I’m NOT looking forward to Bill Maher’s Religulous Film

Bill MaherOv vey…

In case you haven’t heard, comedian and Politically Incorrect/Real Time host Bill Maher has a new film headed to theaters: a com-ockumentary of sorts called Religulous, in which he sets out to explore, and generally ridicule, the silliness of religious practice and belief.

Now, it’d be rather silly for me to complain about someone criticizing religious beliefs. Or even poking a bit of admittedly underhanded fun at all things theological. But I still can’t in good conscience look at this film with anything other than apprehension…

First of all, Maher is not exactly a dream candidate for the cause of skeptics and rationalists: he’s bought into a lot of kooky rhetoric over the years, including McCarthyite (Jenny, that is) claims about vaccines being unnecessary and toxic. He’s certainly a staunch ally of secular government and the defense of science education: but his understanding of the issues is rarely reliably deep and well-informed. He has a laudably rock-solid commitment to freedom of speech and debate. But Ben Stein shared the same commitment: and in his own docu-drama-queen film Expelled, tried to appeal to it were it wasn’t relevant. Having and defending the right to speak out doesn’t guarantee good arguments.

Maher, contrary to what many people seem to think, is also not an atheist. He’s more of a militant agnostic, and in the more classical sense: ‘I don’t know, and you can’t possibly know either.’ He does seem to entertain a sort of deistic God, but considers religion “a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need.” Fair enough, as far as it goes. But how far does it go? Well, here’s the movie’s trailer for starters:

So can we expect some seriously funny bits, given that preview? Probably. Maybe even some in isolation that believers could self-effacingly chuckle along with. But rolled all together, and headed up by Maher? I forecast a high probability of dismissive, simplistic bombasticism that few devotedly religious people are going to take seriously as a critique of religion.

Of course, that’s not necessarily the problem. It’s not like devotedly religious people take criticism of religion in general seriously: regardless of quality or the seriousness. The problem is more just that of a non-believing supposedly simpatico critic of religion like myself: I’m tired of cheap laughs, however hearty. And I worry that of all the things for non-believers can indulge in at this point, shallow scorn is getting to be amongst the worst.

It’s not like the ever growing community of non-believers is particularly hurting for more yuks at yokels. Nor are we hurting in confidence. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. Right about now is the point where atheist exuberance is likely to overtake rational due diligence. What I fear from Religulous is a possible sign that, as non-belief and the skepticism of religion continue to go mainstream, we’re drifting towards the intellectual equivalent of Ugly Americanism: winners whose ungraciousness and confident cultural ignorance ultimately aids enemy insurgencies. That irreverence for the sake of irreverence is going to become more compelling than being compelling. That a taste for charming cheap shots will turn into an addiction.

Take PZ Myers’ Courtier’s Reply. It’s an ingenious little analogy in which the obscure objections of theologians to atheist critiques are compared to the excuse-making ministers in the classic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Now I happen to think there’s a lot to Myers’ fable, and so much the worse for obscure theologians. But on the other hand, outside of the expert hands of its author, the Courtier’s Reply is a two-word trope that can and most likely will turn rather quickly into a crutch: an excuse for instantly dismissing an argument pretty much unheard. And, worse, maybe even unrebutted.

I’ve felt this sort of temptation plenty of times myself: I’ll be directed to an essay by some theologian or religious blogger, and I find I’m mentally copy/pasting snippets of their text into my already formulated snarky reply… before I’ve even really read through their argument. More than once I’ve caught myself totally missing the point. Even more embarrassing, I’ve been caught missing it.

It’s not even that their “points” are necessarily good ones. Assume for a second that they aren’t. Even so, a sloppy, miscalibrated critique of bad ideas is ultimately just a boon to the defenders of bad ideas. Amateurism often just gives others ammo, and even if you believe that religious apologists really are all intellectually impotent, that just strengthens my argument. If you only pick fights with weaklings, and you’re going to end up flabby and out of shape no matter how many victories you rack up.

In any case, as a skeptic, I can’t just assume that arguments are going to be lousy, even if the conclusion is one I’ve heard poorly justified a million times before. That’s not how we, to cite a cliche, roll. The two pillars of the liberal scientific method are: nobody is the ultimate authority on what’s true, and no one ever gets to declare the debate over. We test and test and retest, for ever and ever, achoo.

And as fun as poking fun is, ridicule is ultimately something you do when you’ve unilaterally decided that the debate is over: when you’ve stopped trying to understand and grapple with someone else’s ideas. Believe me: in a world of Fred Phelpses and Larry Fafarmans, it’s quite a temptation! But while emotional release and blowing off steam are healthy in moderation, it’s hard to maintain your integrity and your edge on a diet heavy in dismissive disdain.

So consider Religulous on a nitpicking notice. Can Maher really balance ridicule with reason, be flippant and fair at the same time? I’m skeptical at this point, but we’ll see.

Besides, with Expelled pretty much off the radar, who else am I going to push around?

20 Responses to I’m NOT looking forward to Bill Maher’s Religulous Film

  1. Ebonmuse says:

    I agree with this as far as it goes – when it comes to science, Maher is a crank, and we don’t need more shallow and easy-to-dismiss critiques of the more transparently absurd excesses of religion.

    On the other hand, those allegedly more sophisticated theological arguments are too often used to justify the most ridiculous kind of literalism. I remember Matt Taibbi talking about visiting a church where believers are literally taught that they need to vomit out their demons into airsickness bags. When the theologians start spending as much time lambasting their fellow theists for still believing these idiocies as they do attacking atheists, then I’ll take them a bit more seriously.

  2. Bad says:

    It’s less a question of whether we should take their conclusions seriously: it’s that we should take their arguments, and our rebuttals to them, seriously.

    And the fact is, not every word that comes out of the mouths religious people in the defense of religion is transparent drek. And not every possible thing one could say against them is accurate.

  3. miller says:

    So I am not the only one worried about Religulous. Even putting aside the problems with Bill Maher, I just don’t think ridicule is the right way to approach religion. As effective as it might be (and its effectiveness is questionable), in the end it’s just an appeal to emotion.

    And the Courtier’s Reply is another thing. Clearly, there is a good point to be made about “sophisticated” theology being used to defend not so sophisticated religion, but that’s not how I see atheists using Courtier’s Reply. Typically, they’ll simply dismiss it with two words, and sometimes link to PZ’s original post (which incidentally, doesn’t include a full refutation). Imagine if people thought saying “Pascal’s Wager” was always a sufficient refutation of Pascal’s Wager.

  4. I applaud you for writing this post, Bad. It was introspective and brave. I hope that more skeptics dare to reflect in similar fashion.

    I will see the film just for the hell of it, and will certainly link to your review. I am looking forward to your reaction. Though we are on opposite sides of the faith coin, I can see us having a similar response to Maher’s film.

    I will say for the record that I do like Maher quite a bit (always have) and think he’s often very insightful and clever- particularly about political hypocracy and double standards in American culture. He loses that when he goes for democrat-cushy and as you called it, militant agnosticism on display. During his days on P.I.- he used to defend true conservativism and said things like “I love Jesus. I just don’t like the people who work for him.” I really could sense his desire to find truth and to not be aligned with any one party or thought-process. But these days, I fear he’s enjoying the cheers from his like-minded audience more than his previous level of thoughtfulness.

  5. Bad says:

    I doubt I’m alone, or at least I hope I’m not, in thinking that Maher is a lightweight. I can’t deny that he’s clever, as you say, in part because that’s how he’s gotten to where he is: by coming up with some winning quips. That’s his and his show’s producers’ job. And there’s a lot about his basic stances (liberty, free speech) that I respect. I just worry about what this film is really going to be like if it is going to be treated as a poster child for religious doubt. Quips aren’t the same as analysis, and most comedy shouldn’t, well, be taken too seriously. :)

  6. Jon says:

    I don’t know. I see the release of this movie as a good sign, despite how rationally pure it may or may not be. How many American films have been released in the past five years which offer even a semblance of religious criticism? I can think of one–Jesus Camp. But even that was a criticism of one of the wackier forms of Christian Pentecostalism (and it wasn’t really a criticism; it was more an expose). One could argue for The Golden Compass, I suppose.

    At the very least the film will be entertaining. I’m not sure Maher would succeed if he tried to do something serious or scholarly.

    Quips aren’t the same as analysis, and most comedy shouldn’t, well, be taken too seriously. :)

    I wholeheartedly disagree. I think comedy is one of the most important kinds of analysis there is. I’m not talking about clever, ad hominem ripostes. There’s a difference between clear thinking and correct thinking–something we probably both agree about. I’m talking about absurdist, dystopian, ironic humor. There’s a very good reason that shows like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report are so popular.

  7. Bad says:

    The fact that they are popular does not mean that they are in the least bit fair. As John Stewart himself pointed out when it was noted that more young people get their news from his program than traditional news sources: DON’T DO THAT!

    Which is not to say that satire and comedy can’t play a role. Oftentimes they can work quite well to highlight some very serious and bizarre contradictions or absurdities. But they their role, at least in terms of serious issues, is always subsidiary to a real debate that isn’t, ultimately, devoted more to yuks than to accuracy. Satire needs something to satirize. And so it’s a real matter of balance. What I worry about is tipping the balance way too far over into satire, and hence, quite often, into simplicity and shallowness.

  8. Pravda says:

    God exists, and has a sense of humor. She gave us Bill Maher, right?

  9. Jon says:

    The fact that they are popular does not mean that they are in the least bit fair.

    You don’t need to chastise this atheist on that point, believe me. I wasn’t claiming that they’re good programs because they’re popular or fair, or fair because they’re popular, or any combination of those things. I was just saying that they fill an important niche, one which a thorough, plodding, impartial, ‘accurate’ analysis often fails at. That latter type of analysis has one important flaw: who decides what’s impartial and accurate? What a liberal pundit claims is accurate and impartial is often different than what a conservative pundit claims is accurate and impartial. That’s why Stewart and Colbert are successful where traditional media outlets are not. They (S&C) don’t claim to be impartial.

    I do agree that there’s sometimes a fine line between satire and slapstick. And S&C do regularly cross that line.

    But I still think you’re downplaying satire a bit. Charlie Chaplin? Dr. Strangelove? Orwell? Huxley? C’mon!

  10. Bad says:

    All good examples of ideas that shake things up. Which is important. Very important! But not sufficient. Put John Stewart in charge of the government agencies he parodies daily, and I bet you’d just end up having even more to parody about his performance there. The point is that there’s so much more than satire, not that satire is bad or unnecessary. It’s very necessary.

    It just can’t take up more than a certain tipping point of space without just becoming shallow and dismissive, rather than insightful.

  11. sailaus says:

    I quite enjoyed this post. What drew me to embrace athiesm was not the militant, aggressive and demeaning air that seems so common lately. I used to appreciate the confidently relaxed nature of the athiests I knew and read. Above the silliness of the fray. My goodness, I wince when I read an otherwise very intelligent writer refer to “Jebus.” It sounds like my five-year-old taunting his brother.

  12. Bad says:

    Well, not to try and denigrate all brash atheist writers, I do think that part of what’s happened is that the age-group of out atheists, on average, has dropped quite a lot in the past decade. It used to mostly be older, more weathered folks that were out there. Now there’s a huge influx of new, high-school/college age folks just encountering the idea for the first time. So if things seem a bit more childish now, it well could be that, well, we’re as as group a now bit closer to kids than old fogies.

  13. sailaus says:

    Well put. It does all seem a bit grating to my ear though. Everything else I was about to write was only going to make me sound older, so in wisdom I shall be quiet now and have a nap.

  14. Tim Underwood says:

    The actual story ‘The Ugly American’ was about a physically ugly person who was doing much appreciated humanitarian work. The movie was about something I could never fathom.

    All jeering of superstition is good and even necessary. The only powerful weapon against irrational belief is derision. Organized religion is more afraid of contempt than it is of any kind of violence or argument. Rational discussion with believers is just wasted time. Anyone who wants to know if the Bible is historical or not can very easily find out for themselves. I’m all for cheap laughs until superstition goes away like it has in northern Europe.

  15. Bad says:

    Hunh? I read “The Ugly American” in high school: that’s not exactly what I remember at all. It was about Americans basically losing the PR war with native Vietnamese through arrogance, ignorance, and neglect.

    All jeering of superstition is good and even necessary. The only powerful weapon against irrational belief is derision.

    Perhaps, but if you’re simply going to dump everything you disagree with into that category, then derision is quickly going to turn into your only means of argument.

    Rational discussion with believers is just wasted time.

    I may or may not be a waste of time for them, though I don’t have nearly the same cynicism on that score as yourself. But it should be a mark of honesty for you to stick primarily to rational argument, and derision for color, and contempt, never.

  16. Litmus Test, Just a Blank Piece of Paper, for who is Telling the Truth, if Truth Exist

    Anybody can say anything, anybody can write anything, the question is, can they demonstrate with a Blank Piece of Paper, simply folded and cut, the Plan, Bottom Line, for their Religious, or Political Docrtine or System.

    Consistent with History, if it is New, it isn’t true, if it is True, is isn’t New.

    Parable of the Seed, that was good, where did all the weeds come from, an enemy.
    Warnings False Prophets, Wolves in Sheeps Clothing ……..

    Thank You
    In the Name of HYHY HYH HY Y = Deu. 6:4 HY

  17. Bad says:

    Mr. Hibbard… I don’t understand what you are trying to say. A crude sequence of origami is not a litmus test for anything other than ones skill at folding paper.

  18. Bad, I think this diagram from Hibbard’s website will answer all of your questions. Personally, it answers questions that I didn’t even have. Yes, it’s that powerful. It’s the relish of destiny on the hotdog of life. True story.

  19. Thanks for your preview! I think you nailed it pretty well.
    You’ve got the prophetic gift.
    My review of it can be seen at

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