Review: Religulous

Originally published My 15, 2009

I know, I’m a little behind the times on this; what can I say? I don’t get to the theater much. This one is worth a review nevertheless. Trust me on this one, I’m not going where you think I am; keep reading.Now, I’ve seen plenty of scathing criticism of this film, and not just from the religious right, or even the mildly religious. Atheists, anti-religionists, and liberals alike have lambasted Maher for this one. Essentially, the gripes revolve around two points. One is Maher’s selection of the craziest of the crazy and the most extreme of the extreme in order to give an exaggerated picture of religion. The other complaint is that Maher is overly harsh, condescending, disrespectful, and flat-out insulting to the people he interviews. I’d have to say both of these are dead on.

There were times in the first hour or so that even I, being a pretty outspoken and vehement anti-religionist, found myself wincing, thinking “Woah! That was harsh!” or “Yikes! Did he just say that?” And admittedly, he does not spend time talking to moderates; his interviewees are decidedly the oddest apples in the bunch. Both of these make Religulous a bit uncomfortable to watch, though incredibly funny.

That’s the thing, though. Getting laughs out of the religious loons is easy sport; were the humor the real intent of this piece, I would have to call it a cheap shot, or rather, a long series of cheap shots. Love or hate Maher himself, one must admit that’s not his brand of humor. That’s how you know the humor isn’t the point. It’s the tool.

The humor is a tool, like his rudeness is a tool, like his selection of the kookiest of the kooks is a tool, like his leaving in the snippets of him being kicked out of the Vatican, or off the Mormon Temple lawn, is a tool. The purpose to which these tools are turned is nothing less than the dismantling of religion’s ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.

Bill Maher is not poking fun at religion to get a laugh. He is not being rude to religion to get a laugh. He’s forcing us to see religion for what it is – delusional, irrational. Our habit of toleration and respect for religion is so ingrained, that it takes a lot to be shaken out of it. Even (perhaps especially), for liberals and progressives, who have so long championed the rights of the other to be who they are, who have fought for equality of the sexes, acceptance of race, non-discrimination; we more than anyone need to be forcibly shaken out of our tendency to be tolerant, our desire to get along. (See Karl Popper’s “Paradox of Toleration’ on this notion.)

For all the humor, Maher is deadly serious, and he’s not wrong. It’s crucial that we do let go of our tolerance for religion; our survival as a species may depend on it. It’s not easy letting go of our toys, and leaving the childhood of humanity behind us, with its invisible friends and fairy tales and happy endings. It’s not easy telling ourselves, or each other, that no, Santa’s not real, and neither is God, there’s no happily ever after, and only we can make (or break) a better world. But a child allowed to keep his toys and his childhood fantasies becomes a dysfunctional monster. So too, humanity must grow up, or we will become a monstrous race, killing and devouring with a child’s heedlessness, blindness and greed. As Maher says, our abilities to pollute, to kill, and to destroy have outstripped our ability to reason and to be rational. Religion is the security blanket, the pacifier, that keeps us from moving on.

That is Maher’s mission – to rid us of the security blanket. As long as we treat it with reverence, we will never let it go. Religion is a very real threat to our development as a species. We have only to look at the regressive policies supported by the most religious in our society to see that. It will remain a threat as long as societies like ours continue to allow religion a pass on behavior and thinking which we would (and do) condemn in other contexts. This is a point I have argued for years, and if *I* was taken aback at Maher’s blatant disrespect, clearly, we have along way to go.

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