Bill Maher has a new documentary slamming religion, Religulous, which opened Friday night around the nation. Short review: Sure, go see it. It will make you snort and laugh and shake your head at the endless nuttiness of religion. And it will make you think — but not that much. Unfortunately, there is a fundamental flaw that keeps it from being great.
The movie had the working title of “A Spiritual Journey,” and it begins that way with homey early photos of Maher up to his adolescence, and some sit-down exchanges with his mother about their family’s religion (raised Catholic, though half Jewish). But the movie isn’t really about him and his spiritual journey; it is mainly spent in interviews with an array of religious figures representing various big and some not-so-big religions and sects. We get to gawk at their goofiness, and Maher gives them plenty of opportunities to show their plumage. Interspersed are passages of him talking while driving around the nation. (Maybe that’s the sort of “journey” he’s really referring to.)
Maher is a comedian who’s made religion a target for years, so he’s got lots of funny, biting material to toss off. And sometimes his boldness and quick wit really pay off in his interactions with the religious loonies he’s rounded up for inspection. That is where the film shines. He wraps the film up with a speech about the dangers of faith and religion, and generally encourages people to grow up.
It is refreshing to see a film here in one of the reddest of the red states taking a huge swing at the endless goofiness and insanity of religion. But as with ‘New Atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, its effect will be necessarily shallow and likely counterproductive in improving the culture. Consider: Maher wants to ding the destructiveness of faith and expose religionists’ obvious nuttiness — yet he works from the weak platform of a Skeptic who Just Doesn’t Know, and who explicitly touts Doubt as his big epistemological tool. Well, the faithful will simply see him as ultimately expressing just another kind of faith, and they’ll rightly think him a bullying hypocrite for baselessly attacking theirs. If he wants to be effective, he has to gain enough of the correct philosophical grounding to be able to explain just how one knows with valid certainty that faith and reason, science and religion, are fundamentally different and utterly irreconcilable.
And believers will see the gray kind of Relativism that flows from such skepticism and rightly dismiss his approach as a dangerous prospect — after all, humans’ need for morality is real. Lost in this sadly-partial exchange is the fact that both the religious and the subjectivist approaches to morality are dead wrong. Values have an objective basis here in reality — they aren’t subjective constructs or edicts from another realm — and moral principles to guide us in pursuing the values required to live happy lives are just as open to discovery, dissemination, and proper use as the principles of engineering and economics.
While Maher’s movie has a lot of humorous red meat for the god-free, all that believers will find is a journey out of the frying pan and into the fire. That is a shame, if the goal is to help humanity get over religion.