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Religulous Reviewed

“Religulous”: Bad Title, Bad Movie
By Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy

Bill Maher’s “Religulous” is a perfect example of how not to make a good documentary.

A self-confessed agnostic, Maher sets out on a worldwide trek to understand how people can place their faith in something as seemingly irrational as religious belief.  At least, this is what he claims his mission is.

It doesn’t take long, however, to see that what Maher is really after is to make fun of just about everyone he interviews, and to use the formal elements of filmmaking, especially editing and music, to show himself to be a morally superior human being.  What a missed opportunity.

Artists are not exempt from the ethical obligations to tell the truth and to treat others with respect that apply to everyone else.  What makes “Religulous” so troubling both from an artistic and an ethical perspective is that it flagrantly violates the latter responsibility and has almost no regard for the former.  Maher selects as his subjects not the mainstream faithful but oddballs, kooks, and weirdos who represent a miniscule number of like-minded believers.  He takes on an anti-Zionist rabbi, an Orthodox Jew who invents contraptions to get around the prohibition against doing work on the Sabbath, a Dutch man whose religion is based on the virtues of marijuana, and a Latino who claims to be Jesus Christ 2.0. 

What these nut jobs are doing in a documentary that purports to be a serious exploration of rationality and religion is hard to fathom.  Maher may want you to come away from these interviews thinking, “Boy, these religious people are real lunatics,” but all you get is the sour feeling that Maher is using delusional people for entertainment value.  By taking cheap shots in the name of philosophical inquiry, Maher abuses his privilege as a documentary filmmaker and reveals himself to be more petty, smug, and self-righteous than those he thinks he is exposing.  (Is it really news that some whack jobs use religion to justify any bizarre point of view they can come up with?)

But what’s really wrong about “Religulous” is that Maher spends no time examining the good works of religion and religious people.  Maher seems to think that a religious tradition is nothing more than a set of beliefs, but it’s actually much more than that.  Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism (totally ignored by the film, incidentally), and, yes, Islam are rich cultures that are as much about community, social justice, and service as they are about doctrine and prayer.  Yes, there are bigots out there who twist the noble messages of the great religious traditions to fit their own evil ends, but this is the fault of individual human beings, not the traditions themselves.  As a Jew who grew up in the Bible Belt, attended a Quaker college (Swarthmore), and trained at a Catholic graduate school (Georgetown), I have been blessed to know a wide range of kind, loving people who guide their lives by the moral teachings of religion and who have brought a lot of joy to others through their religious devotion.  I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, but none of the film’s 100 minutes acknowledges any of this.  (Also conspicuously absent are two of the best things about religious traditions: the music and the food.)

The truly ridiculous revelation in “Religulous” is not that a lot of people around the world have beliefs that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny but that a gifted comedian sought to use his considerable skills merely to make a laughing stock out of an institution that has contributed something of value to the world.

It may be irrational to place one’s faith in the unknowable, but it’s downright unethical to use the greatest art form ever created to make fun of people and believe you’ve spoken truth to power.  Comics like to say that “Dying is easy; comedy is hard,” but discovering meaningful truth is the hardest thing of all. With “Religulous,” the only truth Bill Maher reveals is that he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

The Ethics Guy, Dr. Bruce Weinstein, writes the ethics column for BusinessWeek Online.  His latest book is “Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good.”  In April 2009, Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press will publish his first ethics book for teens, “Is It Still Cheating If I Don’t Get Caught?”  For more about Dr. Weinstein, log on to TheEthicsGuy.com. 

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.