Friday, February 20, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW: Religulous (2009)

Comedian Bill Maher will never be President of the United States. Why? Because he smokes weed. Oh, and because he's an atheist.

I guess I'll never be President, either....

If you are a devout person of any religion, this review may offend you, because I plan to be blunt. Just a warning...

Where to begin? Well, ever since I was a child, organized religion didn't pass my personal smell test. I had a difficult time believing-- without question -- in an invisible bearded superman floating around in a heavenly domain somewhere; one who was watching my every move and listening to my every thought.

As I grew older my critical thinking about religious beliefs was reinforced. At university, I studied ancient history and learned how, basically, Christianity was a hodgepodge of every pagan religion circulating around Rome in the time of the Caesars.

Virtually every ingredient we think of today in terms of Christ's "origin" story -- from the immaculate conception to the wandering in the desert wilderness, to the crucifixion itself -- had been assimilated from a dozen older historical sources to formulate Christ's "new" story.

So if Christ's story were a movie, I'd call it a rip-off. Or at least a pastiche.

Maher's documentary Religulous points this out, by cleverly noting the numerous "parallels" between Egypt's Horus and Jesus of Nazareth.

And then there's the Bible. It's supposed to be the Word of Almighty God, but again, my rational mind can't accept it as such. After all, the Bible was written, re-written, and translated into new fallible mankind. By men with agendas. Passages have been suppressed, erased, written-over in palimpsests and mis-translated both intentionally and unintentionally.

So that means the Bible that most Americans use in 2009 is akin to a Japanese Godzilla movie...dubbed from the original language into English. In other words, some things seem a, even if you get the general idea.

And as much literary value and beauty as I find in many passages of the Bible -- and as truly as I admire the teachings of Jesus the Man (particularly his stance on money, wealth and poverty) -- how can I overlook a thousand years of interference in this supposedly sacred text from monks, popes and other avaricious schemers? Perhaps it is my failing, but I just can't believe that those men left no footprints. Christ's nature may be divine, but human nature is something else entirely.

Perhaps I would harbor more respect for Christianity if every worshipper dedicated themselves to the study of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. If they took the "text" of the Bible on its original terms and attempted to discern the meaning in the actual language of the Bible. If Christ should be followed with such unblinking, mindless devotion -- why trust others to translate His Gospels for you? If the Bible is so important, how about bending a little knee yourself to understand what was actually written in the first place? If you are "learning" from the Bible and Christianity hatred for homosexuals, masturbators, Jews or Muslims, then you are duty-bound to know what the Bible really says, it seems to me.

Bill Maher makes this case far better than I can (or would dare to...). His (scathing) approach here is straightforward and simple: he confronts people of various religions (Christians, Muslims and Jews) with the cold, hard facts about their clearly irrational but deeply-held spiritual beliefs. His message ultimately comes down to two things. First, belief in religion is actually a narcissistic mental disorder (so says the neurology expert, whom he trots out...).

And second: we're never going to mature as a species if we don't surrender our irrational religious beliefs...which invariably lead to even more irrational hatreds and bloodshed. Maher narrows this second point down to the explicit warning:

Grow up or die.

I was particularly happy to find Maher and Religulous confront the ridiculous, pervasive and historically inaccurate belief that America was founded as a "Christian" nation. Maher provides a litany of quotations from the Founding Fathers which prove unequivocally that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and the others had about as much use for religion of any stripe as they did...for the office of the Vice Presidency.

But the test is even more simple than that: Find the name "Christ" anywhere in the U.S. Constitution.

Seriously. Go ahead
. I'm waiting.

Find me even one tiny instance of the name Jesus Christ appearing in our Constitution. Not "God." Not "The Creator" either. Because Jews and Muslims have a "God" and a "Creator" too, don't they? Nope...there's absolutely nothing enshrined in the Constitution that creates a special or prominent slot for Christianity in America. On the contrary, America was founded on the very basis of escaping Christian extremism. When people misunderstand this, they are forgetting history, or worse: willfully rewriting it to serve a pernicious agenda.

Maher's approach in Religulous is fact-based, but undeniably caustic and brutal. As a fellow atheist, I certainly sympathize with his irritation and anger.

He is outraged with an America where the Crucifixion is re-enacted in cheesy amusement parks as overweight patrons sip their super-sized colas and munch popcorn.

He is angry with an America where Presidents arrogantly use the name of Christ to justify nationalistic war, when Christ is supposed to be The Prince of Peace.

He is troubled by an America where prominent presidential candidates (of one party in particular...) don't believe in evolution, despite the scientific consensus.

And he is judgmental of an America where religious icons like Ted Haggard preach hatred and disrespect towards gays while secretly indulging in gay sex.

He is befuddled with a world where innocent cartoons can merit death threats from "true believers." With a world where the "us" vs. "them" mentality kills people each and every day.

The world is sick, and religion is the disease killing it. At least from Maher's perspective. It's a perspective I share.

Bill Maher approaches religious belief from a state of doubt...a state of questioning, rather than a state of certainty. He exposes "faith" as a trick to make gullible people accept that which is blatantly unacceptable on rational grounds. Ever have a "rational" argument with a devout person? When they can't beat you on the facts, they tell you to take it on faith. Two words: cop-out. I outgrew that nonsense on the kindergarten playground.

If Christ, why not Santa Claus? If Jehovah, why not Thetans? If Allah, why not the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Sometimes, it takes a comedian to speak truth to power; to break taboos, to puncture the protective force field of propriety, and ultimately that's the "miracle" Bill Maher achieves in his entertaining and illuminating documentary. The results are funny, but Religulous is also sad, and truth be told, depressing. It's both amazing and disheartening to watch intelligent, resourceful people attempt mental gymnastics in the defense of beliefs that are wacko.

And If you agree with me, I'm preaching to the choir. If you don''re already praying for my immortal soul.


  1. I like Bill Maher but I don't really think Religulous is as outrageous or eye-opening as he wants it to be. It's easy to mock Jesus theme parks and truck-stop chapels full of (largely) ignorant people but he never engages serious and educated religious people (ok, that would probably spoil the fun). Actually, I thought the theme park Jesus held his own with Bill. Worse, the movie isn't all that funny or really that savage ... think about how George Carlin or Bill Hicks would have handled the same subject. Again, I liked it, it was ok, but I expected more.

    Some great sacrilegious satire: Cook and Moore's 1967 "Bedazzled", Peter Medak's "The Ruling Class", "The Loved One" and of course "Life of Brian".

  2. Ah, the names of the saints have been invoked - Carlin and Hicks. Can I get an Amen?!

    I like Carlin's theory of Frisbeetarianism - the belief that when you die, your soul goes up to the roof and gets stuck.

    Point is, no one knows for sure WHAT happens when we die, and it is utterly heartbreaking to watch folks killed in the name of deciding whose theory wins. It's not about morality, it's about crutches. Atheism is a scary outlook, honestly; I can't wrap my head around the thought that things just END; until and unless that can be disproven, too, then religion will continue to be needed be people who are afraid to face oblivion.

  3. Great comments.

    I think you're on to something, Kim, in that atheism can be damn scary, and that religion helps people cope better with the idea of death. But still, it's a balm.

    Here's the thing -- as soon as you cross that hurdle and accept that this is the only life we get, you realize how important your actions on Earth are. You realize that you should be good to people not because an angry God demands it, but because there is no immortality except in the memories of those who follow us.


  4. Thought-provoking post, John. You make a distinction that I wish had been expressed more clearly in Maher's film: "Christ's nature may be divine, but human nature is something else entirely." Personally, I think that dismissing the essentials of the great world religions because of the stupidity of lazy people who claim to be "religious" could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For me, "Religulous" was a similar viewing experience to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11"... hilariously entertaining, sure... but, as you say, one-sided enough that it's only preaching to the choir.

  5. Anonymous4:01 PM

    Forget atheism...did you just admit you smoke weed?!

  6. "You realize that you should be good to people not because an angry God demands it, but because there is no immortality except in the memories of those who follow us."

    Precisely. I will add to that:

    "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed."

    Albert Einstein

  7. I'll start by quoting Frank Black:
    "Faith fills in the holes of uncertainty. Elements that are never meant to be known: God. Death. The Group creates uncertainties with their secrets: that's not faith... that's control. They know the sickness that killed Mogilny, but if they won't inform anybody outside the Group, they are not seeing prophecy fulfilled... they are fulfilling their own... for the purpose of control."

    I used to be an atheist myself, and converted through a personal religious experience, I am perfectly aware that that experience could also be explained in any other way, the same way that alien abductions, paranormal encounters, etc can be explained the other way around. Heck, that’s the fun of it, there is always other explanation and you just never know.

    The problem comes when people start imposing to other people those things you cannot possibly know for sure. In my country outrageous things have been done in the name of religion and outrageous things have been done in the name of atheism.

    Anyway John, I'm a big fan of yours, I have a philosophy degree, I've done and am continuing to do my research on what I beleive, not praying for your inmortal soul but willing to engage in a discussion whenever you want. :P

  8. Anonymous8:33 AM

    Did someone summons the prophet Hicks?


  9. quepato:

    I love your Frank Black quote, and despite my avowed atheism, I do understand that many people find religion very personally fulfilling.

    I shouldn't and don't have a problem with that. I just get twitchy when others force their organized religion on me, if that makes sense.

    Thanks for sticking around!


  10. I haven't yet watched Religulous, although I have had it on my "round tuit" list. If you don't mind, I may post a second comment about Bill Maher.

    I wanted to focus on your comments about the Bible itself. (I'll use italics to quote you John.) After all, the Bible was written, re-written, and translated into new languages... The last 100 to 125 years has been very kind to Biblical scholars, especially the collecting of manuscripts in electronic form. Scholars have not only found Greek New Testamet manuscripts that can be dated back to the 400s and 500s, but quotes of the New Testament from the early Christian church writers that can be dated into the first three centuries AD (or CE, if you insist).

    The truth is opposite of how can I overlook a thousand years of interference in this supposedly sacred text from monks, popes and other avaricious schemers. The Bible has been protected because there have been so many copies held by so many different sources. The Dead Sea Scrolls are essentially identical to the Hebrew Codices (like the Leningrad Codex) that date to ~1000 AD. We have multiple sources for the Greek New Testament that come from multiple branches of the church, and translations that date from well before AD500.

    One of the biggest argument in textual analysis right now is whether Luke added an extra line "the son of Cainan" into Jesus' genealogy, or if the Septuagint was modified, or if there's an error in the Hebrew manuscripts. (See ). The concept that the intent of the book authors hasn't been conveyed down to us is IMHO over.

    Now, as you also state, that's hardly the end of the religious discussion. We can't "prove" that 4 guys named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were in the vicinity of Jerusalem in AD30-AD90 writing these books. We have somewhere between 0.001% and 0.1% of the books that were written in that timeframe available to us (this shouldn't surprise a student of film, considering how much of the films of the early 20th century we've already lost), and all of the Jewish genealogy records that would have been stored at the Temple are gone.

    I can't absolutely prove to you that the Jesus Seminar was blowing smoke when it tried to decide "what Jesus really said". (I can say that it was hardly original; read what Jefferson tried to do in that area.) I can say that they weren't true to the text. The authors intended to tell you about a Jewish man who was somehow also God; a man who died on the Cross, and as such could forgive your (and my) sins.

    Now, the text isn't "in sync" like some might want. It was written by a bunch of men over 2000 years (counting the Hebrew Scriptures). The Gospels were written by 4 people talking to 4 different audiences, with 4 different forms of accuracy, and 4 different set of sources of information. Then you have the Letters, written by multiple men with differing ideas at differing times.

    There are differences. I personally think most can be resolved by people reasoning things out. I don't pretend to know all of them, but I doubt any one person can.

  11. Hey Kentucky Packrat,

    Thank you so much for writing, and for contributing an intelligent and interesting view to this discussion. I'm glad you're here.

    Perhaps The Bible isn't as corrupted over time as I thought, but you said something important yourself:

    It was written by a bunch of men over 2000 years (counting the Hebrew Scriptures). The Gospels were written by 4 people talking to 4 different audiences, with 4 different forms of accuracy, and 4 different set of sources of information. Then you have the Letters, written by multiple men with differing ideas at differing times.

    ...Okay, accepted. But that means The Bible is not the literal Word of God then (as some people take it to be), but the word of man; or of men, rather. Right?

    Several men, at several times. Men with their own biases; their own agendas; their own blind-spots (and their own inspirations).

    The Bible is a product of human authors, not Divine Authorship.

    Very interesting commentary, though. Hope you stick around...


  12. ...Okay, accepted. But that means The Bible is not the literal Word of God then (as some people take it to be), but the word of man; or of men, rather. Right?

    No, not at all. I find it fascinating that 30-40 men, in different times in different situations, are essentially consistent in describing a single story. The fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell similar but not identical stories is realistic: 4 people telling the exact same story are just copying.

    There has been a lot of debate about the exact nature of how God's "inspiration". Some want to say that the Holy Spirit wrote every word. I am more inclined towards an alternative theory: humans wrote the texts, but the Holy Spirit ensured that they were accurate. I think that they can be shown logically equivalent, and I'm working on that post on my blog, but that's going to be a while....

    I think that the Bible (outside of minor scribal errors) is historically accurate, accurately describes Jesus' actions and statements (including those implying or stating that he was divine), and accurately documents that multiple persons saw Jesus after his crucifixion. To misuse Fermet, the proof is too small for this margin. ;)

    I could argue this stuff for hours and hours, so I'd better stop here. :)

  13. Hey Kentucky Packrat!

    I find your theory interesting...

    ...but still a theory! :)

    You knew I was going to say that, right?

    No, but seem like someone who has really thought about this before arriving at your conclusions; and you aren't obnoxious about your viewpoint...which I appreciate.

    But I still approach this -- like Bill Maher -- from a place of doubt, not certainty.


  14. Hey, JKM! Never posted here before but I've read your blog "religiously" (sorry, had to say it) for many years now. Great review!

    I tend to think that religion is basically nothing more than a coping mechanism constructed against the terror of mortality. Most people simply cannot deal with the idea of their own eventual demise so they create death-denial myths to escape the existential terror. It's a matter of psychic self-preservation. Without the "promise" of immortality (in one form or another) I think a lot of people would simply go bonkers like one of Lovecraft's characters.

    As an atheist I empathize completely even if I don't choose to accept religious denial. Like Camus, the atheist simply accepts that life is absurd and any attempt to make sense of or divine some overarching "meaning" from it is doomed to failure.

    And the issue of "accuracy" as it pertains to ancient writings is of interest only to archeologists when you get down to the base question of "Why should we believe ANY claim made in ANY religious tract?"

  15. Count Zero --

    Some great points there.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly about religion as a coping mechanism for, as you put it, "the terror of mortality."

    And, yes, the Bible may be an "accurate" representation of the author (or author's work...) but again, that doesn't make it divine.

    Or true.

    As you say!

    Sounds like we both come from Maher's place of "doubt.."


  16. Hey, JK,
    We've chatted about this subject a bit, and I've been curious about Religulous for some time now. I tend to find Maher's style a bit caustic for my taste, and the whole concept of this film just seems like shooting fish in a barrel. Mocking the religious? That's just not going to require any energy at all, is it? :)

    But thanks very much for the review. It may have tipped me over the edge to actually watch the darn thing, and I'll probably laugh a lot and feel kind of bad about it. Like I do whenever I watch South Park.

  17. Bill Maher is my brother from another mother for sure. I began questioning the dogma of Christ-insanity at at early age when my parents bought me a subscription to 'Discover' magazine in hopes it would peak my interest in Science. You can say that it had a unintended consequence. I became a full-fledged atheist in college while prepping towards my degree in political science and discovered that Christ-insanity was essentially a tool of slaveholders and the oppressive and brutal system of slavery itself, more powerful than violence, the church and it's dogma was a spiritual cage that imprisoned the human spirit.

    After college, I have embraced atheism as a fundamentalist non-believer in the vein of the late-great Christopher Hutchins and Richard Dawkins then and have never looked back.

    Great Film!!!!!!!!!!!!!