Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: documentary / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 49 of 100

Early in ‘Religulous’, Bill Maher visits a trucker’s chapel.

Yeah, you read that correctly: a trucker’s chapel. It’s a converted (pardon the pun) tautliner trailer at a truck stop in North Carolina. Surrounded by a bunch of beefy, baseball-cap sporting individuals, Maher asks a rational and legitimate question about the content of the Bible and the interpretations that have been placed upon it by successive generations of believers. One man, a self-confessed former Satanist, responds with an answer based on faith not evidence, while another – in the kind of drawling hick voice that puts you in mind of ‘Deliverance’ – shoots back, “Ah don’ know what your documentary’s about, but Ah don’ like where you’re goin’ with this. You start disputin’ mah God, then we got us a problem.”

It’s an authentically tense moment, the more so for being slightly ridiculous. It’s as if the Plainview/Sunday antagonism of ‘There Will Be Blood’ suddenly got mixed up with a rough cut of ‘Convoy’. The hick dude walks out, proclaiming that he wants nothing to do with the film. Maher holds up his hands in placatory fashion and states, “I’m just asking questions.”

And, for the first third of the documentary, this is the case. True, he throws in a few one-liners, drops in clips from old movies and TV shows to point up the delusional and sometimes frighteningly demented statements of his interview subjects, and his position on the subject is made clear from the outset (“I’m selling doubt,” he says, viewing it as a healthy alternative to blind unquestioning faith); but, for the first half hour or so, he simply asks questions and it’s the answers he gets that leave you shaking your head that such irrationality can still be so prevalent in today’s society.

Had he proceeded in like manner, ‘Religulous’ could have been the hammerblow Maher and director Larry Charles (director of the shit-stirring Sacha Baron Cohen vehicles ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’) evidently wanted it to be. Unfortunately, Maher’s interview technique becomes more interruptive, sarcastic and point-scoring the longer the film goes on. Sometimes his jibes are wincingly on target, such as in his interview with Jerry Cummings (former member of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), a man who wears a $2,000 suit, lizard skin shoes and a shitload of bling and crows that he doesn’t draw a salary from his ministry. Challenged on his sartorial budget, Cummings replies that he knows a Muslim tailor (a member of Cummings’ erstwhile faith) who gives him a special deal. “So,” Maher recaps, “you’re a Christian who used to be a Muslim and when you get your clothes you buy them like a Jew.” It’s an audacious line, one that shocks you into silence even as you want to laugh your ass off; the kind of line that’s reminiscent of ‘Family Guy’ at its best.

Elsewhere, though, Maher’s jibes are just cheap and unfunny, particularly where his subjects seem unprepared or ill-at-ease in front of the camera. A scene in which Maher interviews two gay Muslim activists is excruciating. Although he initially congratulates them on their fearlessness in being true to themselves when being gay and Muslim pretty much guarantees one a place on the fundamentalist shit-list, the duo’s diffidence in contributing to the interview makes for dead air which Maher fills up by ad-libbing. The resulting scene detracts from their bravery and raises questions about what Maher and Charles are trying to do with ‘Religulous’.

Their motives are first questioned by our trucker friend. He’s not the only contributor who voices uncertainty as to “what your documentary’s about”. It’s never acknowledged in the film, but Charles lined up the interviewees under the pretence that they were appearing in a film called ‘A Spiritual Journey’. Maher’s involvement was not mentioned until he turned up to interview them. For a documentary that seeks to paint the Christian gospels as little more than fairy stories appropriated from much earlier theisms, Charles’s approach comes off as something of an intellectual own-goal.

Which brings us to what pisses me off the most about ‘Religulous’. I ought to like it. I ought to be fully supportive of Maher and Charles’s message. I am an atheist. I believe that, alongside politics, religion has proved a blight on the history of the human race and that it shows no signs of being any less of a threat to global stability, harmony and intellectual and aesthetic development in the future.

This is the monologue Maher comes out with at the end of the film. It’s long, about 500 words, but it’s worth quoting in full.

“The irony of religion is that because of its power to divert man to destructive courses, the world could actually come to an end. The plain fact is: religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having in key decisions made by religious people. By irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken. George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he didn't learn a lot about it. Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, ‘I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!’ Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas. And anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong. This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a horrible price. If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife, for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let's remember what the real problem was. We learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That's it. Grow up or die.”

For me, there’s one sentence in there that says it all: “If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest.” Every orthodox (ie. mainstream) religion has as its figurehead a cruel, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic god. That, in a nutshell, is why I could never embrace religion. I may be wrong, but I’d rather die wrong than live as a bigot.

There is nothing that Maher says in the course of the film that I disagree with. But the way he presents it (and the fault here may lie more with his director) is fundamentally flawed. After thousands of years of bloodshed in the name of God (or appropriate variant), after the witch hunts and the Inquisition and the ugly face of sectarian violence that is still prevalent in virtually any news report on any given day, it’s probably disingenuous to criticize ‘Religulous’ for not giving religion a fair hearing. But the stacked deck that Maher and Charles deal the viewer – and it has to be said that this is a film so one-sided and steeped in polemic it makes your average Michael Moore production come across as politically neutral and utterly objective in comparison – reveals a bias pronounced enough to justify any accusations of foul play. It comes ironically close to making martyrs of those whose concept of martyrdom the filmmakers are most worried about.


Simon said...

Think he was much too abrasive with the people he interviewed, sometimes all-out making fun of them. It was rather mean-spirited sometimes, but I did kind of like it.

Bryce Wilson said...

I've been reading a lot of Chesterton lately, and the thing I've truly drawn from him is not so much in his writing as it is in his manner.

While Chesterton, Shaw, and Welles, all held radically different views, all were able to find pleasure in the others friendship and intellect.

There is a tendency, especially in America, to demonize the other side. That's because the propagandists are so darn good at their job. Fox News and Tea Partiers have brought us to a point I don't know if we can come back from.

But damned if I won't try.

My point is that I believe that people can have a civil conversation about the things that really matter. And barring that, at least a valuable one. So if I state my positions strongly I hope no offense is taken in them (as none is taken in yours).

There are many things dividing people, true. But none which divide those who truly value a good conversation. With all that implies.

(Cracks Knuckles)

"Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us",

"How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, "

This is a contradiction of terms and my problem with the film in the specific and Maher in General. Its his whole bait and switch tactic that annoys me so. "Here let me make a big sweeping annoying statement. But don't get mad at me because really I'm saying I'm just not sure."

Never mind the big declarative statement. I'm covering my own ass.

Colbert once joked that atheism was "The Worship of ones own smug sense of superiority." I don't believe that. Except with Maher.

As for the whole social club metaphor its valid but, monstrously flawed at the same time (if that makes any sense). When one talks about a social club or a political party one is talking about something that in the grand scheme of things means very little. Simply proportionately speaking religion must matter more. So it must be fought for with more vigor.

Saying that because people misuse it is a reason for its abandonment is as silly as saying "Someone over there is raping your Mom. You better leave it be. You don't want to have to deal with guilt by association. "

This is ironically the same reason that I've always said I respect atheists more then agnostics. Religion is something important enough to deserve a definitive answer. "I'm not sure" is not acceptable. Its not a question of what you thought of the new Chili Fries Its a question of how you define existence.

The thing that really annoys me though is the use of the word "comfort" which is something that the anti religious love to pull out as proof that the religious are weak. Unable to face the big bad truths that the non religious are. There are many things I gain from my religion and comfort is the least of these.

If anything the thing I gain most is a profound sense of discomfort. The status quo is not enough to the religious. The question that is eternally ringing in one's ears is, "Can I do better?" In every action that I make can I be less selfish. In every vice that I indulge can I be less destructive? In every energy I use can I be of better use?

Comfort denotes complacency, and Religion, whatever else you want to call it is never complacent.

Bryce Wilson said...

And just so I'm clear I'm not opposed to anti religious art in an of itself. Like all art I just prefer that is is good.

Once you've encountered "Letters From The Earth", Patton Oswalt's "Sky Cake" routine and The Life Of Brian, Maher's tantrum can't help but look insufficient.

Neil Fulwood said...

Simon - "abrasive": exactly the right word. He definitely let down his side of the argument with his interview technique.

Bryce - thank you for taking the time to leave such an intelligent and thought-provoking comment. I've always considered you a friend as well as a fellow blogger and it's good and right that we have the Chesterton/Shaw/Wells example to emulate and not descend into a pointless falling out defined by your faith and my lack of it.

Good point on the spiritual fence-sitting that constitutes agnosticism, by the way. That's a perspective I've never understood. You either believe/have faith or you not. It's not a half-and-half, bit-of-one-bit-of-the-other subject. It's either/or.

Good point as well on the media's tendency to spell things out - whether taking a political, social, religious or any other stance - in terms of one point of view or opinion being justified and the other, as you rightly put it, demonized. Too much of what should be structured and mediated as even-handed debate is boiled down to soundbites, simplifications and, once the argot of tabloid hyperbole kicks in, outright mud-slinging.

The comment you've left on my (admittedly biased by my atheism) review reinforces something I should have been more conscious of in my write-up: the necessity of tolerance.

Bryce Wilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the kind words, Neil. The feeling of friendship is mutual.

Don't worry about any danger of a falling out. Oddly enough I often end up as many atheists and agnostics "Christian Friend" so its a role I'm comfortable with. lol.

I guess I just like debate too much. And in all fairness I find the hardliners on your side are always more eager to provide it then the hard liners (ostensibly) on mine.

I'll take a frank discussion with Richard Dawkins over the shouting idiocies of the Westbero Baptist Church any day.

That said it's people like WBC and corruption of The Vatican and other such horrors that demand the actions of those who call themselves adherents. The term "Defender of the faith" can be a useful one, when you remember that it needs defending from its enemies within far more then from it's "enemies" without.

I feel a lot of the time, Christians, myself included, feel its a lot easier to gaze uneasily at these cretins and hope they’ll go away. Like they’re an uncle convicted of Child Molestation who insists on showing up to family reunions anyway. The fact is these people are dangerous. Not just to the people they would hurt with their ignorance and hate, but to the faith itself, by painting such a perverted and ugly vision of it to outsiders.

We need more people like Fred Clark (http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/left_behind/)
who tore the Left Behind Folks a new asshole not with the usual tools but with solid theology. Not only explaining that they were wrong, but explaining exactly “Why” as well (aside from well the obvious).

(End rant)

But I know I can always count on you for a good (and mutually respectful) debate. That's a gratifying thing.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I pretty much feel the way you do about this documentary, it was great, I enjoyed how it exposed many things that do make religions ridiculous (like the mormons having to wear special underwear for having sex) and many other ideas and beliefs that feel about as true as a fairytale.

But I also agree it got into this area where it was making fun of the people, making fun of their beliefs.

I mean, I get that you dont believe the same thing they do, but do you have to make fun of them? I think the documentary might have made more of an impact had it not had that comedic element to it.

I see what they were trying to do though, I mean, religion is a touchy subject matter and he was treating it lightly, I guess he thought the comedy would lighten things up a bit.