'Religulous' ridiculous

Hans Rollmann
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I must confess that I like Bill Maher's humor, his use of hatchet and scalpel on duplicitous politicians. I also admit to having cheered his comedic cousin John Stewart's ruthless exposure of doublespeak and demagoguery among the American public elites.
I even admit to some satisfaction when these latter-day and more media-savvy descendants of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin expose dubious religious television personalities and representatives of the Religious Right, people who often reduce religion to intellectual sacrifice and emotional exhibitionism for personal recognition, financial gain, and political effect.
Yet Maher and Stewart, unlike their committed Catholic friend, Stephen Colbert, are unfortunately tone-deaf to any genuine faith, sincerely held and capable of transforming selves for the benefit of others.
Religious exposÉ
After the hype about his recent film "Religulous" on Larry King Live and other talk shows, I joined a sprinkling of roughly 40 at an opening-day showing of Maher's movie in the Avalon Mall. In his TV and stage performances, Maher features religion as one among other human follies. This movie, however, has only one purpose, to expose all religion as something utterly ridiculous, absurd, and harmful.
Although the bulk of its criticism is directed at Christian fundamentalism, the film also indicts other major monotheistic and polytheistic faiths, in particular Islam.
Maher, without warning and at times deceptively, interviews a wide spectrum of outlandish representatives of faith, including an American priest at the Vatican who seems to have lost any coherence and faith under his clerical garb. He also engages evangelical truckers, visits a Creationist museum, and tours a Christian Disneyland. Since he has the last word or cut in the movie, nearly all people interviewed appear as deluded ignoramuses, although the Jesus in the religious theme park gives Maher a run for his money and the truckers seem to be more comedic victims than religious perpetrators.
Even a noted scientist, such as the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute project, Dr. Francis Collins, who also happens to be a committed Christian, appears as a benighted partisan. The comedy concludes with an anti-religious sermon preached by the comedian, who takes himself deadly seriously.
Missed opportunity
Maher's film missed, in my judgment, a great opportunity to expose some of the self-delusion, double standards, and deception among the Religious Right and in organized religious fundamentalism as well as among the "politically correct" ideological Left.
After viewing all of this polemic overkill through an underwhelming parade of religious buffoonery, helped occasionally by clever editing through dated film clips, there remained in my mouth only an unpleasant taste of cheap exposÉ.
Only once in the movie, during the interview with an intellectually lazy and waffling anti-evolution politician from Arkansas, did Maher live up to his usual discerning and intelligent wit, when eliciting from the senator an admission that one does not have to pass an IQ test to be a member of the U.S. senate.
Still, in its crudely uncritical, universal rejection of all religion Maher's film makes, in my judgment, no real contribution to the discussion. I found particularly painful Maher's introduction of his aged Jewish mother, who appeared somehow lost and used in her son's spectacle.
Perhaps he had hoped to give her, finally, a voice, since in the comedian's childhood she was either unable or unwilling to practice her faith amidst the dominant Irish Catholicism of his father.
Not always ridiculous
Leaving the theatre, I could remember some examples contradicting this attempt to paint any expression of religion as ridiculous. To mind came my beloved Aunt Gretchen who, compelled by a humanity informed by her faith, remained unmarried to take care of my mother and her siblings on the death of my grandmother in childbed.
It was Aunt Gretchen who later, quietly, and without any pretense, instilled her values and faith in me. I owe my faith first to her example, not to Augustine, Luther, or Rudolf Otto. They came much later.
I also thought of Father Collins from Fox Harbour in Placentia Bay, who felt that faith in search of understanding should embrace wholeheartedly the changes of Vatican II, gave generously from the little money he had to provide a university education for gifted young people, and improved the economic conditions of his parishioners by supporting Confederation while his bishop violently opposed it.
Among the provincial cloud of faith witnesses, I remembered the trinity of progressive United Church ministers - Oliver Jackson, Joseph Gilbert Joyce, and Lester Leland Burry - who spent themselves in ministries that sought to serve equally the body, soul, and mind, becoming the voices of impoverished and voiceless Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
Some - indeed many - abuses of religion throughout history deserve incisive criticism.
Yet to define everything religious as totally ridiculous bespeaks a reflexive blindness and deafness that fails to see the intellectual and social contributions that religion makes through its practitioners and institutions, and fails to hear the quiet, articulate voices of lives made more meaningful because they are touched and summoned by something greater than themselves.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by e-mail: hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: Creationist museum, National Human Genome Research Institute, United Church

Geographic location: Vatican, Arkansas, U.S. Fox Harbour Placentia Bay

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Recent comments

  • David Ramsey
    April 18, 2015 - 16:59

    What's the current state of Bill Maher's Judaism?