we again had an interview which had the potential to be insightful but was cut short enough to avoid anything which might damage Maher’s anti-religious crusade.
My next major gripe was Maher’s quick (and predictable) jump to “Christian” extremism. There were lots of clips of protesters wielding, “God hates fags” signs, along with sleaze-bag, scam artist “pastors” trying to get people to send them big checks. Good for you Maher, you exploited the obvious. Kudos. Again, the existence of these types of people is quite self-evident, so I will not waste much time explaining them away. I will, however, ask why it is that sometimes Maher was quick to point out that many “Christian” practices are unbiblical, as was the case when Maher asked the degreeless doctor/pastor why he wore such and expensive suit an gold jewelry (the pastor tried to explain how Jesus was actually wealthy…), but then when it came to extremism he didn’t bother to do the same. The only thing he did that came close was ask a “reformed” gay man why Jesus never talked about homosexuality (again, an issue I want to discuss later). Maher never took the time to show that, although homosexuality is a sin according to the Bible, abusive behavior towards gays is not a legitimate practice. Likewise, Maher made no attempt to show that sending huge checks to televangelists is equally unbiblical. Instead of addressing specific fundamentalist issues as being incompatible with their doctrines, Maher simply concludes that the doctrines themselves are false, and even sinister. Way to go for the easy points, Maher.
As my third “quick critique,” I offer Maher’s fallacious philosophy on religion and knowledge. Throughout the movie, Maher talks about how religion is arrogant because it provides absolute answers to unknowable things. He claims that since religions tell people how the world/universe operates and even ends, we clearly need no further education on anything since we already know it all. While the Bible does give us some information about where we came from, why we’re here, etc., it does not give us specifics about the physical laws which operate our universe, biology, philosophy, or even if my green couch will clash with my green walls. From the Christian perspective, the Bible tells us the “what” and “why” of creation (what God made and why He made it), but not the how and why questions pertaining to how He accomplished what He did. It drives me nuts when people presume that science has disproved God’s existence because we know about natural laws and why certain things act the way they do, as that conclusion is based on a presumed—and often circular– naturalist philosophy. We have been so badly conditioned to think that our understanding of nature renders theism useless, that we fail to see that the sciences can simply point us to how God has chosen to operate this universe He chose to make for us. Contrary to popular belief, science and God are not mutually exclusive.
Although this point deserves much attention, I need to shift my focus to the other major error in Maher’s thinking. He states, within a minute of each other, that human knowledge is limited and religion is arrogant, and then follows with the conclusion that all religion is wrong, and its eradication is necessary for human survival. His error should be quite obvious to even the most remotely logical mind: how can Maher possibly say all religions are wrong when he himself maintains a position of “humility” and “ignorance” throughout the entire movie? He claims to not know what will happen to us when we die, but apparently he knows that it won’t be what any of the world’s religions teach. That is quite an arrogant claim itself, especially since Maher has clearly not performed an exhaustive analysis of all the world’s religions. In fact, he didn’t even do that good a job researching the ones he chose to talk about. Nonetheless, he is willing to condemn all of them as not being true, because clearly our humble host knows what really is. If his other arguments hadn’t already won me over, Maher’s, “Ignorant yet omniscient” argument certainly would have. Brilliant!
To conclude my general review of “Religulous,” I would simply like to reiterate that although the movie is riddled with problems (and bigotry), I believe it is still worth watching. Christianity is by no means a blind-faith religion that requires you to check your brain at the door before you go about your prayers, but many people have belittled it as such. Movies like “Religulous” and other skeptics like Richard Dawkins prey on the fact that many people are willing to believe in God, but unwilling to really take a rational look at their own beliefs. For the Christian, this is simply a ridiculous attitude to take, as there is a considerable amount of evidence in our favor. However, we cannot just sit idly by and expect it to come find us. I believe that most Christians should be able to answer at least the majority of the questions Maher presented in the movie, and if we cannot answer them, we should (honestly) seek an answer. If none exists, perhaps our beliefs are unfounded, in which case it would be best to do away with them. However, with each critic’s argument dismantled, we establish a newfound reason to believe what we do. So, despite Maher’s intended purpose behind “Religulous,” more Christians willing to answer the call to intellectual belief could end up making such criticism a double-edged sword. What Maher intended for bad (from our point of view), could ultimately end up good.
Note: This article was intended to be a general review of “Religulous” without going into too much specific detail. However, I intend to post more essays where I will attempt to systematically dismantle those arguments that I find to be most important, particularly to those who may have never heard the opposing view. My hope is that by doing this I will put at least a small dent in the “Theistic = Stupid” mentality which has been conditioned into us so strongly, and which I believe is a plague to both our social lives and to our quest for knowledge.