Religulous is a mockumentary in which Bill Maher attacks religion and faith. I went to see it because I was asked to sit in on a panel to discuss it. As I was walking into the theatre, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to force myself to sit through the film. Is it even valid to use the irreverent, parodying genre of a mockumentary to talk about a subject as sacred as faith?
Unfortunately, Religulous lived up to its genre and my negative expectations: it’s irreverent and comedic, a parody of the balanced, objective documentary. It is also clever, pokes fun at itself as well as its topic, and blatantly pushes its own agenda, which is doubt. (More about that later.) Religulous is more than irreverent: some of the imagery is obscene and offensive, and Maher is deliberately trying to ridicule faith. He bashes all the religions he chooses to encounter. He’s not just hard on Christianity; he is unrelentingly harsh towards Judaism and Islam. However, this commentary will focus primarily on his encounter with Christianity.
Religulous is so unfair in its presentation of faith, so afraid to look at the deeper questions which religion and faith address, so illogical, and so demeaning towards the very idea of faith, that it loses its credibility early on. Still, Maher is smart and witty, and some of his comments hit my funny bone pretty hard. I also found some points worth reflecting on, because Maher raises some pretty common (if mostly superficial) questions about faith in today’s world.
Underneath the wittiness, Bill Maher seems to use Religulous to attack two areas: 1) the possibility of faith as a genuine human attitude compatible with intelligence, and 2) the ways that human beings and human institutions distort their principles of faith to serve their own ends. Maher does not so much attack God or the tenets of the various faiths, but how human beings choose to live out their faith. Maher feels that faith has caused tragic consequences for the human race. Despite my problems with Maher’s methodology, he does raise some good points here. It is one of the great scandals of Christianity that some Christians have and do use faith as a reason to dominate others, to persecute, to oppress, and even to kill other people. And the growing fundamentalism that breeds fanaticism in many people of faith today–whether Christian or Muslim, is very troubling. However, Maher fails to take into account the immense good done by the Catholic Church and people of faith: throughout the ages, the Church has had many Mother Teresas.
Ultimately, Maher is questioning the Church in an area that is very challenging for many Catholics today: how the Church can be both human and divine. As Catholics, we believe that the Church is both divinely instituted–the Sacrament of Christ in the world–and also made up of human beings who sin and make mistakes and often do not live their call to holiness. We all wonder at times why God would use human history as a means of salvation. This is a large theological question which we cannot answer because none of us know the mind of God. But the truth is that God not only uses human history, but intervenes in it. With the sending of his Son, we can even say that God “breaks into” human history. It takes a deeper faith to see beyond the humanity of the Church to discern the presence, grace, and invitation of God. This kind of mature faith is so alien to Bill Maher that his petty railings against faith and religion become understandable.
It’s not clear to me if Maher doesn’t want to or can’t afford to take a serious look at intelligent expressions of faith. The people he interviews are, for the most part, inarticulate or contradictory about their faith onscreen, so of course it’s easy to dismiss them. (With the exception of a couple short interviews, especially with Father George V. Coyne, SJ, who used to head the Vatican Observatory.) And Maher lumps together all Christians as representing Christianity, including a man who believes he is a direct descendant of Jesus and the Second Coming of Christ. Maher spends the majority of time with those who interpret the Bible literally in terms of today’s language and science–which makes no sense, since the Bible is ancient literature, as well as the inspired Word of God. (As Catholics, we believe that the Bible is the Word of God and always true, but that truth is expressed in the various types of literature found in the Bible. The Church also takes into account the human authors’ time and culture. Father Coyne makes some good points about this.)
Maher doesn’t believe that faith and reason can co-exist–he calls leaders of faith “intellectual slaveholders.” But without looking seriously at what Catholicism believes, how can he know that the Catholic Faith is irrational? Faith and reason are both forms of knowledge that lead to truth. Faith can go beyond reason, but doesn’t contradict it. (Check out Fides et Ratio by Pope John Paul II for a wonderful encyclical that goes specifically into the relationship between faith and reason.)
By his arguments and his choice of interviewees, Maher shows how poorly educated many people are in their faith, and even when they are fairly knowledgeable, how difficult it is to articulate that faith. I challenge every believer who views this film to try what I did: conduct their own “interview” with Maher, either in their head or on paper, and see how well they are able to answer his questions.
What about Maher’s fundament approach to life being doubt? In the film, Maher doesn’t address once the reasons for faith: that life is a mystery. That each of us wonders about who we, where we come from, and our purpose in life. In fact, Maher can’t address the “deeper questions” of life without sounding as ridiculous as the religions he lampoons, because his platform of doubt makes even less sense. While Maher claims to accept evidence and science, he glibly ignores the experience of billions of people who have had a spiritual experience, who have encountered God.
“Doubt is humble,” he advocates at the close of the film, inviting all those who don’t believe to rally together and prevent religion from ruining (ending) the world. But his appeal makes no sense. Why would a group of doubters rallying together, who will inevitably promote their own brand of “nonthinking” and impose their way of belief and action on others, do any better than a group of people of faith? If, as Maher seems to advocate, for the doubters there is no real meaning to life and our days on earth are all we have, then why would they do the hard work of helping other people and saving the planet?
The doubt that Bill Maher proposes as the only logical response to the mystery of human life doesn’t require making a commitment. Doubt doesn’t require taking a stand. Doubt can be very safe. Faith, on the other hand, is incomprehensible to someone locked into doubt. True faith is not the easy, illogical certainty of some of Bill Maher’s interviewees. Faith is a personal commitment to God that dares to look beyond the obvious and tangible. Faith takes risks on a God we cannot see but whose love we have seen in action in our lives and in the world. Faith is what gives the Church and the saints their motivation for self-giving. True faith does not make us certain, but instead opens us up to mystery and the big questions of life, to discovering the meaning of our lives, and ultimately, to be willing to give of ourselves–even at great cost–for God and for others.
It is faith in God and God’s love for us and for every human being, that gives us the reason and strength to build a civilization of love here on earth.
Sr. Rose Pacatte has put together an insightful review of the film on her new blog. Check it out: http://sisterrose.wordpress.com