If religion was once a conversation stopper in the United States, it is so no longer. One need look no further than presidential politics to see that religion is relevant once again in American public discourse. Who would have predicted ten years ago that the two parties’ nominees for President would take part in a nationally televised forum focused solely on issues of faith? Nor is politics the only area where religion is a hot-button issue. Religious books such as Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life and films that engage faith such as The Passion of the Christ and The Lord of the Rings trilogy have been enormously successful. Perhaps not surprisingly, this phenomenon has not produced a universally positive reaction. Books such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great have capitalized on, and added ammunition to, the anti-religion backlash. Hollywood has even released a children’s fantasy film, The Golden Compass, which in many ways counteracts the central messages of The Lord of the Rings.
Into this milieu of heightened public religious awareness, Bill Maher’s enters the fray with his sometimes hilarious, sometimes infuriating, but always interesting film Religulous. While the film is definitely smart, and often sophisticated, it cannot offer a serious critique of religion because it is shackled with too much bias, too much hypocrisy, too many preconceptions, and too many inaccuracies. Indeed, Maher seems willing to deconstruct everyone’s dogmas but his own. Nevertheless, and despite its deficiencies, Religulous is as thought-provoking and entertaining a film as a person is likely to see—whatever their religious sentiments.
A play-on-words, “Religulous” is meant to combine the words “religion” and “ridiculous.” If the title were not enough to give the film maker’s sentiments away, Maher declares in the opening scene that religion is “detrimental to the progress of humanity.” In fact, the film begins and ends with a powerful criticism of religion at Megiddo, the site where many Christians believe the Battle of Armageddon will occur at the end of days. The site is used by Maher to make the observation that while once only God possessed the power to destroy the earth, this danger can now be realized by the destructive powers of humanity—a possibility he believes is made more likely by religion. The rest of the film sees Maher traveling much of the globe to interview a wide assortment of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and members of other faiths.
As with any documentary of this kind, a great deal hinges on the performance of the interviewer. Here Maher, the witty and sarcastic host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, is brilliant. He is in his element ridiculing the beliefs of those with whom he disagrees, and his mind moves with great agility, offering pithy one-liners and often thinking circles around his opponents. To be sure, Maher’s performance is often as entertaining as the inept responses of those he interviews. His performance is a highlight of the film.
Religulous is also effective in revealing the hypocrisy of certain religious figures. This is particularly powerful, for example, in the interview with televangelist Jeremiah Cummings, who Maher takes to task for his significant amount of jewelry (“bling,” as Maher called it) and custom-tailored suit. Cummings implausibly responds that he is following the example of Jesus, who wore fine linens and was given gold by the wise men! In a similar vein, Maher calls out the Roman Catholic Church for the material splendor of the Vatican. In another interview, he rightly points out the hypocrisy of the violent Muslim rapper Propa-Gandhi, who constantly complains about the popular backlash against his record. Propa-Gandhi demands the right to free speech in one breath, but in the next praises the death threats made against Salmon Rushdie, the controversial author of The Satanic Verses—a book critical of Islam.
Maher is also adept at pointing out the inadequacies of many people’s unexamined beliefs. Indeed, if Socrates was right that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” then Maher is offering a valuable service. Several times in the film, it is difficult not to shake one’s head in amazement at the lack of self awareness exhibited by those being interviewed. One such example occurs at the Dome on the Rock, where Maher suggests that perhaps women do not enjoy equality with men in many majority-Muslim areas. The man who he is interviewing then shows Maher a woman praying in a corner of the gigantic mosque and says, “See, women have their own special corner.” When Maher interviews Mark Pryor, the junior senator from Arkansas misuses and invents a number of words during the discussion, and the interview ends with Pryor declaring that “you don’t need to take an IQ test to be in the U.S. Senate.”
Some parts of the film, however, are not as successful. A number of instances begin awkwardly and are only made worse by Maher’s crass comments. This is perhaps most evident when he interviews two gay Muslims in Amsterdam. He uses a number of vulgar terms in describing the male anatomy and homosexual acts that clearly make the men feel uncomfortable. The audience cannot help but sympathize.
The film also would have benefited from a stronger and more balanced pool of interviewees. Out of the many Christians he interviewed, only three, perhaps four, were truly knowledgeable about the faith. Moreover, the only truly world-class Christian mind of the group, Francis Collins, was interviewed on the historicity of the canonical gospels rather than on his specialty, the Christian outlook on science. If Maher truly wanted to have an intelligent discussion on the viability of faith, he should have interviewed Collins regarding faith and science and interviewed N. T. Wright, Richard B. Hays, or some other Christian who is an expert on the New Testament regarding the historicity of the gospels.
But the most glaring flaw of the film is not its uncomfortable moments or bias regarding interviewees, but its historical inaccuracies. In several instances Maher chooses points of minutia and turns them into central points of attack. For example, it seems odd that Maher argues for, and seems fixated upon, the notion that Christians believe Jesus was born on December 25. On one level, it is odd because it is simply not the case. In fact, having been a Christian all my life and having spent a great deal of time in church and reading Christian literature, I never recall anyone claiming that Jesus was born on any specific day of the year whatsoever, least of all December 25. Second, it is odd that, even were it true, Maher would find it significant. What substantive difference could it possibly make to know, or not know, on which day of the calendar year Jesus was born?
Of much greater importance, though, is the film’s claim that the written record of the life of Jesus Christ was contrived based on the legends of the gods Krishna, Mithra, and Horus, legends that predate the life of Christ by several centuries. The film only goes into detail on the claim concerning Horus, so that is the one that will be treated here. To put it concisely, the film’s assertion is patently false. According to Religulous, Horus is portrayed as being born of a virgin, baptized in a river, crucified, and raised from the dead (among other things) in the thirteenth-century BC source The Book of the Dead. Having personally plumbed a translation of The Book of the Dead for every reference to Horus and having read a number of scholarly articles on the god, I feel comfortable saying that none of this is true. In fact, it seems that the only available source for this material is a book of questionable merit entitled The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, by Acharya S (her real name is D. Murdock), a work which has received no scholarly attention save one negative review written by an atheist. These false claims, then, are without a doubt the film’s greatest shortcoming. They are naïve and irresponsible, particularly for a film that attempts to uncover dogmatism and falsehood.
These criticisms notwithstanding, Religulous is a smart and funny film that should spark the thoughtful viewer’s intellect and almost certainly will spark most any viewer’s interest. If there are unapologetic biases and even inaccuracies, they are, to some degree, to be expected from such a film. Bill Maher is, after all, a comedian. And he delivers where one would expect—by mixing scathing criticism with sarcasm and wit. The combination works, so long as the viewer eyes the film’s truth claims with a discerning spirit and is willing to embrace its sense of humor.
Ross Moret is a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary.