Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

MAKING A POINT – OR JUST BEING OFFENSIVE?

In Reviews, T. Chinnick on January 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm

TYLER CHINNICK reviews the film “Religulous”, made by American comedian Bill Maher in 2008. It’s now available on DVD.

Bill Maher is an American comedian and journalist, and one of that new breed of militant atheists who display all the arrogance and imperiousness that they attack in the religious. “Religulous” starts with him telling us that he is “seeking answers”, trying to find out why people believe, but it quickly becomes clear that he lacks the humility of a seeker, and this is nothing short of a polemic against religion. He approaches his subjects with a smugness that quickly becomes grating. He is frequently very rude to people who have granted him interviews and agreed to share with him some of their most sacred and deeply held beliefs.

Most of those he interviewed are predictably quite crazy and hold opinions which deserve to be rigorously questioned (indeed in some cases ridiculed), but he approaches them all with an hauteur, a bluster, a conceit that is so positively napoleonic that we find ourselves as viewers sympathising with people whom we’d normally find total unsympathetic.

It’s easy to make fun of religion and indeed a good, witty and entertaining movie could and should be made. This, sadly, is not it. For something far funnier and more insightful, you’d do better to re-watch Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

STEREOTYPES:

It’s when he tackles Islam, however, that his approach becomes more troubling. His analysis of Islam, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict, is riddled with prejudices, stereotypes and double standards.

For example, when the manager of the “Holy Land Amusement Park” explains that they’ve had visitors from the Gaza strip, it is illustrated with shots of hooded Hamas members shooting guns in the air. The sound of gunshots and screams continues throughout the interview.

And footage of a radical imam exhorting Muslims to kill Jews is followed by a shot of a bomb going off in Jerusalem, reducing the whole conflict to nothing more than Palestinian anti-semitism.

There are lots of examples of Muslim prejudice but none of Zionist lunacy, as if hatred and fundamentalism are only to be found on one side. This reflects the commonly held American view of the conflict, and it is just another confirmation that Maher has no interest in asking pertinent questions or in finding answers – only in scoring easy points.

He also interviews Geert Wilders, the fascistic Dutch politician who believes that the Quran should be banned. He is allowed to pontificate without question or contradiction. Maher doesn’t speak to any Muslims who have suffered verbal or physical abuse incited by men like Wilders. Indeed he doesn’t acknowledge that the problem of anti-Muslim prejudice even exists.

ALL CONDEMNED EQUALLY:

Islam particularly but religion in general is treated as one big, indivisible monolith. The idiocy and violence of one sect is used to condemn the whole religion, and in so doing he joins the ranks of the EDL and Pastor Terry Jones. This kind of atheism displays a level of intolerance that is deeply unhelpful and which I find personally distasteful. Are tolerance and mutual respect really so bad?

Religion is presented as something that is uniformly evil. Without light and shade, without a right and a left, without liberal and conservative. If he was really conducting an honest inquiry and using the scientific methods he claims to believe in, then he would have gravitated towards those areas most problematic for his thesis. If religion is as he believes so intrinsically bad and stupid, then how could it have inspired people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi to battle prejudice an injustice with such courage? Or artists like Michelangelo to create such majestic paintings? There are answers to all these questions for the atheist, but he doesn’t even ask them.

FAILURE:

“Religulous” is a failure. It’s a failure as a quest because he isn’t interested in the answers. It’s a failure as an argument because he doesn’t consider the things which might disprove it, and it fails as a witty polemic because he’s too concentrated on making an argument.

As for me, I believe in Karl Marx’s rather generous treatment of religion: “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

(as quoted by Christopher Hitchens).

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