|Bill Maher's Religulous: A Chronicle and Critique|
October 4, 2008
Now that the movie is out, here's my review...older entries will remain below, with some updates as needed.
Initial impressions on the movie....nothing special. A handful of poor arguments we have dealt with for many, many years. No depth, not even on non-Christian religions; just "Heh, look at this. Stupid, huh? Next scene..."
Here's a description of the scenes and various points advanced. The movie often flips between interviews; I'll just treat them as though they were continuous.
Holy Land Experience -- actually two in one here; an interview with the Jesus impersonator, others with random tourists. With the Jesus actor, we reported these before:
From a trailer found here. This is apparently the primary trailer. At :18 Maher interviews an actor who plays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience, not far from me.
Maher: "Why doesn't he just obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world?"
'Jesus': "He will."
Maher: "He will? What's he waiting for?"
As a preterist my own answer to this issue is not the same as would be the actor's. The devil has been bound and rendered ineffectual, and humans are responsible for all evil currently in the world. Maher does not compose any sort of actual arguments with respect to theodicy, like this one. And if he's so concerned about evil, why isn't he out fighting it instead of interviewing a theme park employee? Why didn't he interview workers at a Christian crisis pregnancy center or soup kitchen?
Three other "mini-clips" are also around, but only one is relevant to us, and that is where we see more of the interview with the man who plays Jesus at Holy Land Experience:
Maher: "Having no other gods before you, that's not moral...it's just something a jealous god would do."
The man who plays "Jesus" cites a passage that says God is a jealous God, and Maher replies:
" ..that seems so ungodlike, that God would have such a petty human emotion. I know people who have gotten over jealousy."
The word for "jealousy" in Joshua 24:19....is used less than half a dozen times in the OT, and always is used to describe God. Nowhere is this word described as a sin. A related word is used to describe a husband who worries that his wife is walking out on him (Numbers 5). Sarna (Exodus commentary, 110) notes that the root of the word means "to become intensely red" and that it can refer to ardor, zeal, rage, or jealousy. Paul knows of a godly jealousy (2 Cor. 11:2), so is this a sin as we understand it? Jealousy is part of God's nature because it is demanded by who He is -- He is the only being who can indeed say He has a right to be jealous, since He is the only one who truly deserves utter respect and devotion. Malina in The New Testament World [126-7] adds that in the context of an honor-based world, jealousy was "a form of protectiveness that would ward off the envious and their machinations." It is a behavior that an honorable person is expected to "exhibit towards that which he or she is perceived to possess exclusive access." Thus for God to be jealous here is not a vice in context, but a supreme virtue and demonstration of His concern for Israel.
I doubt if Maher is familiar with agonistic societies.
Maher also says later, "[God] spends the first five books of the Bible wiping out people."
Really? I must have missed that where it was in Leviticus; there was a death toll of just two there, not exactly a wipeout. This is merely argument by outrage.
The Jesus actor's own version of theodicy appealed to God's unknowable ways (he used the "ant analogy") which we'll be the first to allow doesn't do the job. Maher also made the usual misuse of Matthew 7:1; claimed the Trinity was contrary to monotheism (incorrect -- though the actor appealed to the ice/water/steam analogy, which Maher later said was "brilliant" even though it was still "bulls--t" -- an analogy of light source/light/heat is closer); called the atonement a "suicide mission" (Maher has no conception of vicarious sacrifice).
Maher here also pledged allegience to the pagan copycat thesis, and his points came either from Acharya S or Zeitgeist: Mithra, Horus, and Krishna were used, including the very erroneous idea that Mithra died and rose from the dead. All of Maher's specific claims are covered in these essays (he used about 4-6 from each deity).
Not much more than that, save with the tourists he asked one if they'd accept stories like Jack and the Beanstalk if they were in the Bible. As throughout the film, Maher makes no arguments against the miraculous; he considers it sufficient to just make the description and act incredulous.
It was interesting that Maher got caught in his misrepresentation of his crew; he shows off himself being caught by the HLE PR people as though it were a badge of honor, but it really is to his shame. It is rather ironic considering his endorsement of pagan copycat ideas that he wishes to highlight the supposed ignorance of religious people.
I asked the PR people in charge of HLE (they are now owned by the Trinity Broadcast Network) for comments, and permission to interview people at HLE, but they have decided that they do not want to give Maher any attention, even negative attention. I believe this is a mistake, but there is not much that can be done. I think their stance speaks for itself.
Raleigh, NC -- Truckers' Chapel -- not much on this one. Maher asks how they can accept things as part of Christianity that are not in the Bible, though his list is oddly mixed: Popes, the virgin birth (because it is not in two of 4 gospels -- an argument we address here), original sin (that IS in the Bible -- Romans 5).
Truckers who replied appealed to the Shroud of Turin and a basic form of Pascal's wager. A false definition of faith was presented. Maher claims that Jesus hasn't been proven to exist but no more details are offered. He claims that the Gospels are not history and that the authors never met Jesus (wrong -- two did; see here, but don't expect any sort of criteria for authenticating ancient documents from Maher).
Claims made as well that the NT misreported history to make prophecies fit (wrong -- see here); otherwise, mere Maher only offers incredulity over things like long Biblical lifespans.
It is also clear that Maher misrepresented himself, as he admits, when he went in to do filming, as one trucker left when he found out what Maher's true intent was.
Exchange Ministries -- we reported a bit of this before:
To John Westcott of Exchange Ministries, which tries to "convert" gay men, Maher asks, given that Jesus never once talked about homosexuality, why is it such an issue for New Testament Christians?
That Jesus "never once talked about homosexuality" doesn't logically lead to making it a non-issue. Jesus never talked about smoking or child molestation either, but I doubt if Maher would rant at the American Lung Association or decry criticism of NAMBLA on account of that.
Homosexuality simply wasn't an issue in Jewish lands, where Jesus preached; it was already taken for granted that it was wrong. It did become an issue in the Gentile nations, and so we do see allusion to it in later NT literature.
Other than this, Westcott says no "gay gene" has been discovered; the film interrupts with a split-second clip where Maher is talking to Dean Hamer, who says "yes" when Maher asks if he has discovered a "gay gene." That's hardly much of an argument.
This is not my area of expertise, but a survey of credible medical and scientific websites shows that Hamer's conclusions are far from universally accepted -- such that Maher's swift cut to Hamer's "yes" is hardly satisfactory as a reply. See here for what my friends at CMI say.)
Mark Pryor (D - Arkansas) -- we reported on some of this before:
Perhaps most profoundly, he asks Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a devout evangelical, "Why is faith good?"
As part of this section, taken at the Jefferson Memorial, Maher also claims to have seen "a lot of quotes" from Founding Fathers to the effect that America was not a "Christian nation" and offers a mere three quotes from Jefferson, Franklin and Adams in support. Maher has a lot more research to do on that and a lot more Founders to consider. He also misuses the 16% figure of which we said:
16 percent of all? 20 percent of those under 30? From where does Maher get these stats? It may be that he is claiming that 16% from people who are listed as "not affiliated" with any religion in the Pew Report. But these are not self-identified "rationalists" and there is nothing to connect them with any ideology with which Maher associates himself. Their belief is "nothing in particular" -- not "rationalism."
Maher's comments to Pryor past this are of little depth. I personally have no stake in having the Ten Commandments posted here and there, but Maher, in criticizing them, objects much as Dan Barker does and even uses the same arguments.
Maher also speaks of acceptance of "Bronze Age beliefs" and lists on the screen several unscientific beliefs of Bronze Age people -- ironic, given his rejection of germ theory as an explanation for disease.
Maher also makes an issue of Pryor believing in a talking snake but offers no argument other than his personal incredulity. (My own take -- I suspect the animal itself was either used as a "ventriloquist" dummy -- as was sometimes done with statues in pagan temples -- or else Satan was called a "serpent" as an insult.)
Ex Jew for Jesus Steve Berg -- not much here. Maher mocks Berg's belief in miracles of providence, reacts incredulously over the story of Jonah, and asks Berg why, if heaven is so great, he doesn't kill himself (Berg answers that God isn't done with him here yet, which Maher seems to accept).
Maher's mother and sister -- more revealing than Maher realizes. He admits that when he went to church, it "wasn't relevant to my life" and that at 13 he "hated church" and jokingly says he would have worshipped a god whose rites involved masturbation. His mother thinks they left the church over their stance on birth control.
Francis Collins -- I noted of this earlier:
"Maher does interview a few people that seem to carry some intellectual weight, such as Dr. Francis Collins, author of the Human Genome project, but those interviews are extremely brief and heavily edited.
I have found elsewhere a claim that Maher asked Collins about the authenticity of the Gospels. I doubtr that Maher has developed any sort of epistemic tests for the authorship of ancient documents.
I can add no more, save that Maher uses the argument that Jesus' youth is not related in the Gospels (which is normal for ancient biography) and the "virgin birth not mentioned in 2 gospels" canard addressed before. Maher also erroneously supposes that history is a subject that can be evaluated in the same way that scientific evidence is evaluated in a laboratory. One does wonder how much else Collins said that Maher left out.
10/21/08: From a report here, some interesting commentary:
I was initially impressed that Bill Maher interviewed Francis Collins, the brilliant scientist who led the human genome project and who has written eloquently about being both a believer and a scientist. But in the movie, Collins seemed uncharacteristically confused, as he discussed the accuracy of the Bible, a topic I'd not seen him comment on before. I suspected some slippery editing so I asked Collins about the interview. He emailed me:
Also, compare the initial email Collins was sent to the one received by AiG (below). Maher's people didn't dare try to deceive Collins the same way. This is what Collins received:
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me earlier.
Vatican -- Maher gets removed from the Vatican for filming without permission. He interviews a humorous priest named Reginald Foster who admits Vatican wealth is ostentatious (though really, most of it is in non-negotiable items, like art). Maher also gets the idea somehow that saints and angels are contrary to "monotheism" which requires a defintion of "monotheism" that is otherwise unknown. (See though here.)
Jeremiah Cummings -- a preacher with a health and wealthish cast. Maher is mostly on the side of the angels in this one as he points out that excess wealth is not endorsed in the Bible and Cummings tries to make out that Jesus was wealthy.
Ken Ham, Creation Museum -- I can't say much on evolution, since this is outside my scope of expertise; Maher does interject contrary comments from a Vatican scientist who apparently supports evolution. It is, again, ironic that Maher appeals to scientific agreement on evolution when he adheres to a highly questionable thesis re germ theory.
I contacted the Creation Museum to request an interview with Ken Ham concerning what happened. They have graciously provided me with an extensive amount of information that documents the depth of Maher's deception. My thanks to Ken Ham and the staff there for providing this material and giving permission to use it.
A "fact sheet" at Lionsgate, the studio that produced Religulous, says of Maher here:
RELIGULOUS follows political humorist and author Bill Maher ("Real Time With Bill Maher," "Politically Incorrect") as he travels around the globe interviewing people about God and religion. Known for his astute analytical skills, irreverent wit and commitment to never pulling a punch, Maher brings his characteristic honesty to an unusual spiritual journey.
Characteristic honesty? Indeed. What this does not mention is that the "characteristic" here is one in which that honesty is at a very low level.
Ken Ham himself reported in his blog entry of October 4, 2008, some of Maher's deception:
Some of you may recall that over a year ago, a documentary crew, under false pretenses and giving a false name of the producer, came to the Creation Museum (under construction) to interview me. Then, through further clever deception, they set me up to be interviewed by Bill Maher, abusing the privileges our security gave them and breaking our security rules and protocols. But then again, for such God-haters, why would they have a high level of ethics when morality can be whatever they want to define it to be?
Next we have some material from an internal email at the Museum -- again, used with permission, from staff member Mark Looy, who authored the text -- explaining the details of how Maher conducted himself when he came to visit in February 2007. Photos from secueity cameras are included. Please note that this all occurred before the museum was officially open and before normal security procedures were in place.
In the above photos taken at the rear door of the AiG offices, you will see one of his aides who has propped open the back door (this is not the visitor entrance to the building by any means), who appears to be on a walkie-talkie and talking with another crew member (or perhaps with Billís driver) Ė this is a secure door (you have to have a badge to open it, unless it is opened from the inside -- which is what happened in this case)....
...then a photo of Bill Maher entering that propped open door...
....then one where he is leaving the building...
....the last one is of crew member Larry Charles (but who lied by telling me that he was "Larry Carlson").
Next, we have the text of an email that was the initial inquiry of Maher's crew, sent January 30, 2007. Compare this to the Collins letter above.
Dear Mr. Ken Ham,
Notice the deception here: There is no mention of Maher, and the true nature of the film is deliberately obscured. Notice as well the attempt to present the visit as something that will be positive for the Museum. It speaks for itself.
Next, it is said:
3. The man who led the 8-man crew introduced himself upon arrival as Larry Carlson (I absolutely remember him giving me that name). Later I discovered that he was actually Larry Charles, director of the infamous "Borat" film.
Then, we have these notes from Ham's blog entry dated 2/7/2007, in which he describes the visit:
HBOís Bill Maher and the plot to deceive AiG
In a fundraising letter, Ham provided additional details about the content of the interview:"
I was disappointed as he simply trotted out all of the old standard "objections" to creationism and the Bible as a historical document. He accused Abraham of having an "incestuous relationship" with his half-sister. He declared the God of the Old Testament "barbaric" for ordering the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child during their conquest of Palestine. Now, you and I know there are biblically sound, intellectually satisfying answers to these questions. But people like Bill Maher arenít really looking for answers, theyíre looking for opportunities to ridicule Godís Word and everyone who believes in it. He had no interest in listening to anything I had to say.
Ham is certainly correct. These two objections are things we have answered here before, either directly or by link.
After 40 minutes of interview, Mark Looy came into my office and realized immediately that something had gone very wrong. We confronted the producer; and then Bill Maher said to us it was "all a misunderstanding!"
Indeed. I think this fairly well speaks for itself.
Other religions -- obviously, not my place to defend these, but I will say that on the subject I know well (Mormonism) Maher was little better again than "hey look at this, it's stupid, next scene." His other vignettes:
Opening and closing comments -- Maher lets loose his anger as he stands at Megiddo. Religion is a detriment to the progress of humanity; it causes people to not care about the earth and willfully pollute; faith is "making a virtue out of not thinking"; "religion must die for mankind to live," man must "grow up or die"; the problem is that religious people think they have all the answers (so does Maher, inasmuch as he thinks the answer is to get rid of religion). It's very short on substance.
Maher spells "Revelation" with an S at the end. How much familiarity with the subject does that indicate?
And that was it. Altogether, Religulous was dull and without substance.
Bill Maher appeared on "The View" -- see a clip here -- and around 5:45 min in, he says:
"But the god who was born of a virgin, died, was resurrected 3 days later, died for everybody's sins, that was an old story going around the Mediterrean for a 1000 years. Horus is an Egyptian god, the exact same story, he raised someone named Lazarus from the dead. Mithra, a Persian god. Krishna, an Indian god..."
See links above on this.
Another noteworthy review by Nick P. (TWeb's ApologiaPhoenix)
Maher admits in an interview with the Kansas City newspaper (now offline):
Maher further denies cherry-picking interviewees:
Some audience members at early screenings of "Religulous" have protested that the film focuses on irrational believers. "That's not true," Maher said. "Everybody we talked to was reasonable. They're normally functioning people. "But if you're religious, it means you believe in some crazy stuff. And at that point you don't look reasonable. People think we sought out crazy people and ignored this mythical rational religious person."
I must have missed the interviews with Ben Witherington, N. T. Wright, and Bruce Malina. Maher here apparently confuses "reasonable" with "knowledgeable" (and in a relevant way). They're not the same thing. He'd have been out-debated by knowledgeable people, so he sought out people who were not knowledgeable.
His goal was to make a comic movie, not get to the truth of the matter. To that end, it is to his benefit to reduce all matters of concern to pithy one-liners that mask a complexity of unargued assumptions.
Of course, as we have noted here, it is indeed our shame that our churches haven't educated people enough to answer someone like Maher when he brings up even the easiest-to-answer objections. But that doesn't make Maher or his crew any less culpable.
Note an entry here from a journalist for the LA Times:
Up until recently, I didn't realize how few Americans knew about the historical argument against Jesus. As the product of 16 years of Catholic education - from St. Mary's Elementary School in Mentor, Ohio, to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. - I've had more than a casual interest in the pro and con issues. Two years ago, when "The Da Vinci Code" was the big buzz, I was amazed at how many people were shocked when I'd say something like, "Well, there is no historical evidence that Jesus ever existed."
August 28, 2008
A contact passed me some interesting tidbits from TV and newspaper interviews of Maher.
From an article in the National Post: Then God said 'ha!' by Vanessa Farquharson, 9/12/2007:
Following the brief screening at TIFF, the star and director offered some words of wisdom: - Larry Charles, on his visit to the Holy Land: "We spent a week in Jerusalem, which I like to call the funny hat capital of the world." - Larry Charles, on religion and film: "Religion is like a horror movie and a sci-fi movie combined." - Bill Maher, on religion: "Religion is arrogance masquerading as humility."
One wonders if anyone else would get away with comments like "funny hat capital of the world" referring to Jerusalem. To illustrate the ignorance involved, imagine saying of Japan, that it is the "walk around in smelly bare feet capital of the world." Such mockery of the custom of wearing no shoes indoors would hardly be considered acceptable.
Of course, this is not to say that Maher is not free to say what he wishes. However, it becomes clear from his reactions to his own critics that he isn't as capable of taking it as he is of dishing it out. There is no law against hypocrisy, of course. And no arguments in those declarative assertions, either.
From an interview with Larry King, 2/10/2008, some tidbits. Maher professes to have been a "history major" which hardly qualifies him to dismiss Biblical scholarship. His degree however is merely a Bachelor's. Other ranking comments:
They say the word faith and somehow we all have to back off and pretend that what they believe is not destructive, and I won't do that. And there are millions of people who won't do that. The minority that is what I would call rationalists, that is people who don't believe in something supernatural, something that was obviously fables that were written by men before men knew what a germ or an atom was.
One wonders what logical connection there is between knowledge of germs and atoms, and being able to relate information on other matters accurately. Nor may we expect any systematic argument against what Maher calls the "supernatural" (which is, at any rate, a false dichotomy invented during the Enlightenment).
Yes, we're rationalists. That's like 20 percent of people under 30. That's a bigger minority than lots of minorities. They just don't speak up. I'm hoping this movie and this movement will encourage people to speak up about this. They accuse me of being a Catholic bigot. First of all, I don't have it out especially for the Catholics. I think all religions are coo-coo. OK? It's not just the Catholics.
Where Maher retrieved such numbers is not indicated. In any event, he does not here by argument inure himself from his own evaluation of religion as consensus by insanity. I, too, encourage this movie -- for we will all inure benefit from people who call themselves "rational" plugging such things as the Christ myth.
I'm not a bigot. Just because I wish for the demise of an organization that I think is entirely destructive to the human race, that doesn't make me a bigot. I also wish for demise of Hamas and the KKK. Not that on every score the Catholic Church is the same as those two organizations. But to me they are destructive organizations. I'm not a bigot because I root for their downfall.
Someone will want to read some Rodney Stark? Or maybe not.
From the Tampa Tribune, 5/9/2008, "Bill Maher Finds Religion" by Walt Belcher:
The movie's director, Larry Charles, has said the film "will not only expose the hypocrisy and corruption in organized religion but the absurdly hilarious logic that holds it together."
Clearly, Maher has very little concern for making sure his facts are correct before he cracks a joke. In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 7/22/08, Maher offered a standard comment of those who are irresponsible with their words, saying:
People used to have to protest everything that they didn't like. If someone said something that they didn't like, they turned off the radio, they turned off the television, they turned the page in the newspaper.
Strangely, it doesn't ooccur to Maher to simply "turn off" his own critics rather than respond to them. Next, another talk with King, 8/24/08:
Here is a useful biographical statement by Maher:
We make a point in the movie to show that my evolution toward where I was, where I am now, was gradual. You know, I still had, later in life -- I wasn't a religious person. I definitely didn't believe in the Jesus story after we quit the Catholic church.
Indeed. So it becomes clear that we are now being made to "suffer" for Maher's own past fundamentalist torment.
After describing Rick Warren's view of heaven, Maher emerges with self-contradictory epistemology:
Are you kidding? What are you talking about? You're just a person like I am. You are clueless. You have no idea what happens.
How being "a person" somehow affects our epistemology is not explained. Nor does Maher explain how he knows we "have no idea what happens" much less argue against what is claimed. He clarifies (if that word can be used viably here):
And, you know, that is my ultimate message. Unless a god told you personally what happens when you die, it all came from another person with no more mental powers than you have, and you don't know. So just man up and say, "I don't know." But they believe.
Echoes here from Paine's "hearsay" argument, perhaps. But why "mental powers" are needed to relay simple information is hard to grasp. Of course, we do say that "a god" (Jesus) revealed these things. And so Maher unwittingly admits that the matter of arriving at the conclusion is more complex than his appeal to mutual ignorance.
So we're not trying to point fingers in this movie. I think we do it -- we're laughing all the way through it. I think we're winking and having a good time, and we're not trying to be judgmental. But at some point, you know, mankind is going to have to shed this skin if he's going to move forward. I do have a serious intellectual problem with it.
Not being judgmental? No, of course not: "We have to shed this skin" is no way reflects a "judgment" on anything, does it? And by the account above, all crime is fictional and the police are making it all up because they'll be out of a job if they don't.
One reason I have always been anti-Evangelical and people who take the Bible literally is because it allows you to be horrible to animals, people, too. Slavery is OK with the Bible, keeping women down, and honor killings and let's not even go into how bad they are to people. But animals, you know, the Bible says man can have dominion over animals. And also they believe people have a soul, whatever that is, but animals don't. So do whatever you want with them.
No specifics on "horrible to animals, people". Slavery? False. Keeping women down? False. Honor killings? There isn't one in the Bible; some try to find one in Leviticus 21:9 or Exodus 21:17, which are not clearly "honor" issues (as opposed to "immorality" issues).
September 23, 2008
I found this review of the movie at a site called "Dirty Harry's Place" that links to my article on Osiris and Horus in the last paragraph below -- thanks! The review is here. Quotes:
More than three-quarters of the run-time is spent on the fringes of Christianity in places like truck stop chapels, Jews for Jesus gift shops, and Holy Land amusement parks ó pretty much anyplace Maher would have the least chance of bumping into someone who could handle the game heís running, the laziest game played by militant atheists: Biblical gotcha!
I like what a commenter said:
This infuriates me. Iíd love to see this guy go up against the likes of JP Moreland, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Greg Koukl, Josh McDowell - all men who can communicate what Christianity is all about in a knowledgeable, fair, intelligent manner.
I also found an online Wall Street Journal article here that makes an interesting observation about Maher's credibility:
On Oct. 3, Mr. Maher debuts "Religulous," his documentary that attacks religious belief. He talks to Hasidic scholars, Jews for Jesus, Muslims, polygamists, Satanists, creationists, and even Rael -- prophet of the Raelians -- before telling viewers: "The plain fact is religion must die for man to live."
And apparently, Maher also advocates an idea that Pasteur recanted about germ theory on his deathbed. Decide for yourself -- the Skeptics themselves are giving the evidence, as here on the James Randi forum.