I recently watched Bill Maher’s new documentary, Religilous. I expected the movie to be funny, provocative, and offensive (it was). I also hoped (perhaps naively) that it would have some honesty, some thoughtfulness, and some serious interest in the issues it was raising (it didn’t). As a believer, I appreciate it when skeptics ask tough questions because it helps clarify truth, which is always the goal of faith. The issues involved in religion are important, and robust debate about them in our society is good. Bill’s movie, however, confused rather than clarified dialogue between believers and skeptics.
In the first place, it appeared from watching the movie that he got many of the people he interviewed to do the interviews by misleading them regarding what the movie was about. It also appeared as if he significantly edited the interviews in order to make his interviewees appear as unprofessional and clueless as possible, and on several occasions he was painfully rude to the people in the film. If this perception is at all accurate, then Bill owes the people he interviewed an apology. It is ugly and dishonorable to deceive and use people in this way.
Now regarding the film’s critique of religion. Some Christians have responded to the movie by claiming that, yes, religion is evil, but Christianity is not a “religion.” This is a valid distinction in certain contexts, depending on how you define the word “religion” – but I don’t think it is a very helpful distinction in this context. Obviously Christianity is a religion in the sense that it affirms the existence of God, the legitimacy of faith, the reality of an afterlife, and so on – and it is basic religious concepts like these that Bill Maher is critiquing.
My critiques of Maher’s presentation are:
(1) The majority of the people he chose to interview were relatively uneducated regarding their faith and unaware of what the movie was about. In fact, the only educated person in the film was Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome project, whose debut was extremely brief. And then from these interviews Maher draws conclusions about religion per se? By this approach any worldview could be easily debunked (including Maher’s “rationalism”), especially if you edit the interviews. Maher should have interacted with the best, not the worst, arguments and proponents for religion if he was really serious about drawing conclusions about religion in general (as he clearly was in the way he ended the movie).
2) Anyone with some basic common sense recognizes religion is very diverse and has been the source of both great evil and great good in the world. A thoughtful person, therefore, is willing to sift between the good and the bad, rather than just reject it all at the outset. To be unable to make distinctions within such a complex and diverse phenomenon as religion is shockingly simplistic. It is as simplistic as meeting someone of a different skin color who has some fault and then concluding that all people with that skin color share the same fault. It is as simplistic as seeing a particular political candidate fall into moral disgrace and then concluding that all people in his party are doing the same thing. It is as simplistic as hearing a story about a dog attacking its owner and then concluding all pets are dangerous.
Is faith good? It obviously depends on what the faith is in. If the object of the faith is good, faith is good. If the object of the faith is bad, faith is bad. Martin Luther King’s faith in a God who made all humans equal (and it was his faith that undergirded his social action) was good, while Osama bin Laden’s faith in a God who rewards terrorist actions is bad. Its a great fault that Bill is unwilling to make such basic distinctions.
3) Its also simplistic to divide people into (1) those who have faith and (2) rationalists, as Bill does. If postmodernism has taught us anything, it has taught us that everyone has faith in unprovable assumptions because everyone is finite. Rationalism, for example, cannot be proven. You have to assume it in order to use it. If you try to prove, you are assuming it to prove it, which is circular.
4) The climax of the movie basically claims that religion breeds violence and therefore must die out in order for humans to live peacefully with each other. Maher doesn’t mention that irreligion has been the cause of much more violence by far in the 20th century than religion, nor does he attempt to explain those who promote peace because of religion. Once again sweeping generalizations replace a discerning recognition of the complexity of the world.
In conclusion, there is obviously a lot of crazy and evil stuff that happens in religions, but to deduce from this that religion across the board is bad is an obvious misdiagnosis. The problem with the world is not religion: the problem is evil, which has religious, anti-religious, and non-religious expressions. A thoughtful person is willing to sift through different religious ideas and expressions and sort out good from bad rather than just reject it all.