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Reactions to Religulous

I confess, I’ve never been a fan of Bill Maher’s shtick. To me, smugness is just about the most annoying human personality trait. It’s why I have a hard time enjoying any movie featuring Kevin Spacey … unless he’s the villain, which suits me just fine. Maher has long had the temerity to insert himself into forums where serious political and cultural issues are at stake. Kudos for that. But, no matter how sincere or thoughtful the arguments put forth there, Maher seems to think they can be dismissed with a witticism and his famous smirk, dripping with self-satisfaction. Some think these retorts incisive. They’ve always struck me as evasions. Rarely does Maher bother to engage the logic of an argument, which is fine as a comedian, but it hardly merits his apparent self-appraisal as a beacon of reason. It appears from the trailers that Maher has taken a similar tack in his new film, Religulous. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, so I’ll refrain from commenting until I do (Read My Film Autopsy now that I’ve seen it). In the meantime, the reviews and responses popping up around the Web are plenty interesting. Here’s a sampling…

Craig J. Hazen at the Evangelical Philosophical Society

An excerpt: It was pretty clear that the few folks attracted to the movie were already fans of Bill Maher and his open hostility to all things religious.  Why, then, so little laughter from them? I think it’s obvious. Anyone who fits that strange “I’m smarter than Blaise Pascal, John Milton, C.S. Lewis, Maimonidies, and Averroes put together” mold has already had his laughs. After all, anyone who is able to work a TV remote control has immediate and never-ending access to some of the strangest displays of human religiosity imaginable on global network broadcasts. Those who get affirmed in their irreligion by watching such things have already tuned into the craziness many times to reassure themselves that believers are some fully evolved species of super kook. They do not need Bill Maher to replay it with a new soundtrack. The movie audience seemed pretty bored-and rightly so. They’d seen it all before on their own living room TVs.

Jesse Carey’s, “A Non-Religulous Response” and “Don’t Be Religulous!”

An excerpt:
After reading the film’s premise (and factoring in any pre-existing feelings about Politically Incorrect and Real Time’s Bill Maher, who is known for his religion-bashing and in-your-face, ‘80s stand-up style), you may have already developed an opinion about the film. And, to be fair, most of your presumptions are probably correct: The movie isn’t objective; its interviews are edited to make people look dumb and awkward; Bill Maher is vulgar in his commentary; and it attempts to challenge everything you believe as a Christian. But, that doesn’t mean it is without any redeeming qualities. Even though the film is primarily a comedy (with Maher asking purposefully awkward questions and featuring several montages poking fun at evangelical and religious leaders), the viewer realizes that Maher’s dissatisfaction with organized religion comes from a place of genuine concern. Because he is a comedian, Maher expresses his feelings through jokes, but underneath the humor, he represents real misgivings about people of faith.

Rohit Chopra’s “The Importance of Religulous and Bill Maher”

An excerpt:
Maher’s targets in the film are religious absolutism and religious literalism. In a series of conversations with believers and religious authorities, Maher pushes them, in genial but relentless fashion, to explain their core beliefs and to confront contradictions among their beliefs. Focusing on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, Maher poses a series of specific queries to his interviewees that often reflect deeper questions. How is x or y claim to be explained? Why does evil still exist in the world if god is all powerful? Why is damnation reserved for the unbeliever or outsider to the faith? Maher does all this in singularly funny fashion, not necessarily unsympathetic to, or patronizing of, his interview subjects, but with the slightly bemused air of someone who doubts. He claims not to have all the answers, and is, apparently, at least, willing to be dissuaded of his skepticism by those he speaks with. His litmus test is what may be called the counter-literalism standard, which, more often than not, is met with silence: “What if you’re wrong?” he asks one such believer who has just posed the same question to Maher

Stephen Holden’s “Believers, Skeptics and a Pool of Sitting Ducks”

An excerpt: Although theologians and scientists are interviewed in the film, they are fleeting presences in a documentary that doesn’t pretend to be a serious cultural or scientific exploration of the roots of faith. Because Mr. Maher adopts the attitude of an inquiring reporter instead of a pundit, his contempt for organized religion isn’t as pointed in the movie as it is in his television monologues. His strategy is to coax most of those subjects who are true believers to appear foolish as they offer stumbling, inarticulate responses to his friendly interrogations. The majority of his subjects are easy targets. …

Nick Schager at Slate.com

An Excerpt: Bill Maher’s Religulous, an atheistic wannabe-dissection of modern faith, and Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a pro-creationism look at the “debate” over evolution, couldn’t be greater ideological opposites. Yet to both films’ detriment, they employ a similar, debilitating brand of smug disingenuousness, feigning interest in discussion while arrogantly and speciously preaching in the very same manner that their subjects are ridiculed for. Obliterating any real discussion through a combination of self-satisfied condescension, argumentative sloppiness and aesthetic silliness…

Fr. Robert Barron’s “Ridiculous ‘Religulous'” and Video Commentary

An excerpt:
First, it’s a mindless and utterly unpersuasive attack on religious faith, and second, it’s remarkably unfunny. “Religulous” is basically a one-joke movie: put Bill Maher in the presence of simple-minded folks and let the clever comedian take apart their beliefs. This might have worked as a five-minute sketch, but twenty minutes into the movie, I was gazing at my watch in boredom. Practically all of Maher’s interlocutors — Christian fundamentalists, anti-evolutionists, a holocaust-denying rabbi, or even a man who thought he was the re-incarnation of Jesus—had in common a complete intellectual incapacity to deal with the standard objections that the comedian raised. Again and again, I found myself muttering, “Come on, Maher, pick on someone your own size.”

“Some Interviewees Cry Foul” by Rebecca Cusey at the Charlotte Observer

An excerpt: The problem, according to some people in the film, is that Maher’s fast-paced, edited versions of exchanges don’t truly reflect the complex beliefs they shared with him. Bill Maher was quite aggressive in pursuing his atheist agenda,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, which successfully mapped human DNA. Collins filmed lengthy conversations with Maher about the relationship between faith and science, making “the case that acceptance of evolution is entirely consistent with belief in God,” he said. That conversation apparently ended up on the cutting room floor; Collins appears briefly in the film, discussing a non-science related topic… Maher declined requests for an interview, but explained his tactics to the Los Angeles Times: “It was simple: We never, ever, used my name,” he told the newspaper. “We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it `A Spiritual Journey.’ … At the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they’d be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they’d have to talk to me.”

Michael J. Farris’ “Replacing Ridiculous Religion with Ridiculous Rationality”

An excerpt:
Maher’s film serves as an atheist’s jeremiad: the world has sinned by becoming too religious; if we do not change our ways, we are doomed. One of the film’s ultimate failures is its insistence that the religious and the rational are irreconcilable. That the film cannot construct itself outside of this narrative shows how deeply embedded we are in religious discourse. According to the film, the atheist is the model citizen, and those questioning their beliefs are just not trying hard enough to be rational. If we simply flip terms, the atheist is Maher’s “true believer,” the one to lead us to salvation not through faith, but through doubt, empiricism, humility, and reason. Never mind that many of the ills of the world were not brought on solely by religion, but by the rationality of domination. And never mind that Maher’s film is anything but humble. It is a romping parade of mockery.

Roger Ebert at the Sun Times

An excerpt: This review is going to depend on one of my own deeply held beliefs: It’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it’s about it. This movie is about Bill Maher’s opinion of religion. He’s very smart, quick and funny, and I found the movie entertaining, although sometimes he’s a little mean to his targets. He visits holy places in Italy, Israel, Great Britain, Florida, Missouri and Utah, and talks with adherents of the religions he finds there, and others. Or maybe “talks with” is not quite the right phrase. It’s more that he lines them up and shoots them down. He interrupts, talks over, slaps on subtitles, edits in movie and TV clips, and doesn’t play fair. Reader, I took a guilty pleasure in his misbehavior. The people he interviews are astonishingly forbearing, even most of the truckers in a chapel at a truck stop. I expected somebody to take a swing at Maher, but nobody did, although one trucker walked out on him. Elsewhere in the film, Maher walks out on a rabbi who approvingly attended a Holocaust denial conference in Iran.

“Not so Ridiculous?” by Craig Detweiler (Dr. Film) at Conversant Life

An Excerpt:
I found myself agreeing with his attacks on prosperity preachers, gay bashing ministers, and young earth creationists. His interview with self-proclaimed messiahs like Jose Miranda, illustrate how profitable packaged Christianity can be. The faith of followers can easily be abused by charlatans. Even in Rome, a self-effacing priest admits even the splendor arising within the Vatican seems incompatible with Jesus’ ascetic practices. Religulous rightly exposes those who have turned a religion born out of sacrifice into big business… Where Maher appears most insincere is in his claim to seek answers. Maher veers more towards the snide Christopher Hitchens, than the scientific Richard Dawkins. He picks on some very easy targets… Unfortunately, Religulous is more of a monologue than a dialogue.

Ben Goertzel at The Multiverse According to Ben

An Excerpt: [I]t’s hard to fault Maher’s film for staying close to the surface and presenting a shallow argument against religion … this is the kind of argument that our culture is presently willing to accept most easily … and if atheists restricted themselves to careful, thorough, reflective rational arguments, the result would be that even fewer people would listen to them than is now the case…. Maher’s argument is basically: All religions have absurd, apparently-delusional, anti-scientific beliefs at their core … and these absurd beliefs are directly tied to a lot of bad things in the world … Holy Wars and so forth …

“Religulous” is Ridiculous, by Melinda at the Stand to Reason Blog

An Excerpt:
Maher’s “devastating” refutations of religion are continually met with confused stares, as though he’d really stumped them. While I’m sure some people didn’t know what to say to him, and many of the responses offered to him were ridiculous, it’s not clear how much of the reactions were a result of editing. The movie is made by the man who made “Borat.” And it’s really the same kind of movie. A clown does absurd things to get a reaction out of unsuspecting people.  Only this time the clown doesn’t realize the part he’s playing.

ManOfReason in the Comments at RichardDawkins.net

An Excerpt: I saw it yesterday in an small suburb of Cleveland, Ohio and my little atheist heart was warmed to see a packed theatre on a Saturday afternoon. I found it to be funny, yet even handed. I think that this is a movie that even religious people can see and walk away saying: “You know, he made some very good points.” It came across as honest rather than angry and the ultimate message of the movie is the very same message that Professor Dawkins has been spreading for years. That reasonable, rational people need not hide their beliefs but must instead, now more than ever, raise their voices in the face of religious absurdity.

J. Robert Parks at Daily Plastic

An Excerpt: Maher’s thesis is that religion is not only wrong but decidedly harmful, not only for the people who practice it but society as a whole. He argues that the only proper perspective is doubt, and that anyone who claims any certainty on faith is deluded. To clear up that delusion, he hit the road with a film crew in tow to interview people around the world (though mostly in the U.S.) and challenge them to justify their beliefs. Snippets of those interviews make up the bulk of his new documentary. For someone who celebrates doubt as much as he does, Maher is certainly sure of himself. This reaches its nadir in the movie’s closing minutes when he offers his own sermon of fire and brimstone. Images of the most awful religiously motivated atrocities (a plane flying into the World Trade Center features prominently) intercut with Maher deploring all religions and calling on the atheists of the world to stand up for themselves

Mark Palermo at The Coast

An excerpt: Bill Maher begins Religulous by saying he’s intent on finding out why some otherwise smart people are religious. Then he spends most of the movie talking to people who can barely articulate a thought. The mission statement was more interesting. But what ends up saving Religulous happens unknowingly of Maher and director Larry Charles’ often smarmy, sometimes amusing interrogation scenes. They’ve made a film about modern culture’s standardized stupidity. Whenever Maher responds with critical scrutiny, his subjects look at him like he’s in dire need of help. It’s why Religulous is more incisive for the interviewees’ reactions to alien Maher than for anything he says to them. Religulous continues Michael Moore’s defacement of the documentary format into a soapbox, but it stays afloat on its own anger.

Jim Tudor at Twitch

An Excerpt: Maher himself is actually slightly more open-minded and tolerant than one might expect in this context.  Not one to hold his tongue when it comes to pointing out what he sees as inconsistencies and incongruities, he early on shows his good nature when he thanks a group of Christian truckers for “being Christ-like, and not just Christian”.  Establishing him in this light is important to his own credibility throughout, since he presents himself not so much as an atheist or humanist, but as a seeker (complete with the Who’s song of the same name starting things off), and a preacher of the gospel of “I Don’t Know”.  For the most part, though, Maher is upfront about who he is, and where he’s coming from.

Kenneth Turan at the LA Times

An Excerpt: Though Maher is known as a comedian, his qualms about religion are serious and sincere. But because he wants to be amusing above all else, he takes his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to the assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion just as they do the fringes of atheism. The humor he creates at their expense proves nothing except that dealing from a stacked deck benefits no one but the dealer… “Religulous” uses the gotcha technique that director Charles perfected in “Borat.” If people are incautious enough to be interviewed without knowing anything about the interviewer, if they are foolish enough not to recognize how foolish they will look, they have, in effect, signed their own death warrant, agreeing to be mercilessly drawn and quartered by some of the sharpest blades in the business.

The Denver Egotist

An excerpt: Bill Maher takes us on his own spiritual journey during Religulous. The best thing about his view on religion is that he doesn’t really care how sensitive you are about it. If you ever doubted what Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism or the Islamic faith were all about…you’ve come to the right place. Mr. Maher doesn’t just stick a fork in everyone’s holy belief system…he puts it on a skewer, sets it on fire, slaps it around a little, kicks it to the curb, and throws it in the river…and laughs about it the whole way through.

Andrew O’Hehir’s “Bill Maher vs. the ‘talking sake'” at Salon.com

An Excerpt: In this Borat-meets-Michael Moore world tour of religious extremism, which encompasses Jerusalem, the London Underground, the Hague, an African-American megachurch in North Carolina and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish village in suburban New York, Maher is pretty good at making boobs and fanatics look like boobs and fanatics. He reveals Miami minister José Luis de Jesús Miranda, who has claimed to be both Jesus Christ and the antichrist, as an anti-Semitic moron, and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a middle-of-the-road Arkansas Democrat, as a garden-variety American moron who refuses to commit to believing in either evolution or creationism.

Brett McCracken at Christianity Today

An Excerpt: Let’s face it: most documentaries these days don’t bother to document anything in an objective, journalistic sense. We can thank Michael Moore for re-conceiving the documentary film as something akin to a sensationalistic, cinematic op-ed piece. If you have something you hate, or something you want to humiliate in as public a way as possible, make a documentary! And this is precisely what Bill Maher does in his new anti-religion film, Religulous… Maher’s biggest problem with this movie is not that it is reckless or condescending (which it is), but that it espouses a point of view that, quite simply, is not shared by many people in the world. Maher’s ideology has no room for the miraculous or supernatural. Such things are all hocus pocus to him and cannot be believed by anyone with a brain. Faith of any kind (i.e., believing in something that can’t be proved) “makes a virtue out of not thinking,” according to Maher.

Kevin Filipski at Times Square 

An excerpt:
But–and it’s a big but–Maher’s smugness sometimes sabotages his own cause. On his TV show, he has a nasty habit of laughing at his own jokes, and that feeling permeates much of Religulous, where there are cheap laughs galore. The cutesy editing includes snippets of old movies and TV shows to sardonically comment on the loony ideas and behavior of those Maher is interviewing (we see the likes of Pacino in Scarface, as well as Blazing Saddles, The Flintstones, Planet of the Apes, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and even Superbad), while titles appear onscreen in a similarly mocking fashion (although The Colbert Report does this better with its “The Word” segment). Finally, pop songs from “The Seeker” to “Walk Like an Egyptian” to “Jesus Is Just All Right” further the smart-ass commentary throughout the movie.

Andy Jolivette at A New Doxology 

An excerpt:
Although Religulous probably fits best in the documentary genre of
“look how stupid those [fill in the blank] people are,” from what I
have seen and read so far it seems much more Bowling for Columbine and
much less Jesus Camp. I mean, sure, Maher pokes fun at religious
fanatics (like the guy who plays Jesus at the “Holy Land” theme park in
Florida) and if the movie poster is any indication, I’m guesing they
mock a few examples of light-hearted religious ridiculousness (like the
stories in the news a few years ago about a man who burnt a fish stick
and thought it looked like Jesus or the woman who reportedly sold a
grilled-cheese sandwich on eBay that bore the image of the Virgin
Mary…final bid: $28,000), but clearly, the film is about much more than
just making fun of sacred sandwiches and Christian theme parks (since
religious folks wouldn’t be offended by a movie that only makes fun of
fanatics and others who have found ways to pimp religion to make a few
dollars).

From the Filmmakers

A Statement from Larry Charles

Ok.  An old God, a very buff old God that lives in space decides to create the first man from earth dust, then makes a woman from that man’s rib.  They get to live forever if they don’t eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, but the woman is tricked into eating a piece by a talking snake and all future humanity is cursed.  Or, how bout this one?  This same space God who lives in the sky and has power over everything decides he wants a son, so he impregnates a woman but she remains a virgin.  And, the child can walk on water and raise the dead.  But his father, the sky God, sends him on a suicide mission to save humanity.  After he dies, he rises from the dead and flies into space to be with his father (who is also him.)

Greek myths? The latest installment of the “Lord of the Rings”?  Disney’s new animated movie?  No!  These are the foundations of Western religion. The tenuous shaky belief systems that our entire civilization rests upon.

What do you believe, why do you believe it, and why do you need to believe it?  Can we be good without God?  Is religion a calling or a mental illness?  Were Jesus, Moses and Mohammed prophets and visionaries, or crackpot nut cases who today would be put away? Is religion an obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Comedian, acerbic commentator, raconteur, skeptic, seeker Bill Maher and I set off in search of answers to these questions in a raunchy, rude, irreverent, outrageous, and shocking nonfiction film about the greatest fiction ever told.

Set to the rhythms of “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Jesus Walks,” from the Western Wall to the Vatican, from self-professed messiahs to self professed Pariahs, we will not only expose the hypocrisy and corruption in organized religion but the absurdly hilarious logic that holds it together.

We will talk to clergy, extremists, scholars, politicians, ex-cons, the man on the street and even the man upstairs (that’s right, we interview God.)

The funny will be scary, the scary wildly funny.  The crazy will seem sane and the sane absolutely and undeniably crazy.  All lines are blurred. All bets are off. We will get inside, on top of, behind, and in front of religion.

A Statement from Bill Maher

Since starting on Politically Incorrect in 1993, it has been my pleasure over the last decade and a half to make organized religion one of my favorite targets.  I often explained to people, “I don’t need to make fun of religion, it makes fun of itself.”  And, then I go ahead and make fun of it too, just for laughs.

With religious fanatics like George Bush and Osama bin Laden now taking over the world, it seemed to me in recent years that this issue — this cause of debunking the man behind the curtain — needed to have a larger, more insistent and focused forum than late night television.  I wanted to make a documentary, and I wanted it to be funny. In fact, since there is nothing more ridiculous than the ancient mythological stories that live on as today’s religions, this movie would try to be a real knee slapper.  Unless, of course, you’re religious, then you might not like it.

Who could I get to direct me on such an epic quest?  In reality, there was only one man, and his name is Larry Charles. I hope that together we fulfilled that quest. Which really isn’t that hard, considering that comedically speaking, the topic of religion is pretty much hitting the side of a barn.

As a comedian, religion has always interested me — it was the single easiest subject to make jokes about.  I think that tells us something:  comedians look for things that don’t make sense, that are illogical.

Even as a young comedian, routines I did that got the biggest laughs and got me invited back on the Tonight Show were the religious ones — like the one about being half Catholic and half Jewish and bringing a lawyer into confession:  “Bless me father for I have sinned — and I think you know Mr. Cohen…”

Politics is a rich area, but even politicians, although they promise some ridiculous stuff, don’t approach the level of, for example, the Mormon practice of promising couples a planet to rule over in the after life if they have a really good marriage on earth.  They give you a planet — kinda like when someone gives you a certificate that says a star has been named after you — except here, they really give you the star!

Join me in the final battle between intelligence and stupidity that will decide the future of humanity. Coming soon to a house of false idols near you.