Bill Maher is that rare thing: a media figure unafraid to say what he really thinks. When he intervened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, suggesting that it’s better to deal intelligently with terrorism than to indulge in absurdist name-calling, many people, including me, supported him. We were dismayed by the cancellation of ‘Politically Incorrect’ – which had provided one of the few opportunities for serious sustained political discussion on television. In recent years he returned to the small screen with ‘Real Time’ on HBO, and the lack of censorship on cable channels has allowed him the run of himself, which is a blessing, because there’s no unreasonable restriction on what can be said. Maher’s concern for calling politicians to account, and allowing oxygen to maverick points of view is a public service; the fact that he does it with such brilliant humor makes the show uniquely entertaining. His new film ‘Religulous’ is a paradox, however – it is both an amusing deflation of religious pomposity, and an infuriating attack on faith that sadly lacks intellectual rigor.
We follow Maher on a sporadic trip around the US, the Middle East, and the UK, visiting sincere spiritual advocates ranging from the working class members of a truck-stop church in North Carolina, a violence-endorsing Muslim rapper in London, and the actor who plays Jesus at a Holy Land theme park. He asks academic theology questions and mocks the respondents for offering only platitudes; these scenes are intercut with footage of him making more fun of the unsuspecting target in a post-interview wrap-up chuckle with his director Larry Charles. The effect is rather like watching the string section of an orchestra standing in a circle and pointing with disdain at a homeless guy playing a three-stringed fiddle. It’s not pleasant; and it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: that there are some crazy people in the world. By the same token, of course, there are plenty of intelligent spiritual believers; just as there are plenty of unpleasant atheists. Maher’s film unfortunately does not engage with people whose faith has advanced obvious good in the world, nor those who approach God on the basis that God is at least as smart as we are and that we can talk about the Divine in terms that would not shame an evolutionary biologist.
Maher himself appears to be an intelligent guy – but his film risks being intellectually dishonest. If he is, as is claimed, genuinely interested in finding out why people believe what they believe, then why didn’t he interview any of the hundreds of well known spiritual leaders who bring intelligence, wit, and grace to their conversation; nor any whose faith has propelled them into acts of mercy and kindness? It’s not as if they’re hard to find: Let’s start with Archbishop Tutu, Dr Rowan Williams, and other Christian leaders in international peace processes to name only the most obvious; add to these the invisibility of perhaps more culturally relevant figures such as Andrew Sullivan, Anne Lamott, even Maher’s own friend Arianna Huffington, or any number of the folk who blog about progressive faith, and the failings of ‘Religulous’ become even more obvious. The fact that he ignores these people, combines with the overheated monologue that closes the film, with Maher’s polemic about religion edited against footage of bombs, angry preachers, and end-of-the-world scenarios (including some from my own home of Belfast, in which an IRA funeral is misappropriated to illustrate his point; while the conflict in and about Northern Ireland has some historic religious elements, IRA members would certainly disavow any suggestion that their fight was faith-based). It feels like Maher wrote this monologue before he went out on his journey; in which case the documentary is not an intelligent exploration of a vital issue, but a polemic based on cynical preconceptions.
Bill Maher has important questions to ask: why do some religious people do such bad things?; what is the relationship between faith and reason?; what should be the role of spirituality in politics?; is religion inherently dangerous? The problem with ‘Religulous’ is that he doesn’t ask these questions of people who can answer intelligently, nor does he allow for the possibility that one does not have to be an expert in something to be a fan.
I’d add a few questions of my own: why do the levels of theological literacy in public articulations of Christianity seem so pathetically low?; why do so many religious believers seem unable to articulate why they believe what they believe?; And how is it possible for a film that deals in part ostensibly with the role of Christianity in public life in the US not to even mention the greatest public advocate of a role for faith in the history of this country, Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr?
However…I have to pause here, for as I re-read this article before submitting it for publication I realize that I may have fallen into an ancient trap, and in the process perhaps have simply reinforced Maher’s legitimate concerns. ‘First take the plank out of your own eye before figuring out what to do with the speck in someone else’s’ were the paraphrased words of another well known mystic, who doesn’t get as much attention in ‘Religulous’ as one might expect. There may well be a pretty big plank in my eye – for the truth is that one of the reasons Maher may feel emboldened to make his angry case is that people of faith have so often failed to make theirs. To make ours. To articulate a spirituality that is earthed in an appreciation of beauty, love of neighbor, and a humble, wide-eyed (but not empty-headed) wonder at the notion that Someone far greater than any of us may just be more present than we realize. If Christians can be made so easily to look boring, it is partly because we have not articulated a better story. If Christians are held in low regard because we are seen to be primarily concerned with issues of private morality and Puritanical codes, it is partly because we have not paid enough attention to reason and human experience as guides to interpreting our faith. If, in short, it is easy to portray Christians as stupid, spineless and dangerous, it is partly because we have failed to be loving, peaceable and brave.