Maher's Misconceived Call to Arms

Is poking fun at your adversaries an effective strategy for motivating your allies?  Bill Maher is about to find out.

Maher is infamous for his anti-religion rants.  He claims a greater ambition, however, for his documentary Religulous, which opens Friday, October 3.

According to the New York Times, Maher “intended the movie as a call to action, not to convince religious people to join his camp but to stir the nonreligious to unite.”

Maher, host of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, repeated his intention during an appearance on Monday's Early Show on CBS.  He told host Harry Smith:

I preach the gospel of “I don't know.” And I think people have had, you know, so many religious movies, they've had the Passion of the Christ and they've had The Robe and The Ten Commandments. Isn't there time for one, for the tens of millions of people who are rationalists who think like I do and who are afraid that the Sarah Palins of the world are going to be taking over? We've had eight years of George Bush and a faith-based administration. We can't afford another.

But reviews of the film indicate that the film quickly deteriorates into a vehicle for Maher to mock people who hold religious beliefs. 

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Maher, “travels the globe to discuss God and religion with true believers, challenging their interpretation of various holy scriptures and trying to understand -- or at least pretending to try -- what underlies fervent faith absent any proof of God's existence.”

But Maher isn't really interested in understanding faith, or even acknowledging that religious belief is often founded on reason and evidence.  Honeycutt noted, “Maher doesn't risk questioning a learned theologian.”  

Why risk getting drawn into a serious discussion when poking fingers in people's eyes is much more fun?  Critic Robert Kohler of Variety observes, “Maher inquires of the religious faithful and finds them severely wanting.”  According to Kohler,  

In a string of frank, often hilarious but always well-considered conversations with various Christians, Maher incisively asks them what skeptics always ponder about religion in general and Christianity in particular. To John Westcott of Exchange Ministries, which tries to “convert” gay men, Maher asks, given that Jesus never once talked about homosexuality, why is it such an issue for New Testament Christians? To churchgoers in Raleigh, N.C., he notes there's no firm proof that Jesus Christ ever actually lived.

While most people would consider those questions manipulative, Koehler defends them as “questions that raise more questions, in the form of a Socratic dialogue.”

Maher defended his tactics in the Times:


“It's a pet peeve of mine, because I'm confronted with this notion that 'Oh yes, you only go after the extremists, and by doing that you make religion look silly.' ” Anyone who's religious is extremist. See, we're just used to religion. It's like what Matthew Arnold said about a tree. It's not that there are no miracles. A tree is a miracle. You're just used to it. And conversely religion is something we're just used to. So the notion that God had a son, that he's a single parent, and the son went on a suicide mission, and you're drinking his blood on Sunday, that a man lived inside a whale and that the earth is 5,000 years old — all the essentials of religion that are in the Bible or the Koran — we're used to them. But it doesn't mean they're not crazy, doesn't mean they're not ridiculous. And so to be religious at all is to be an extremist, is to be irrational.

Times reporter John Leland failed to offer any form of rebuttal to Maher's assertion.

Honeycutt ended his review with an admission that Religulous is a propaganda piece for anti-religious people.  He noted, “by focusing so narrowly on religious fundamentalists and bigots while ignoring any spiritual dimension to religion, the film is not only being disingenuous but limits its audience to non-believers.”   

Reviews indicate that Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and the Times are okay with propaganda films as long as they're liberal.  They panned conservative Ben Stein's documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which explored the silencing of intelligent design proponents. Justin Chang of Variety wrote, “the film's flippant approach undermines the seriousness of its discourse, trading less in facts than in emotional appeals.”  The Hollywood Reporter's Frank Scheck said, “Don't look for any intelligent design in this scattershot documentary.”  Jeannette Catsoulis of the Times labeled it “a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.”

Not everyone is going to agree upon what makes a documentary film great.  But when critics label the documentary by a conservative-leaning actor, writer and economist “a conspiracy-theory rant” and another by a liberal personality who made a career out of his rants “as a call to action,” you have to wonder if they're being more than a little bit biased.

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center