Religi-Religi-Religi-Religulous, That’s All Folks!

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head? (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)

Every great once in a while, a must-see movie comes out even for religion specialists. We have to lay aside our Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensias for a while, stare at one of the talkies and scratch our heads. Last year my students asked me what I thought of Bill Maher’s Religulous, but I didn’t have a chance to see it (couldn’t afford it on the big screen, and who has time during the school year anyway?). So I finally got together with a friend to watch it on the small screen.

First off, the film is funny — hey, it was written by a comedian, so it’d better be funny! As Maher ticked off point after point after point where religion falls short of the mark, I felt as though I were watching Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great on the television.

Let's be friends

Let's be friends

Maher scores some big points for having done his homework on mythology and pointing out the mythical elements in mainstream Christian thinking, but I was left with some very basic questions: what about those who hold to religion for good reasons? What about those who don’t strap bombs on in the name of religion? What about those who promote humanitarianism for religious purposes? Can they be classed together with dangerous folk who use religion for nefarious rationales to get back at their enemies (generally anyone they don’t know)? The scenes of religion-inspired violence were extremely disturbing, but I was curious about the benign varieties of religion. Do they do any more harm than taking a toke, as Maher does a time or two in the film?

It occurred to me that religions offer a way out from what can be a very humdrum world. Evolution is certainly fact, but the long, slow process of evolving into something better fit for its environment doesn’t spur on the emotions like the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But isn’t that it in a nutshell? Religions show their flashier colors when they are in conflict, like peacocks competing for the affections of a peahen. Even those interviewed by Maher tended towards the more flamboyant practitioners of their faiths. What should really be on the docket is hatred. Religions may aid and abet those looking for excuses to harm those different from themselves, but religion is often the catalyst, not the cause. As religion goes through the long, tedious, and often painful process of evolution, it is sure to breed virulent strains that are nasty and evil, but once in a while the panda’s thumb emerges and humanity is ready for its next painful step forward.

3 thoughts on “Religi-Religi-Religi-Religulous, That’s All Folks!

  1. I watched it recently too, and like you was critically appreciative. But as a scholar of early Christianity, I didn’t feel like Maher had done his homework. He cited fringe authors and inaccurate claims about alleged parallels, seeming to endorse mythicism. If he had approached that subject with precisely the sort of critical investigative outlook he hopes to inspire in conservative religious believers, he’d never have bought into bogus pseudoscholarship. And alas, since the whole movie was about being skeptical, I ended up feeling like it illustrated that it is far easier to be skeptical about those we disagree with than of those whose claims support what we’re inclined to believe.


  2. Steve Wiggins

    Point well taken! A kind critic of one of my published works once said that I’m the type of scholar who likes to sit back and watch others play poker. There’s a dose of truth in that — since I’ve been twice or thrice burned in my career, I’m shy to the fourth or fifth power. Maher, for his lack of scholarship did hit on a worthwhile point or two, imho.


  3. Dr. Jim

    I never saw the film-I did contact the one cinema in town that often caters to specialist interests and they claimed that there were very few copies in circulation. Then I found out it was run by a Mormon. They did show “Expelled” though. . I’m not sure I want to see it anymore.

    Hitchens, Dawkins, and co. satisfy themselves with whatever scholarship (current or outdated) or pseudoscholarship they can use in their struggle, always look to the worst of religion while ignoring all else.

    Any good religious people do is attributed to something else other than their religious values. This really makes me cringe (since, like them, I’m an atheist). I think they are producing a generation of skeptics who will end up only wanting universities to confirm for them that religion, and religious people, are stupid.

    It really is an issue that secular religious scholars address in public. It wouldn’t be ethical to leave it up to church leaders or theologians to fight such misrepresentation. I think scholars should not hide their education in ivory towers or under bushels.

    Thanks for the opportunity to rant…


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