Who is “Religulous”?

On a rainy evening in the autumn of 2008 I took the students in one of my graduate seminars to see Bill Mahr’s Religulous [tralier]. I wanted them to consider the film as a cultural artifact that embodied the “tradition-constituted” debate on the reasonableness of faith.  I was also seeking a broader perspective on the film. Everyone found Religulous rib-ticklingly funny but several of us found it blatantly unfair. Consider our reasons:

Laying traps
Maher is clearly uninterested in engaging authorities on religion.  No cameos of Houston Smith or Karen Armstrong here.  Instead, he targets the humble and the unsuspecting: a lay pastor of a store-front church with folding chairs, an Imam in a mosque under construction in Amsterdam, and a peacenik Rabbi in a cramped Brooklyn synagogue.  He then goes on to badger them with irreverent questions and clever asides.  You can’t help but feel for these folks who have been framed—in both senses of the term—as ignorant fanatics.  One must have a twinge of sympathy even for the Christian fundamentalist senator whose verbal gaffes Mahr flashes across the screen lest the viewers miss the extent of his ignorance.  My students’ reports on Maher’s antics resonated with mine: “He sounds like a bully who picks on younger kids because he will not be taken seriously by his peers.”  

Doing Michael Moore
Borrowing a trick from the contrarian activist and film maker Michael Moore, Bill Maher, uninvited, descends with full camera crew onto places of meditation and worship, putting those charged with protecting these spaces in a no-win situation: either they permit him to walk around and crack jokes at the expense of the faithful or they ask him to leave, thereby appearing as bigoted dunces.  He repeats this stunt in the Mormon tabernacle in Salt Lake City, in The Vatican, and in a Christian theme park in Florida.  What lesson are we supposed to learn from these little field trips? Are we expected to conclude that religious people are inhospitable and scared of spontaneous chats with a harmless intellectual gadfly like Bill Mahr? One wonders how Mahr would react if the tables were turned. What if a Mormon missionary, a Jesuit polemicist, or a Muslim seminarian tried to crash one of Maher’s laid-back soirees with camera and a sound man in tow? Should it surprise anyone that the Pope’s handlers are as vigilant in protecting their turf as Maher’s handlers would be of theirs?  Granted, it is funny, but it is a cheap laugh. Speaking of which, one of my students wondered why this inexpensively produced movie is on the Cineplex circuit when many of Michael Moore’s best works are available on-line, in their entirety, for free.  

Playing the agnostic
Finally, why would someone who is certain that all religion is at best ridiculous and at worst insidious, go around calling himself an “agnostic” – as he does in this movie – rather than stand up for counting as an atheist; and not only an atheist but a proselytizing atheist. Yes, there is a difference, as one of my atheist friends says, between someone who holds a belief or non-belief and someone who goes around trying to strip others of theirs.  Shouldn’t Bill Maher have the courtesy of leaving the term “agnostic” for those who are genuinely unsure of the answers? If Religulous demonstrates anything, it is that Maher stopped being an agnostic a long time ago.  One of my students described Mahr’s attitude in this movie as “religious in his anti-religiosity”. Now if that is not “Religulous” I don’t know what is.   

Mahmoud Sadri is Professor of Sociology at Texas Women’s University. 

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