My sister recently called me up on WhatsApp because she owed me some money. After we’d settled that we got to chit-chatting and she mentioned that maybe I’d like watching a movie called Religulous. To be specific, she recommended it to me because she said it “shows that ALL religions are crazy ;P” and that it’s “funny as hell”. At this point there were two things I didn’t mention to her: Firstly, that I had already seen the movie(because I forgot I had, which might speak volumes about my previous experience) and secondly, that I no longer am the militant anti-theist that I was in my earlier youth.
So yeah, that second bit made the rest of the conversation kind of awkward, especially because I know she was only trying to humour me. For the longest time she was the second most religious member of my family – after my mother – and every time she mentions some anti-theist topic I feel bad for tormenting her with similar stuff for years.
But I digress, because this post is supposed to be about the movie itself, not my personal blunder years. However, I do admit that my opinions are very much influenced by the fact that I think being an anti-theist was a blunder, so expect a lot of bias. I also went into this rewatch with newfound prejudice due to Bill Maher’s opinions on science, and healthcare in particular.
15 minutes into rewatching the movie, I realised the probable reason that I didn’t remember I’d already seen it: There’s no point. The movie just consists of Maher presenting the subject and then going around an acting like an asshole in front of various different people. But the saddest thing about it all is that it’s not even funny. I enjoy the occasional jab at religion, I can even stomach Dawkins’ documentaries about religion, but Maher just comes off as insulting.
And I think he comes off as insulting because of the questions that he asks. At the beginning of the movie(I actually still haven’t watched past 15 minutes and I probably won’t continue either) he goes to a trucker chapel and starts asking the people there about why they believe. A reasonable and fair question, albeit one that can be difficult to answer, were it not for the fact that he insidiously asks it through unrelated questions such as “Is there historical evidence for Jesus?” and “Who wrote the gospels?” Why does he expect the members of the congregation to answer something that normally only theologians would ask each other?
The answer is that he doesn’t, because he’s an asshole. And what do the truckers do when faced with these questions that are unrelated to their personal reasons for belief? They join hands and pray to their god, and ask him for the answer. And they obviously don’t do this out of fear but out of the self-assessed need for guidance. Coincidentally, this makes it look like Maher is showing exactly for what purpose religion was created in the first place: To answer seemingly impossibly difficult questions. And during this entire segment the truckers act and speak with compassion and tolerance of fellow human beings, something that Maher apparently lacks.
After this, Maher proceeds to further shoot himself in the foot by proclaiming that he “preaches the gospel of ‘I don’t know’.” If I asked him he’d probably say that he didn’t mean it literally(for obvious reasons), but the problem is that he kind of does mean it literally. The movie, or at least the first 15 minutes of it, gives the impression that Maher feels that the fact that he admits that he doesn’t know something makes him more of an authority on the matter than someone who states that they have absolute knowledge of it(in his mind, all religious people probably state that they have absolute knowledge). No, this just gives him slightly more authority to run a “Quotes From Socrates” spambot account on Twitter.
Maher claims that he looks up to science, which I don’t doubt he does, but he also idolises it. And misrepresents it. He thinks it’s unfathomable for a scientist to be religious, but apparently it’s possible because he interviews a religious scientist in the first 15 minutes of the movie! Maher acts like this is some sort of contradiction, and then once again asks questions that are in no way intended to shed any light on why he thinks it’s a contradiction or what he thinks should be done about it. Maher knows that he himself is not a scientist, but he sure likes pretending that he’s a voice of authority on scientific topics. He’s taken scientific scepticism from healthy moderation to the extreme, i.e. to the point where he claims that everything should be questioned. As I mentioned above, he’s particularly insistent on questioning the efficacy of medicine and vaccines. This doesn’t really come up in this movie, but I think it’s relevant to understanding what he believes in. Because believing is something that he does, regardless of whether he wants to admit it or not.
So, in conclusion, I feel like Religulous is about Maher creating demons and then chasing and attacking them. I’m not dismissing all of his concerns – I think we can discuss the various ways in which religion affects people, communities, societies and culture – but I get the feeling that he’s so insistent on being right when it comes to religion that he’s forgotten about the point that he once tried to make, if he even had one in the first place. And in the process he has basically become the demons he was trying to slay. Some of his statements sound like conspiracy theories, and that, unlike the fact that the truckers weren’t able to answer his pointless questions, is genuinely concerning. Apparently he’s not a 9/11 truther, though, so cheers to that, I guess.
Or maybe this is just me being crazy and seeing things that aren’t there. Maybe I’m judging Maher harshly because I have some deep-seated dislike of him. Maybe I see him as a villain because I see my past self as a villain. Maybe I’m creating a demon out of him based on my own self-loathing. But even if that is the case, I’m telling you about it here, because I understand that my own opinions on a movie and a person are not science or journalism. I might be wrong. But Bill Maher doesn’t admit that. And that’s because he’s not just religious, he’s basically created his own religion.
But don’t take my word for any of that, because I’ve only watched 15 minutes of a movie and skimmed a Wikipedia page. But I doubt Bill Maher’s research amounted to any more than that either. I’m not a journalist, and he’s not a scientist. But he is an unfunny asshole, and I try to be neither of those(if you wish, you can comment on whether I have succeeded or not).