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article imageBill Maher's successful movie 'Religulous' is now out on DVD

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Feb 23, 2009 in World
Comedian Bill Maher’s successful film “Religulous” about religion, said to be the seventh highest-grossing documentary of all time, has just been released on DVD. Is it really that good? Let us have a look.
The movie is one hour and forty minutes long. It is therefore impossible to discuss everything, so I will stick to the points that I consider the most poignant.
At the start, we see Bill Maher standing in a very peaceful looking spot in Megiddo, Israel. He explains that many Christians think that this is the very spot where the world will come to an end.
“I certainly, honestly believe religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity. You know, it’s just selling an invisible product. It’s too easy. These questions about what happens when you die, they so freak people out that they will just make up any story and cling to it. Things that they know can’t be true, people who are otherwise so rational about everything else and then they believe that on Sunday they are drinking the blood of a 2,000 year old God, I can’t, there is a dissonance in my head, I can’t, I have to find out. I just have to find out, I have to try.”
Maher introduces us to his mother and sister, and tried to find out why the family left the Catholic Church, a fact that had delighted him to no end at the time. His mother is not quite sure, but she thinks it was because they used birth control, something the Church was very much against.
A bit later, we find Bill Maher asking questions in a trucker’s chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina. He asks the people present if they are ever bothered by things that are part of Christianity but that are not in the Bible, like original sin, Immaculate Conception and the virgin birth (which is in two, but only two, of the gospels) that came from men, men as in people with penises. The answers he gets are not really answers.
One man advances as proof of the Immaculate Conception that blood samples of the Turin shroud were female, in spite of the male markings on the shroud. Although the movie does not mention it, the evidence that the shroud is a medieval forgery is rather formidable while the evidence for its authenticity is formidably meagre. Maher concludes: ‘I preach the gospel of “I don’t know” and “The other guys are selling certainty, not me.”
One could argue that Maher is making his own life a bit too easy, poking fun at people who are obviously uneducated and who have not the slightest inkling of the nature of evidence.
Then, things become more interesting. 93% of scientists in the American National Academy of Sciences are atheist or agnostic, so a Christian top-level scientist is somewhat of a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, Bill Maher was able to find such a rare beast in the person of Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Research Project no less.
Francis Collins says that the historical evidence of Christ’s existence is overwhelming. Maher disputes it.
Collins: “When I read the New Testament, it reads to me as the record of eye witnesses, who put down what they saw.”
Maher: “You know they weren’t eye witnesses.”
Collins: “They were close to that.”
Maher: “No.”
Collins: “Within a couple of decades of eye witnesses.”
Maher: “OK. Would that stand up in a laboratory as absolute fool-proof evidence that something happened?”
Collins: “You are setting up a standard for proof that I think would really be an almost impossible standard to meet”.
Maher then talks to “just call me doctor” Jeremiah Cummings of The Amazing Life World Outreach, who just happens not to be a doctor. In fact, he does not have a degree of any kind.
Cummings: “Teddy Pendegrass was ordained a minister when he was 10 years old.”
Maher: “What do you think it says about religion and how serious it is if you can be a minister when you’re 10.”?
Bill Maher notices the similarities between rock stars and ministers: they often dress in elaborate costumes. Cummings betrays his appalling lack of knowledge of the New Testament by not being able to say that it is easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven.
Suddenly we find Bill Maher at Sodom and Gomorrah telling us the story of the righteous Lot who had his daughters raped to protect two men, supposedly angels. He asks:
“If I ever had to swear an oath, why would I want to put my hand on the King James Bible?”.
Later, Maher has a conversation with Pastor John Westcott of Exchange Ministries who claims to help people that are gay getting back to a normal relationship.
To people who do not buy into the Christian doctrine, the vast majority of the world’s population, Christ’s miracles are quite obviously ridiculous. An ex-Jew for Jesus makes exactly that point by rejecting Santa Claus. Yet, he claims to accept the ones Jesus supposedly made.
Jonah and the whale is a pretty lame story, and Maher remarks that people who defend it invariably claim that the Bible doesn’t say it was about a whale, just about a big fish. As if that suddenly makes the story OK.
We see John McCain, a recent presidential hopeful; claim that the American Constitution establishes the US as a Christian nation. Strangely enough, the movie does not take this on, even though it is nonsense. The Constitution does not contain any word of which “Christ” is a part, and the only reference to religion is in article six that establishes that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office
or public Trust under the United States.”
However, we are shown quotes by three founding fathers:
“Lighthouses are more useful than churches.” – Benjamin Franklin
“This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it!” – John Adams
“Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.” – Thomas Jefferson
16% of Americans do not want to have anything to do with religion, and Maher calls them a huge minority. As an example, we are shown that only 1.4% of the population is Jewish, 12.2% is black, 3% is gay and 1.3% are NRA members, and yet, nobody pays any attention to these 16%.
An interview with Mark Pryor, a senator for Arkansas (a state where atheists are explicitly barred from holding public office), reveals that he is an evangelical Christian. Strangely enough, in spite of his claims of how good Christianity is, he seems to know astonishingly little about this religion.
Maher: “This is my problem, you’re a senator. You’re one of the very few people who are really running this country. It worries me that people are running my country who think who believe in a talking snake.”
Pryor: “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate though.”
Indeed. How reassuring.
Next stop, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where Bill Maher talks with Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. Ken Ham says that they teach people how to think, and in the same breath that they say that the Bible is true. Right. Ken Ham suggests that doubting the Book of Genesis opens the possibility to doubt any other bit in the Bible.
Father George Coyne of the Vatican Observatory turns out to be an oasis of common sense in the midst of all this insanity. He talks about pope John Paul II who officially admitted that the theory of evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense is no longer a mere hypothesis. Coyne says that the scriptures were written between about 2,000 BC and 200 AD. Modern science, on the other hand, started with Galileo and continues until now. “How in the world could there be any science in scripture?” asks George Coyne.
People at the Vatican do not seem as friendly. The team is thrown out. Maher has a fun conversation with Father Reginald Foster, who is presented as a senior Vatican Priest. Among other things, they talk about how Catholicism is not quite the monotheistic religion it claims to be, given its pantheon of mini-Gods. Foster says that Jesus is actually only number six on the list of persons Italians pray to.
On it goes to “The Holy Land Experience” in Orlando, Florida, a completely surreal theme park. Maher has a talk with the Jesus of the day. He is impressed by this Jesus’ comparison of the Trinity with water: vapour, liquid, ice.
Then follows a rather hilarious comparison of Jesus and his bio with other Gods such as Krishna who was in India 1,000 years before Christ and who was a carpenter, born of a virgin, baptized in a river. Then, there was the Persian God Mithra: 600 years before Christ, born December 25th, performed miracles, resurrected on the 3rd day, known as the lamb, the way, the truth, the light, the saviour and the Messiah. “I don’t go by that hearsay,” says Jesus, he goes by the word of God. How very reassuring.
Written in 1280 BC, the Egyptian book of the dead describes the God Horus. He was the son of the God Osiris, born to a virgin mother. He was then baptized in a river by Anup the Baptizer, who was later beheaded. Like Jesus, Horus was tempted while alone in the desert. He healed the sick and the blind, cast out demons and walked on water. Horus raised Asar from the dead, and Asar just happens to translate to Lazarus. Oh, and he had 12 disciples. Horus was crucified and after 3 days, 2 women announced that Horus, saviour of humanity had been resurrected.
“What if you’re wrong?” asks the Holy Land Experience Jesus. “What if you’re wrong?” replies Maher.
We now go to Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park where we see the most diverse preachers screaming out their respective truths, including Christians, a Christian atheist and a Scientologist.
A trip to Salt Lake City, Utah and the Mormon temple proves equally unenlightening as no one wants to talk to Maher, except for two ex-believers who agree that it is all utter silliness. They tell us that the reason so few people leave this religion is that one commits social suicide when one does.
Bill Maher meets with Dr. Andrew Newberg, MD, author of “Why we believe what we believe” who studies neurotheology. That suits Maher just fine since he thinks that religion is a neurological disorder. Newberg confirms that even if a billion people believe something, it can still be ridiculous.
“If you define mental illness as anyone who hears a voice talking to them, then anyone who has heard the voice of God is crazy,” says Newberg.
In Monsey, New York, Maher meets with anti-Zionist Rabbi Dovid Weiss, who is one of a Jewish minority who believe that the state of Israel should not exist. He claims that the Jewish people lived in western nations, protected by God. Somehow, the holocaust doesn’t quite seem to fit that picture.
Senator Lieberman and Larry King serve to introduce us to a company that creates gadgets that enable practising Jews to observe Shabbat without renouncing modern convenience. Examples are a wheelchair driven by air pressure and a phone that dials number by interrupting the dialling process instead of activating it.
Rabbi Samuel Strauss says that there are 39 specific actions no one should perform on the seventh day of the week, such as lighting a fire, planting, ploughing, tying and untying knots. All of them are, according to the Bible, punishable by death.
The fun continues with Jose Miranda of the Growing in Grace Ministry, a man with a 100,000 followers, who claims to be the second coming of Christ. He does not mince words: “Everyone who doesn’t believe in me, is miserable.” Maher points out that it is somewhat strange that God, who is all-powerful, never talks to the whole world. Instead, he just talks to one or other prophet in private, and that we have to just believe what this prophet claims.
We now go to Amsterdam to meet Reverend Ferre van Beveren of the Cannabis Ministry. It probably does not take a second coming of Einstein to realize what he is peddling. We also see some interesting images about what people of the Muslim persuasion think. Maher meets with an English rapper who seems to have problems condemning the fatwa to kill Salmon Rushdie, even though he seems to want protection himself. We also get to meet Geert Wilders, a controversial politician on a crusade against Islam and a couple of gay Muslim activists, a rather rare breed.
Off we go to Jerusalem, the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount where Solomon’s Temple once stood, the holiest site in Judaism. Muslims built the Dome of the Rock right on top of it. It is a holy site to them as well since they believe that this is the place where Mohammed lifted off to meet God in the heavens.
Back in England, we meet the Cerne Abbas giant in Dorset, England. The locals have been maintaining a figure, carved into a hill, for several centuries. Nobody knows why. They just do it, because it has “always” been done.
The movie ends where it starts. In Megiddo. We are shown some scenery about the end times. Bill Maher ends with some powerful statements of which I mention just a few:
“The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live.”
“George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he didn’t learn a lot about it.”
“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.”
“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. “
“This is why rational people, anti religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves.”
My own feelings about this movie are rather mixed. It feels like a hotchpotch of images that just flows along, with no particular structure. While it certainly ends quite powerfully, most of the pace is rather slow, to the point of being boring. The movie has a general feel that is not unlike Ben Stein's utterly ridiculous "Expelled" and is nearly as boring.
Would I buy the movie again? Yes, but only because the subject really interests me. The information it contains can easily be found elsewhere, and the few mildly funny jokes don't really make up for the general boredom that the movie exudes.
Richard Dawkins' masterpiece, "Root of all Evil?" set the standard for this genre, and Bill Maher's movie fails to live up to this high standard. Maybe, the movie would have made a better impression on me if I had not seen "Root of all Evil?" first.
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