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London, March 31, 2009 (Peter Malone) - As the title indicates, the filmmakers want us to approach this documentary on religion with a sense of the ridiculous.
For many believers, whatever the religion, this can be an interesting challenge. After all, everything human (even of divine origin) can be the subject of humour, otherwise it is made into an idol on a pedestal which can easily be knocked off. These believers will be interested to see how humorously aspects of religion are treated, with respect or stepping over bounds. For many believers, on the other hand, especially most of those displayed in this film (and it should be emphasised that most are displayed in images or paraded in interviews which make many of them really look and sound ridiculous) will be upset at the criticism and ridiculing of their beliefs.
However, irrespective of good taste or stepping over bounds, anyone whose belief and beliefs are threatened by this kind of criticism does not really have well-grounded beliefs. And, after all, Religulous is only a film, a 100 minute movie.
The interviewer, Bill Maher, is well-known to American television audiences. He is a stand-up comedian become interviewer who has an agenda but who takes the trouble to find people that he does not agree with (especially in politics) and interviews them, sardonically but in a friendly way, usually, but has the advantage over the interviewees, of course, of editing his material to his advantage - and also of placing captions at the bottom of the screen where he has evidence that the interviewee is not telling the truth or where he wants to make a joke. (He does this most effectively with some evangelists who rake in the money and who quote Jesus as fairly well-off, wearing fine linen and advocating being rich!).
Maher talks about his own background, half Jewish, half Catholic, brought up to age 13 as a Catholic, but whose creed is now questioning and doubt. Early in the film, he has an interview with his mother and sister questioning them about their religious beliefs and practice in the past. He admits up front that he finds many aspects of religions ridiculous and wants to illustrate this. As more than an aside, his director is Larry Charles who directed Borat (and Maher is a straightforward and polite interviewer compared with Borat!).
It is curious and interesting to note that in his film Maher stays with the Judaeo-Christian tradition and Islam and does not venture into the religions that originated in Asia.
Maher's agenda seems to be 1) the beliefs that seem to be rationally impossible and which are accepted blindly, 2) the relationship between faith and science and 3) the fundamentalist interpretation of scriptures whether the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Scriptures or the Koran.
One should note that for non-believers and for those who have not studied religion, Maher's parade can seem very funny as interviewees seem to be obstinately superstitious at best and obstinately stupid at worst. Actually, depending on where they stand, believers will think that those who believe in ways different from themselves are stupid - a case in point is listening to some former Mormons describe the mind-boggling claims of Joseph Smith and his visions or the Latin American Miami-based Jose Miranda who believes that he is Jesus incarnate at the Second Coming! - and Maher shrewdly points this out for his audience.
As regards beliefs which seem irrational:
It is easy to ridicule and to quote the scriptures to make a point seem religulous. To lump belief in a footprint of Jesus in Jerusalem, the Virginal conception of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and beliefs about Mohammad's ascent into heaven and the 'talking snake' in the Garden of Eden is smart TV but not rationally honest. Any researcher will know that there are considerable differences in content and status of belief, between doctrine, religiosity and eccentric devotions. More nuanced questions need to be asked. It is interesting to note that Maher does not interview any professional theologian of any faith to clarify the meaning of the doctrinal or pious labels that he introduces into questions. He can toss off a statement about every Sunday drinking the blood of a man dead for 2000 years and does not offer an opportunity to anyone to say to him that he really doesn't know properly what he is talking about. His statement is irrational and needs substantial qualifications, the kind of rigour that he would demand of the people he is questioning.
As regards religion and science:
Maher interviews many fundamentalist American Christians as well as the manager of the Genesis Centre which is a theme park designed to illustrate creation in 6 days and deny any evolutionary theory. The adherents to an anti-evolutionary belief simply state that the word of God in Genesis has to be taken literally, so it is difficult to dialogue with them because the main discussion is not science but how to read and interpret the scriptures.
As regards Catholicism, it is something of a relief to hear Maher speaking with American Jesuit Fr George Coyne, Emeritus Director of the Vatican Observatory who points out, with the aid of a caption timeline, that the 2000 years or so of the creation of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures were not the centuries of scientific research or language and so we cannot expect that to be found in the Scriptures. He also points out the long time gap from the Scriptures to the era of science and scientific research and language in more recent centuries. He highlights statements of John Paul II about the compatibility of Scripture and Evolution theory. In terms of the religulous, this puts the Catholic tradition, at least, in a different category from fundamentalists.
As regards the reading and interpretation of Hebrew, Christian and Muslim Scriptures:
Maher finds that the responses from many Christians, some Jews (and Rabbis) and Muslim scholars are grounded in a literal reading of their Scriptures. The Bible says, therefore... The Koran says, therefore...
It would be hoped that any fair-minded audience of Religulous , would realise that those who answer in this way are reading texts of past centuries as if they were written this morning with a 21st century mentality and vocabulary in mind - like the actor playing Jesus in the Florida Holy Land theme park who argues that God is a jealous God, taking jealousy in a contemporary sense which makes it sound petty rather than the meaning in the original language (which means beware of making arguments from translations without reference to the originals). Some of the Muslim commentators note that a Sura needs to be understood in its context and interpreted.
The main difficulty with Religulous and Bill Maher's approach is that he has not done his homework properly and is asking 'irrational' questions of some believers. The priest in St Peter's Square, Fr Reginald Foster, in his bluff and humorous way (which could scandalise some staunch believers), tries to tell Maher that he is out of date simply relying on basic and unnuanced Catechism answers he learned in Sunday school decades ago and not updating himself (as he would with changes in party politics policy) with recent and current developments and study. It is always surprising to find serious adults who are stuck in what St Paul reminds us: when I was a child, I thought like a child. They do not seem to realise that, as far as religion is concerned: now I am an adult, I should think and speak like an adult.
In an academic phrase, what is lacking in Maher's approach and his framing of questions, is that he does not have a sound and rational historiography. This means that he does not take into account changes in mindsets, language and ideas in expression through different cultures, languages and times. This makes him the equivalent of a fundamentalist in his own reading of some of the scriptures. The questions he asks and the statements he makes about, for instance, evidence for the existence of Jesus and likening the Gospels and their creation to modern-day biography or journalistic editing means that he did not take Fr Coyne's comments on eras of scripture and science on board: that there are substantial differences between Gospel portraits for evangelisation purposes in a media-limited era and contemporary biography accuracy (although all history - and documentaries - are not the truth 'as it is' but interpretation). Were Maher to research the material available (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) on interpretation, he would be asking different, better and more interesting questions.
Maher, as all of us should be (although many of his interviewees were devoutly locked into apocalyptic, rapture, end-times, second coming soon acceptance of wars and disasters), is concerned at the atrocities, the dehumanising features of history, so much of which comes from religious beliefs or causes. But ideology is not religion. For too many Christians, the religious identity is nothing more than a calling card or social status which requires some attendance at functions but really makes no demands on understanding faith or translating the message of the faith into justice or charity. Maher became disillusioned with religion, boring religion, early in his life. But, it was interesting that early in the film after an encounter, he thanked an interviewee for being Christ-like rather than Christian.
Now, there is a theme for another film: the spirituality of faith, lived faith, and the rationality of spirituality that is based on religious experience of the authentic kind.