Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review: Religulous

Note: This is a modified version of an e-mail I sent to the buddy I saw the movie with.

Premise: Comedian/political activist Bill Maher goes on a crusade to convert religious folks to atheism to save the world from Armageddon

This movie is Evil! The people who made it are going to burn in... oh, wait. this blog is called Sane Insanities. Very well, then, here's a sane review of the movie from someone who is in fact religious.

The movie didn't quite work for me. I did find Maher funny at times (the mock translations, etc) and did laugh at points at targets I agree with (I think a lot of televangelists are going to Hell for corrupting their religion). I think if you already agree with most of what Maher says, you'll probably find the movie very funny.
But here's why the film didn't quite work for me, despite the film giving me stuff to think about:
  • Maher makes numerous attempts to interrupt the subjects (one of my favourite bits was when the one guy wouldn't let him interrupt him).
  • Related to the above, Maher does not always let his subjects finish (he dismisses the one guy who said he had a series of miracles because he didn't agree that the first point was a miracle, and did not let him provide other examples; he did not address the guy's point that one incident in isolation might not be a miracle but that a series of events might illustrate a pattern).
  • He engaged in listening to subvert rather than understand: when he asked questions, he was clearly looking for stuff that he could use to throw in a zinger, as opposed to really trying to understand the other side's perspective (which he claimed was his goal at the beginning of the film). This is the reason why my favourite of the current crop of entertainment-based documenters is neither Maher nor Michael Moore but rather Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, 30 Days). While he's also funny, he also makes a genuine effort to understand perspectives he disagrees with.
  • Maher does not tackle religion from a spiritual perspective, only from a purely logical perspective. While he addresses faith and how illogical it is, he does not address the fact that people seek out religion to feed some spiritual side of them (in fairness the film does show one guy alluding to this). He thus assumes that religion is purely a security blanket and does not really address other reasons why people seek religion.
  • Further on the logical bit, he ignores emotions completely beyond the aforementioned dismissing blind faith outright. To really understand religion you do need to look at the emotional side because it's absolutely critical to religion.
  • He goes for easy targets and does not address more difficult points when they come his way (the aforementioned pattern argument, plus there was a point in a Jesus-themed park where he dismisses the park's head's claim that people from other religions are welcome; later at that park when a Jesus actor sent a difficult question back at him, he gave a smirk but made no more effort to answer the question than "Jesus" did).
  • Related to the above, Maher shows disdain when people make fair points (he smirks when the guy running the Jesus park points out that he lets people come to the park and does not try to force religion on anyone, or even particular beliefs).
  • Again related to easy targets, he ignores those aspects of religion that have caused little harm over the centuries (the Wicca for example) and does not examine areas where religion has benefited people (e.g. providing food for the poor).
  • He contradicts himself a number of times (again he claims at the beginning he wants to understand religion but then makes no effort to do so in his journey; he claims he does not know, yet other times he claims he does know that there is no validity to religion).
  • He basically comes across as bullying the people he talks to; while funny he's also pretty mean-spirited even towards nice people (my gut feeling is that the Muslim woman he bullied probably isn't one of those Muslims who agrees with 9-11).
  • Maher does not address the belief that some religious people have (myself included) that while there are some facts in the Bible, a lot of the stories are allegories.
  • While he makes some intelligent points his inability to really understand the other perspective and in fact the need to come into people's religious centres with no real purpose than to make fun of them does suggest a certain level of insecurity about his atheism. Why is he so afraid to really understand the other side? Growing up I was regularly bullied by people who were afraid of me because I was different. I do see a lot of that in Bill Maher, at least in this film: he's afraid to let in anything that might chip away at his world view, so he takes a wrecking ball to other people's world views).
  • Maher claims, especially at the end that his film is designed to convert people to atheism, let frankly his attitude is more preaching to the converted. While again, he's pretty funny, you convince more people (at least in part) by trying to understand their perspective and comparing notes than by showing a complete lack of respect for deeply help beliefs and openly mocking them. In this area in particular the film must be considered a failure because for the most part it's unlikely to achieve what it supposedly set out to do.
  • The friend I was with would probably be annoyed if I didn't mention her pet peeve: that when looking at how gay people have been oppressed by religion, no lesbians were spoken to (they might have been glimpsed in a quick montage).
Now, watching the film wasn't a total loss or else I wouldn't have that much to say about it. I'm definitely not one of those radical bible-thumpers who think the film should be banned. I feel that the true test of believing in freedom of speech means willing to hear perspectives you don't agree with. I just didn't agree with much of what he said (beyond religion being abused by warmongers and televangelists. And yes, the guy who believes himself to be Jesus reborn is probably a crackpot). He also makes some good points on how religion can lead to bloodshed and the risk of us blowing up the planet sooner or later, but I don't think he realizes how distracting the religion part is to the message of "We really ought not to blow up the planet". I'm not saying he can't do a film about how religion can be self-fulfilling in the Armageddon department, but if you do, you ought to realize that religion is a highly complex issue and can't be dismissed as easily as the more extreme atheists want to believe.

Maher is a witty, intelligent guy, and if he were to do a documentary on something I agree with, I would probably laugh a lot. It would probably prove to be a severely flawed film when I dissected it unless he learned from this one, but I would laugh a lot more nevertheless.


Jenny said...

Hey Andy, welcome to the world of blogging.
I will watch that show,but as someone who is a Christian I know I won't believe in much of what he says.

Andy E. Nystrom said...

Thank you, Jenny. Yeah, that would be my guess too. But it's good that you're at least willing to give the movie a chance. Despite my negative review, I do believe you can learn a lot about you believe and why by listening to what the other side has to say.

Jenny said...

That's always been my point as well. I always read or watch the controversial and then make my own judgement about it. For example, our family loves the Harry Potter Series, which some Christians warn against reading. Found these books highly entertaining.

Gayle D. said...

Hey Andy,
Finally stopped by - this is my first 'blog" stop - I must me getting old -
love the reviews - any thoughts on the new Punisher movie? You know I'm a fan of the comic and liked the more recent offering that starred the australian fella married to the Arquette on Medium.

Andy E. Nystrom said...

I got a free pass to see Punisher tomorrow. I hope to get to a review soon after.

Pamela said...

Extremely articulate review, Andy. I am sometimes moved to see movies that have negative reviews, but in this case, I probably still won't see it.