Maher’s newly released documentary, “Religulous,” is more rant than research, more designed to belittle interviewees than to explore religion, more profane than profound.
While he ridicules Scientology, Mormonism and Judaism, he bludgeons Catholicism and Protestant fundamentalism. He throws in a short segment on prosperity theology and ties Islam with violence.
At the very end of the film, Maher delivers a seething sermon: “The plain fact is that religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people, by irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state, not by a compass, but by reading the equivalent of the entrails of a chicken.”
“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking,” says Maher. “It’s a fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do.”
Raised in a family that abandoned Catholicism over birth control, Maher boils, “The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble.”
“If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence and sheer ignorance as religion is, you would resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife, the true devils of extremism,” he spits.
Before reaching the film’s long awaited ending, Maher bullies the naÃ¯ve and manipulates the uneducated. He especially likes to beat up on the working poor of faith. He paints literalism as the normative expression of Protestant Christianity, pulling some of the worst photographs and statements from some of the most egregious fundamentalists and charismatics.
For the atheists who hate faith, his cut-and-burn editing may be funny. But surely even some atheists would see his technique as unfair. Fairness, however, must be for Maher too much of a Christian or religious virtue.
Fairness would have acknowledged that reason and revelation are twins within the best of the Abrahamic-faith traditions. Fairness would have noted that some of the most persistent critics of the abuses and excesses of religion have come from those within the religious community.
Faith leaders have long sought to reform twisted beliefs and corrupt religious institutions. They have been neither silent, nor enablers. Fairness would have pointed out that throughout history Christianity has produced leaders who opposed slavery, supported science, advocated for women’s rights, fought against poverty, pushed for civil rights, spoke against the Vietnam and Iraqi wars.
Fairness would have admitted that those who rely solely on reason have produced atheist regimes known for their butchery—the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and Cambodia, for example. Perhaps Maher forgot that self-consumed atheist Christopher Hitchens was a loud advocate for the war in Iraq. Or maybe he forgot that the non-church-going Dick Cheney offered cold rationale for the invasion of Iraq, justified torture and stomped on the American constitution.
But a fair critique of religion would not have served Maher’s purpose, which was not really to make religion look ridiculous, something religion is certainly capable of doing all by itself. No, Maher’s assault on religion through his hostile version of humor must have something to do with his own prideful resentment, his own arrogance that he knows best.
Call it egotism run amuck.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.