Feb. 20, 2019
LA MIRADA, CALIF. --- Religulous landed in the top ten at the box office its opening weekend, Oct. 3-5. The film earned the least money (3.5 million), but it had the highest per-screen average (more people per-theatre auditorium than any other film) showing the film’s popularity. The film attempted to prove religion is ridiculous which brought evangelicals to their feet asking, “Is religion ridiculous?” Biola University professors and religion experts responded.
Religulous (a title meant to be a play on “religion” and “ridiculous”) is a Michael Moore-style “documentary” starring Bill Maher, liberal commentator and host of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher. The film is directed by Larry Charles, who also directed the 2005 comedy Borat.
The point of the film, according to Maher, is to show how ridiculous organized religion and its adherents are. Though Maher grew up Catholic (with a Jewish mother), he would be the first to say he has a deep hatred for any kind of religion. His Catholicism “wasn’t relevant” to his life as a child, he says in the film. Maher also said he doesn’t understand why anyone with a brain could possibly believe in religious “hocus pocus.” His overarching thesis in Religulous is that religion is the most dangerous threat facing mankind and that “religion must die for mankind to live.”
The film-described by Charles as “an anti-organized-religion movie”-features footage of Maher on trips to such places as Jerusalem, the Vatican, and Salt Lake City, where he interviews and pokes fun at people from various religious backgrounds. The film is not entirely about Christianity, but the first hour is almost exclusively focused on evangelicals. Later in the film Maher interviews a variety of people from other faiths; from Muslims to Jews to Satanists and cult leaders.
Critical responses to the film have been mixed, with many critics (both religious and secular) pointing out that Religulous picks out the easiest targets and makes them speak for the religions they supposedly represent.
Director Larry Charles defended this tactic in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying, “Believe me, we tried to get an audience with the Pope. We tried to get the head of the Church of Scientology. There are so many layers of bureaucracy, you can’t get to them. So you move down the line until you find somebody willing to talk.”
One wonders, however, if Charles and Maher really made much of an effort to locate more informed, nuanced voices in the discussion. There are no theologians or trained apologists in the film, and a conspicuous absence of any real, thought-provoking debate about the issues in question. If Maher were really interested in how Christians defend seeming inconsistencies in scripture, why would he go to a truck stop chapel in North Carolina for answers, rather than a seminary?
The movie is a collection of cheap shots, to be sure, but it does raise at least two points that are occasionally argued by “knowledgeable opponents of Christianity,” said Craig Hazen, director of the M.A. program in Christian apologetics at Biola.
These criticisms include the charge that the New Testament writings were produced generations after the events they record (therefore how can they be trusted), and that the basic story of Jesus is simply a retelling of myths that predated him, particularly those that came out of Mitharism and Egyptian religion.
“But this argument is itself a retelling of the myth re-popularlized by Dan Brown in the The Da Vinci Code,” said Hazen. “Bill Maher and Dan Brown made the inexcusable error of never actually consulting experts in these ancient religions.”
Nor did they consult experts in biblical scholarship on the question of dating the Gospels, noted Hazen.
“It has been for many years the consensus of most modern scholars that the Gospels were written in the latter half of the First Century A.D., within the lifetimes of people who had first-hand knowledge of Jesus,” said Hazen. “Maher’s objections [that the gospels were written hundreds of years after the events they record] are flippant, popular mythologies with no grounding in reality.”
In the end, the position this film takes-that religion is ridiculous and dangerous, in all cases-is so extreme that it doesn’t seem likely to win widespread support. Maher's ideology has no room for the miraculous or supernatural and he is ardent in claiming that faith of any kind (i.e. believing in something that can't be proved) “makes a virtue out of not thinking.”
Right there he loses about 95% of the world’s population, notes J.P. Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy at Biola, who suggests that Maher’s understanding of faith is skewed.
“Religulous presents faith as completely opposed to reason—that faith is believing any silly thing you want. But a biblical view of faith is that faith is actually based on knowledge and reason; it’s not opposed to it,” Moreland said.
“If you’re too skeptical, then you'll be sure that you won’t believe something that’s false,” said Moreland, “but you will also fail to believe things that are true, things that might help you.”
Ultimately Maher-who calls himself a proponent of doubt-is a bit too skeptical for his own good, Moreland suggests.
Religulous may be grabbing headlines now, but because of its extreme, overly-skeptical and dismissive approach to something the vast majority of the world holds dear (a belief in God), it will likely not win many new converts to its anti-religious worldview.
Biola University is a private Christian university located in Southern California on the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties in the city of La Mirada. For over 100 years, Biola has remained committed to its biblical foundation, integrating biblical principles with every academic program. U.S. News & World Report recognizes Biola as a “National University,” which is considered the “major leagues” of higher education. In addition to its focus on intentional spiritual development and career preparation, Biola offers a unique academic environment where all faculty, staff and students are professing Christians. With over 145 academic programs in seven schools, Biola offers degrees ranging from B.A. to Ph.D. For more information, visit www.biola.edu or call (562) 777 – 4061.
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