February 24, 2009

PZ Myers on Bill Maher’s Religulous

Posted in Atheism tagged , , at 12:05 pm by Andrew

A perhaps surprising review of Religulous from the net’s most notorious atheist:

I did finally see Religulous a few days ago, and I confess to being a bit disappointed. It consisted of a series of short interviews with, for instance, truckers at a truck stop chapel, Catholic priests, an “ex-gay” minister, a Muslim rapper, etc., and it was all capped with excellent and scathing monologue that strongly criticized religion. Don’t get me wrong, it was good, and there were some funny bits, but something nagged at me throughout, and only when I saw the conclusion did I realize what it was.

Maher cheated. He had a clear idea of what his opinion was, but he wasn’t sharing it with the people he was interviewing. They were left to flounder and make poor arguments in part because there are no good arguments for religion, but also because they were left in the dark about what they were arguing against. It may be funny, but it’s no fair; contrast that with the Dawkins’ documentaries on religion, which are less funny, but more honest, because the people on camera know (or should know) exactly what they are wrestling with.

A better Religulous would have recorded the closing monolog first, and sent that to each of the potential interviewees with a note saying, “Here’s my position. Are you willing to argue against it on camera?” That would have made for a much more interesting movie, and Maher would have had to break a sweat to address criticisms…and it would probably be less funny. There’s a reason Maher wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, and I think it’s because his documentary took no risks, and didn’t probe very deeply.

I agree entirely. I suspect that PZ’s sympathies for some of Maher’s ambushees may stem from the unethical way in which he was misled into appearing in Ben Stein’s odious “documentary,” Expelled.

“Let’s laugh at the ignorant Christians” may be funny (if you’re an atheist), but it’s no more an argument than when Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort try to stump college kids on camera (with varying levels of success) and mock them for using words like “probably” when answering difficult and unexpected questions about biology. All of us — theist and atheist alike — can strive to be better than that.



  1. Stephanie said,

    It is, perhaps, an indictment of Christianity (or religions in general) that very few of its adherents are knowledgeable about the beliefs they profess to hold. However, I don’t think that indictment supports ambushing people and questioning them on subjects that they do not profess to be experts in. I took less issue when he questioned the “professionals”, but I do think there is a strong argument for more openness about one’s motives when making documentaries like Religulous.

    Ultimately, I think it failed at communicating much of anything. The reviews I read from theists who saw it essentially consisted of “laugh at everyone else, and fast forward through the parts where he makes fun of my/your religion.” Judging from the closing lines, he strove to be thought-provoking, and it seems to have failed pretty spectacularly on that front.

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