Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008)

Bill Maher goes for a stroll through crazy town

In the comedic documentary Religulous, Bill Maher tours the world and takes the task upon him to discover why religious people believe. Not in any dead serious way, but with a sort of casual, honest kind of inquisitiveness that lends some fresh air to the thing. Religious discussions can quickly become complicated philosophical arguments spread out into dozens of little skirmishes, so it's nice to see something like this.

The documentary is basically Maher sitting down in hillbilly trucker chapels, Arab mosques or Jewish invention lairs (seeing is believing in this case) and allowing a selection of people to publically humiliate themselves. The funny thing here is that Maher in no way bullies these folks into a corner. Everything that happens is the direct result of they themselves speaking their mind. All Maher does is pose simple counters, often nothing more than a basic fact. In a precious chat with a US senator, Maher gets him to laughingly admit that 'you don't have to take an IQ test to become a senator'. It takes the senator a full second to realize what he just implied. Religulous isn't such a good Sameritan that they won't cut to the next scene on the official's dumbstruck expression.

Maher tours from church to synagogue and has sympathetic chats with people who simply don't have the intellectual honesty to admit the obvious paradoxical follies of their beliefs. At no point does the documentary appear to aim for anything more than gently ridiculing religion. Maher is exceptionally charming and witty, managing to walk the tightrope between playfulness and sarcasm with skill. That makes the ending all the more puzzling. In the last five minutes, Religulous suddenly takes a grim turn and warns for the dangers of religion. Religions are obsessed with the end times and according to Maher will usher in the end of the world if we let them. He urges us, atheists, to take a stand and actively fight religion.

There are two reasons this leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The first is that it doesn't fit the tone of the movie. There was never any build-up towards anything but an amusing poke at people caught up in the confused web of revelation. Then, suddenly, this violent outburst, a call to arms, targeted at American closet atheists. It's a weird, inflammatory ending to what was a mainstream, moderately Christian-friendly movie (which is exactly what it would need to be if it wanted to do more than preaching to the choir).

The second reason I didn't really like it was that I'm not sure if such a polarizing message is really the way to deal with the dangers of religion. First and foremost, I agree completely with Maher that religion is in essence a dangerous thing. It’s a set of mental dogmas that often fail to fit into modern realities and creates a dissonance of morality. It actively stops people from thinking critically and has certain parasitic qualities. But things won't improve by making a battlefront against religion, not like this. Not by becoming militant. I prefer the way of a young Richard Dawkins: by raising awareness, by giving [religious] people new perspective on things, by presenting clearly stated, beautifully told facts on nature. Allow them the choice. The objective should never be to wage a ‘war’ on religion; it is much wiser to promote being moderate in your beliefs. Whatever you believe, it is only hurtful when an element of fanaticism springs up. It’s the extremes that are dangerous.

Roderick Leeuwenhart


  1. The "Jewish invention lairs" do make me curious!

    I disagree with "that religion is in essence a dangerous thing", though. I am an atheist myself, but not for this reason. I think religions are simply false, incorrect, unproven beliefs: that is why I am an atheist. But I do not think they are necessarily dangerous.

    Of course, there are dangerous religious fanatics, but there are also dangerous atheists (the top three mass murderers in history were all atheists, for example). Religion sometimes breeds hate, but just as often it brings love, like the Catholic concept of forgiving. Many of the most beautiful pieces of art (painting, music, architecture, sculpture) were inspired strongly by religion.

    So I think believing in a religion is wrong, but I don't think that on average it is "dangerous".

    1. Well, religion is dangerous in the sense that guns are dangerous: most people know how to use them responsibly and don't go out on a killing spree, but it facilitates the way for people who do. But let's not argue about this - I don't believe we're of that different mind on it.

    2. I expect we indeed already agree mostly, but I always enjoy a good discussion on a topic like that... ;) Ow, wait, this was a filmblog, maybe I should get back to movies... :)

  2. I agree with Joost here. Saying religion "actively stops people from thinking critically" is a bit extreme. They don't think critically about the existence of a god, but that doesn't mean they're incapable of critical thought. (There are plenty of religious scientists, for example.)

    Also, just because some is say, Christian, doesn't mean they ascribe to everything in the Bible, or everything their Church preaches. I've met many Christians who don't have any issues with homosexuality, for example, despite what their religion says.

    Most members of a congregation sit and listen to their religious leader give a sermon, and decide what they agree with and what they don't. They don't automatically go along with everything they're told.

    Yes, there are those who use their religion as a weapon, but Fred Phelps isn't going to suddenly overcome his latent homophobia no matter what you say to him. If he didn't have religion, he'd find another justification for his beliefs (there's plenty of homophobic atheists).

    Anyhoo, I'm sure you agree with most of this, but I couldn't help but jump in :)

    1. Yep, pretty much :) Thanks for the critique though, I appreciate any insightful comment on my posts.