I saw Bill Maher's Religulous last night. I had mixed feelings about the movie. The movie was amusing but some of Maher's comments were cheap shots. At other points one felt that Maher was sloppy. Here are my thoughts in a not completely organized fashion:
The thesis through most of the movie was that religion is silly and that it would be harmless but for the fact that it also causes serious violence. Given Maher's stated views that isn't that surprising.
In an odd way, I could not help comparing the movie to Expelled(see my previous review of that movie here). And unfortunately, there was a lot to compare. As with Stein's Expelled, Maher frequently used clips intended for humorous effect rather than seriously considering the points or claims made by the people he was interviewing. Unlike with Stein these clips were actually funny and sometimes even moderately germane. However, over all, direct confrontation of the ideas and claims presented would have served better since most of the ideas so mocked could be easily dismantled. There was however, one example that did strike me as amusing and well-played. During an interview with Jeremiah Cummings (more on him later) Cummings talks about how he counseled a young man who wanted to kill himself over a lady that the young man should instead "have that sort of passion for God. Imagine what it would be like if people had that sort of passion for God?" Maher then switched immediately to a clip of an apparent suicide bombing. The connection is tasteless, amusing and certainly more directly relevant than any of Stein's clips.
Another similarity between the movies was that it was not clear how much material was being left on the cutting room floor. The interviews appeared to be heavily edited and it was difficult to tell whether comments were in sensible contexts. Unlike with Expelled this was a serious concern since the people being interviewed did frequently come across as idiots.
In a few cases there was no way to imagine a better context for the comments. For example, Cummings in his interview tries to defend his lavish lifestyle by attempting to assert that there is a Bible verse that supports being rich. Maher immediately makes clear that the verse that Cummings seems to be trying to stumble over is the statement found in the synoptic gospels that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." How Cummings can manage to be taken at all seriously by his congregation given his ignorance of basic Christian scripture is beyond me.
Similarly, Senator Mark Pryor came across as about as much of an idiot as was expected by the previews. And yes, he really does try to defend his views at one point by saying that "You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate." The statement in fact comes in the middle of an extended clip with minimal editing anyways.
One interesting interview was with Aki Nawaz who is a radical Islamic rapper whose lyrics glorify suicide bombing and terrorism. Nawaz attempted to argue that he had a free speech right to his lyrics but that Salman Rushdie did not have a similar right. People like Nawaz make me want to believe in a vengeful God who will make sure that Nawaz burns for a very long time.
Maher focused almost exclusively on Christianity and Islam and never addressed the non-Abrahamic religions aside from a few minor cults. Judaism is addressed mainly as an opportunity to make self-deprecating jokes (I suspect that Maher is quick to discuss that his mother is Jewish is part to allow him to make such jokes).
Maher was in a variety of circumstances just sloppy. For example, he interviewed one of the members of Neturei Karta. While Maher noted that Neturei Karta was an extreme minority view in "Orthodox" Judaism, that's an understatement. Neturei Karta is an extreme minority view in Charedi Judaism.
Similarly, Maher at one point talks to Dean Hamer about both the "Gay Gene" and the "God Gene" and fails to note that there are serious reservations in the scientific community about much of Hamer's work.
Maher also excepted uncritically certain claims about parallelism the stories of Horus and Mithra to those of Jesus. Some of these claims are disputed and they weaken what would otherwise be a good case.
Maher also used tactics similar to those used in Expelled to get his interviews including lying to some interviewees about what the movie was going to be about. That is unfortunate and intellectually dishonest. Maher was however much more up front about this tactic than the makers of Expelled were and Maher seemed to make clear in the movie when people were unhappy with his interviews or worried about what they were focusing on.
Maher's concluding claims did not fit well with the rest of the movie and felt a bit tacked on. The end of the movie consisted of Maher engaging it what amounted to a call-to-arms to atheists and agnostics to speak up while at the same time calling for moderate religious individuals to stop giving aid and comfort to extremists. The last part seems particularly difficult; in general moderately religious individuals don't like extremists and rarely will the defend them or support them. The moderate religious individuals who do support such individuals will be likely extreme enough that they won't be listening to Maher anyways.
There has been some discussion on the blogosphere comparing this movie's box office ratings to those of Expelled. This film opened on about half as many screens and did about as well on its first weekend. Moreover, there was no similar campaign as there was in Expelled to pay churchs and schools to send students to the movie. Thus, it seems that by reasonable measures of success Religulous comes out ahead of Expelled.
I'm frankly a bit uncomfortable comparing this movie too closely to Expelled. Expelled claimed to be about science and was really about demagogery and deception. Religulous did not make any claim to be about science as a subject matter. Moreover, a focus on Expelled v. Religulous puts to much emphasis on a science v. religion view of things which is simplistic and unhelpful (if someone wants to talk about rationalism v. religion that would be a different situation).
While I disagree with a large part of Abbie's more positive assessment of the movie she is correct to point out that many of the responses by religious individuals to the movie have been kneejerk responses to criticism. Claiming that Maher somehow doesn't understand religion is obviously false. He may get details wrong but many of the interviewers and facts speak for themselves. A lot (and possibly the vast majority) of religions out there have some pretty silly ideas. And people kill over them.
Overall, this is not a movie brimming over with intellectualism and deep thought. Religulous does not substantially raise the level of dialogue. The movie is at times sloppy and inaccurate. However, this blog entry's focus onprimarily negative aspects should not be construed as a reason not to see the movie. Religulous was funny and brought up serious issues that society needs to discuss. I strongly recommend that readers go see it.
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