Magazine article The Christian Century

Zealous Skeptic

Magazine article The Christian Century

Zealous Skeptic

Article excerpt

WHEREAS NEW ATHEIST writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are deadly serious, Bill Maher's mockumentary on religion, Religulous, is as funny as Maher's comedy show on HBO.

The bulk of the film is a travelogue that begins in Megiddo in Israel (reputed site of Armageddon in the book of Revelation) and swings through Amsterdam, Salt Lake City, the Vatican and lots of Anywhere USA spots. When the owner of a Catholic bookshop describes the miracle he witnessed when he held a cup out a window just in time to catch an unexpected downpour, a slightly raised eyebrow shows Maher's incredulity. After a band of truckers gathers to pray over Maher, he thanks them for how nice they were, then asks, "Hey, who took my wallet?" He has this exchange with a leader in the Church of Cannabis: "So does pot hurt your short-term memory?" "Yes." "So does pot shorten your short-term memory?" When he asks a black prosperity preacher how much his lizard-skin shoes run, he gets this reply: "Lizards don't run, they crawl." Funny stuff, and Maher sometimes lets others deliver the zingers.

Maher delves into his family history--his mother was Jewish, his father Catholic--which lends the story a sort of authenticity. He calls religion a "neurological disorder," yet he remains somewhat interested in its internal logic. "You're smart people!" he tells the truckers. "You can't possibly believe this!" The truckers' responses aren't impressive.

At the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, Maher engages a character named Jesus, dressed in biblical garb, who explains the unity of the Trinity by comparing it to water, ice and steam. "He had me with that analogy," Maher says, surprised. "Until you think about it for two minutes and realize it's still total bullshit."

That's the intellectual level of most of the film. Maher is either unaware of or uninterested in the fact that doctrines like the Trinity have been argued over and refined in the church for centuries. Because truckers or an amateur actor can't answer a smart aleck's question, Maher assumes Christianity cannot.

At times Maher seems to be genuinely seeking dialogue on the issues and even argues from within the faith: "But Jesus preached against the rich!" "How do you reconcile Jesus and nationalism?" These are good questions to ask of preachers in $2,000 suits and of politicians, but Maher seems unaware that at these moments he is actually adopting part of a Christian perspective. …

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