So I finally watched Religulous. I found it a truly underwhelming experience. Honestly, I think I must be over the joys of poking holes in religious thinking. In other news, boxing with Girl Scouts no longer brings me quite the same thrills that it used to.
…at least on Thursdays and Saturdays. It is entirely possible that I may relapse on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Okay, it’s not always that easy, I know; sometimes I meet a religious person with genuinely challenging thoughts, but perhaps that is my point. One can find a pretty broad range of qualities fitting under the heading of ‘religion’, and it can be just a little too easy to look for the easy pickings. Some people treat debunking religion as a sport, and those people rarely seek out the challenging thinkers. No, they hunt the naive in remote and highly uneducated corners of the globe; they sniff out the cooks and the crankcases. I should point out that the sport-debunker isn’t always an atheist, but of course, this time it is.
Religulous is the intellectual equivalent of a canned hunt. In this movie, Bill Maher seeks out and makes a fool of one believer after another and I cannot help but think most of those interviewed have been selected for their capacity to appear nutty to the rest of us. Maher does little to explore the intellectual lives of any of those interviewed in Religulous. His discussions bear a strong-resemblance to a cross-examination in a courtroom (or at least a courtroom drama). Maher’s questions rarely veer far from the effort to produce a contradiction or an implausible claim, and he doesn’t hesitate to interrupt, argue, or insult his subjects at any point in the movie. Not wanting his subjects to go-off half-mocked, Maher includes several segments in which he trashes those already interviewed while driving about, presumably on the way to the next ambush interview. When he does interview intelligent believers, Maher’s sole interest seems to be getting them to help debunk their brethren. The most interesting and complex thinkers in this movie would easily include a number of Priests but they are of interest to Maher only insofar as they help us to dismiss the beliefs of others.
I have to admit, there was a time when I would have been into this. Now, I just find it rather predictable.
…and pointlessly rude.
Ironically, I think Maher’s snide disrespect for his quarry in this film actually blunts the force of his criticism and lets them off the hook. In interviewing John Westcott, an ex-gay minister, for example, Maher makes a point to suggest the sexuality of the man’s children remains in question. In the commentary track, he further laughs at the irony of a man denying his homosexuality when Maher can tell by his behavior that the man is gay. Personally, I think this underscores the irony of a man proporting to call a believer to task for mistreatment of homosexuality while exhibiting all the insight and sensitivity one might expect to find in the boys locker room of a high school football game. Maher’s games do absolutely nothing to reveal the intellectual dishonesty and outright harmfulness of ex-gay therapies and related ministries. While Maher plays to the cheap seats by making fun of the man and his children, the interview goes nowhere. Maher learns nothing about the minister’s actual point of view, and he does nothing to show us just how harmful these organizations can actually be.
And I wonder if I am supposed to be pleased with this?
Maher is casting religion in a bad light, and in this movie (as in other contexts), he does sometimes score a hit, or even a home-run. I should be able to enjoy this, and I would, if I thought Maher was doing a consistently good job of it, but what bothers me most about this movie is a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t an exercise in healthy skepticism, that in fact Maher is selling a message that doesn’t quite fit the label on the packaging. Shallow as it is, Maher’s engagement with the proponent’s of God-talk is not merely intended to show us how foolish they are. He is building a narrative with assumptions going well beyond the foibles of his hapless quarry.
One particularly telling moment occurs during an interview with a Muslim cleric. the man’s cell phone goes off, and the ringtone is Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Maher suggests that this is odd. The prospect that a song called ‘Kashmir’ might strike a cord with a Muslim seems to have completely escaped him. More to the point, he doesn’t ask why the Cleric uses that ringtone or what it means to him. To Maher it seems to be self-evident that the Cleric’s choice of music reveals an inconsistency. He drives this point home further in the commentary track, suggesting that people steeped in outdated beliefs should not get to use modern conveniences.
The mode of engagement used here is consistently that of polemics. Maher wants to poke holes in religion; he doesn’t want to understand anything else about the people he is talking to, or at least he doesn’t want to show us anything else in the final cut of the movie. To describe the end result as superficial would be giving superficial a bad name. But of course there is something a little more insidious at work here. It arises in the notion that religion is simply outdated, that the cleric’s interest in a cell phone is simply incommensurate with religious beliefs. This is old fashioned unilineal evolution, the belief that human history follows a set course. To Maher (and evidently his producer) it goes without saying that religious beliefs are chatter out of place, so to speak, and that history is incomplete so long as these throwbacks remain with us. This is the key to his polemic approach. He wants to show us that religion is stupid, urge us all to leave it all behind, and thereby advance one further step in human history.
In taking this approach, Maher is unfortunately (and ironically) doing a good deal more than debunking the beliefs of his interview subjects; he is advancing a faith of his own, a faith in Progress with a capital ‘P’, and a specific vision of that Progress. The film ends with an emphasis on growing conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and a recurrent expression of fear that these faiths will lead us to nuclear disaster. Maher addresses the claim that these conflicts are really political, and of course it is easy enough for Maher to assert that they are also religious, but of course this is a unique marriage of the fallacies of straw man false alternatives. The question is not which category various conflicts fall into, but rather how politics and religion intersect in actual human history. That is a question Maher is completely unprepared to answer, or even ask. He relies on a stock vision of humanity’s course throughout the film, and herein lies the value of his deceptively simple interview agenda. So long as we are focused on the foibles of the faithful we may not take the time to think critically about Maher’s own millenarian vision of the future.
This is bait & switch.
Maher quite rightly calls some of his interview subjects to task for glossing over the role of faith in political violence, but his refusal to address the politics is itself a telling source of ignorance. He is telling as simple story in which the source of modern evil is found in beliefs and beliefs alone. If only we can deal with the bad beliefs once and for all in the fashion of lunch-room debate tactics, then the world will be a better place.
In advancing this simple message Maher shows us that he has a lot more in common with believers than he would suppose.