Bill Maher is a very irritating fellow. Now surely he would say that he irritates people because he is so iconoclastic, shattering entrenched orthodoxies with his rapier wit, but the truth is that Maher is offensive because he has an offensive personality. He seems chronically unable to wipe the smug arrogant smile off his face, which is especially galling because this arrogance is entirely unsubstantiated by intellectual ability.
Even Maher’s humor seems, well, gratuitous and condescending. His is not the wry, gentle wit of Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld. Nor does he exhibit the outrageous, side-splitting humor of George Carlin or Richard Pryor. Rather, Maher employs his trademark sneer to poke snide, sarcastic fun at people, usually people who are markedly less sophisticated or culturally established or economically well off than he is.
“Religulous,” Maher’s documentary film attacking religion, is not exactly breaking attendance records nationwide. New as it is, it comes in close to last among the movies that are showing across the country. When I saw it recently, there were about a dozen people in a theater that seats several hundred. An occasional titter provided the only evidence that this was intended as a funny movie. Sure, the movie does provide some laughs, but as you will see, they are easy laughs that score no real points against Maher’s intended target.
The film begins with Maher standing at Megiddo, which is allegedly the launching pad for Armageddon. Here we get an unsubtle introduction to one of Maher’s central themes: people are going to blow up the world in the name of God. Maher, however, cannot find anyone to actually say that. The best he can do is ambush harmless middle-aged people at tourist sites and force them to confess they think we may be living in the last days. Maher seeks to make the very strained point that these are Christian Bin Ladens who would stop at nothing to usher in the Second Coming of Christ.
Maher’s stance in the film alternates between feigned investigative neutrality and unconcealed anti-religious bigotry. At times he says he is an agnostic, who simply holds the rational position that he doesn’t know what comes after death. But if you don’t know whether there is an afterlife, and even if you have no reason to believe in one, it hardly makes sense to attack those who hold a different view. After all, you yourself are in the dark and they might very well be right.
By way of analogy, I don’t believe in unicorns, because there is no evidence for them, but I haven’t written any books called “The Unicorn Delusion” or “Unicorns are Not Great” or made any documentaries denouncing unicorns. Maher’s agnosticism is clearly a pose. Like Christopher Hitchens, he is an “anti-theist” who hates the Christian God. And the main reason seems to be, as Maher himself says at one point, that this God has rules that interfere with Maher’s sex life.
Maher scores his best points when he is interviewing certified weirdos and borderline lunatics, like a South American fellow named Jesus who claims, perhaps partly on the basis of the shared name, that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ. Maher does not have to work very hard to make us chuckle at this self-satisfied buffoon. Maher is equally effective with the guy who thinks smoking pot leads to God, even if, as the man sheepishly admits, it also leads to memory loss and frankly fries your brain. Maher does not have to look very far to find a couple of Muslim crackpots, one of whom—to Maher’s pretended outrage—refuses to condemn the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. And then there is Maher’s encounter, which I need not go into, with a rabbi who denies the Holocaust and apparently holds the distinction of being Iranian prime minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s favorite Jew. Finally there are the televangelists whose opulence, money-grubbing and highly-publicized scandals make for predictable and easy targets.
You get the picture: Maher is in search of weak opponents that he can embarrass. Still, it’s remarkable how many of them get the better of him. On one occasion Maher interviews a Jesus actor at a Holy Land Experience who seems like a carefully selected dummy. But when Maher asks him to explain the Trinity, the actor says it can be understood in the same way that water appears in three quite different forms: in a solid form, as ice; in liquid form, as water; and in the gaseous form of water vapor. Maher is completely stumped by this and rendered speechless.
In another segment, Maher talks to some blue collar guys worshipping at a Trucker’s Chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina. They are overweight and poorly dressed and they cannot answer all his questions, but one says that he used to be a drug addict and “I gave all that up when I got saved.” At the end of the discussion, just before Maher’s triumphant exit, the truckers hold hands and pray for Maher. This is the sole moving moment in the film, and in a way that Maher doesn’t realize, it raises these simple people entirely above his snide sophistication.
The only intelligent believers who are interviewed are geneticist Francis Collins and Father George Coyne, former head of the Vatican Observatory. Both of them are given only a few seconds, for fear that they might undermine Maher’s big theme that religious people are suffering from a kind of mental illness. Actually Maher’s points—that there is no historical evidence for Jesus, that the main themes of Christianity are all derived from other ancient religions, that miracles are impossible, that religion is responsible for the mass murders of history—are all highly debatable. Maher simply ignores the good evidence on the other side.
I would love to debate him on his show, and can easily show that Maher’s self-image as an intellectual is largely bogus. It is only in the company of obvious charlatans and simpletons that Maher comes off as the bright guy. And because he cannot stand up to real opposition, I doubt that Maher has the guts to take me up on this offer. Ultimately he is an intellectual coward who relies on the argumentum ad ignorantium—the argument that relies on the ignorance of the audience.
So should you see “Religulous”? Certainly, if you want to put a few dollars in Bill Maher’s pocket. (Very few others are doing so.) I found “Religulous” good for some chuckles, even though most of the time I was laughing not with Maher, but at him.