The religiosity of unbelief

Comedian Bill Maher, left, stars in Religulous, his term blending "religious" and "ridiculous." Maher says that religious beliefs are childish, self-serving and dangerous. The documentary includes a host of interviews.
Comedian Bill Maher, left, stars in Religulous, his term blending "religious" and "ridiculous." Maher says that religious beliefs are childish, self-serving and dangerous. The documentary includes a host of interviews.
By on April 1, 2009

Comedian Bill Maher’s satirical barbs are renowned for cleverly skewering our social, political, and cultural foibles.

In his documentary film, Religulous, Maher sets his sights on our religious beliefs – beliefs he regards as childish, self-serving, and dangerous; or, in short, ridiculous. “The plain fact is that religion must die for mankind to live. Faith means making a virtue of non-thinking fantasy and nonsense. Religion is nonsense because it allows people who don’t have all the answers to think they do.”

[pullquote]Maher is not shy about expressing his incredulity that any rational person would believe in God, let alone religion’s attendant notions of sin, salvation, and resurrection. In his view, such beliefs deserve only scorn. If Maher’s purpose were only to elicit laughter, his film would be a qualified success: It generates some humour through its encounters with various absurdities at the fringes of religion.

But Maher aspires to more than just humour here. He has a serious message: Standing in the valley of Megiddo (better known as the epicentre for the prophesied future cataclysm known as Armageddon), Maher contends that the danger of religion is its power to divert us to destructive purposes. In an age of weapons of mass destruction, the world actually could come to an end – at our own hands! And, for Maher, religion only makes an apocalypse more likely: “If there’s one thing I hate more than prophesy, it’s self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Maher is dead right in asserting that religion has too often been harnessed to destructive ends. And, even for people of faith, there is nothing wrong with his contention that “the only appropriate attitude is doubt. It’s humble; and that’s what man needs to be.” But Maher abandons the mantle of humility a moment later, as he embarks upon an unbeliever’s apoplectic rant – replete with sarcasm and scorn for the very idea of belief in God. The result is a tirade, rather than a debate or an expose. Maher prefers to mock than to ask sober questions.

He does not pretend to be objective, embracing instead the proselytizer’s arsenal of assumptions, generalizations, and stupendous leaps of unbelief. Maher may preach “doubt,” but he’s filled with dogmatic certainty.

For him, God is no more than the product of human neediness and wishful thinking: “You make up an imaginary friend who loves you and is working for you.” Maher does not merely posit the non-existence of God as a possibility; he asserts it as an undeniable fact. In the process, he betrays the same closed-minded dogmatism for which he condemns people of faith.

Worse yet, the film shamelessly recruits a succession of crackpots, simpletons, cultists, and kooks as its appointed spokesmen for religion. Most of Maher’s sparring partners are a motley crew (like a Jewish rabbi who is also a Holocaust denier), and their credentials as sensible, sober advocates for religion are highly suspect. So, we get “straw-man arguments,” with Maher facing-off against fools instead of serious adversaries. Not surprisingly, he wins those contests easily. That’s too bad, because there are nuggets of common sense and valid criticism here, like Maher’s astute remarks about the unholy intermingling of Christ and nationalism in some circles. And Maher is right to worry that we have “learned how to perpetrate mass death before we got over the neurological disorder of wishing for it.” Urging us to “grow up or die” is commendable. But Maher’s positive admonitions are lost in the maelstrom of cheap-shots, deliberate over-simplification, pontification, and the same narrow-minded claim to certainty for which Maher so angrily excoriates religious folk.

John Arkelian is a writer, film critic, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.

Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian.

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  • John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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