The most amazing thing about Bill Maher’s Religulous, a documentary that criticizes religions of all stripes, is that, so far as I know, Maher hasn’t had to worry much about death threats. This movie is a lot more insulting to Islam than, for instance, the Danish cartoons. But Maher is an American, and moreover he’s a comedian. Strangely, then, Maher was able to make a more interesting documentary than might have been possible to more “serious” documentarians. I recommend it, despite a variety of flaws.
Religulous has a split personality. It is filled with low-brow jokes and cheap shots. Yet it also reveals a wealth of interesting facts about many religions, such as the predecessors of Christian myths, and its concluding message is surprisingly serious. “Religion must die for mankind to live,” says Maher in the closing segments, in which nuclear blasts are superimposed with religious passages. Dark words for a funny man.
The film has two main shortcomings. First, Maher pokes fun at the many absurdities of religion, the low-hanging fruit, but he never gets around to talking about the most sophisticated forms of religion. Thus, Maher’s conclusions don’t follow from his arguments.
Second, Maher offers no real alternative to religion, he offers only doubt. He is “preaching the gospel of ‘I don’t know.'” “Doubt — that’s my product,” he says. But if he has no answers to the “big questions,” how is he possibly going to get the religious to seriously question their faith? In a contest between religion and nothing, religion will win every time. The religious do not lack doubt — they doubt everything Maher has to day. But man cannot live by doubt alone. He needs a positive philosophy. In the absence of a serious alternative, religion will continue to dominate.