NameUniversityCourseProfessorDateReligulousBy Bill Maher:A CriticalReviewInthe documentary Religulous, Bill Maher put forward a number of criticisms ofvarious propositions made by the religious and presented people of multiplefaiths who tried to offer justifications for their beliefs.
As the title wouldsuggest, the purpose of this film was to demonstrate that religion isridiculous and an impediment to man’s progress. While many of his criticismsare fair and cogent, he seems to frequently stray away from his points. Thiscan likely be explained by the fact that this is a documentary with thepurposes of being at least partially comedic and entertaining, rather than awell structured, formal argument. In this essay, I will examine the film and thearguments made therein to see how well they stand up to scrutiny.Thefilm opens with Maher talking about how religion is detrimental and that we canno longer afford to harbor such beliefs in an age where man has the capacity tounleash mass death and destruction by pressing a button. Maher points to howreligious people who believe in apocalyptic prophecies are actively working toensure their fulfillment as a prime example of the harmful potential of faith.Oddly, he does not really return to this point until the end of thedocumentary. He then proceeded to have informal debates with religious peopleabout their supposedly ridiculous beliefs, sprinkling snide remarks throughout.
The film ends with Maher reiterating that man must move passed religion tosurvive, while displaying horrific images meant to drive his point home. Religionsoften make a series of ostensibly absurd claims, people who accept ostensiblyabsurd claims as fact are irrational, therefore religious people are irrationalfor accepting these ostensibly absurd claims as fact. This is essentially thethrust of one of Maher’s main arguments. While I feel that versions of thisargument can be compelling, his iteration is riddled with issues. Maher does adecent job of pointing out some of the absurd ideas put forward by religiouspeople and how these are either contradictory or at odds with availablehistorical and scientific evidence.
To show that those who accept absurd claimsas fact are irrational he shows a series of interviews with religious peopledefending aspects of their faith. Their efforts were generally lacking and theyoften made use fallacious arguments. However, showing multiple religious peoplebeing irrational in one area of the lives is not sufficient to demonstrate thatall are necessarily less rational than nonreligious people.Maherargued that religious faith is irrational and that it is largely to blame forthe conflicts that man faces. Unfortunately, he also makes a number ofextremely broad and unjustified sub arguments. He claims to be only promotingdoubt and only presenting agnostic, atheistic position, however, this is ratherdisingenuous. While I find the agnostic, atheistic position compelling, I dofind that many of his arguments go well beyond what he can support.
He neverexplicitly defined the term rational, but he holds that it is not rational tobelieve in god or the claims made by religious people. He attempts to validatethis perspective by highlighting contradictions, inconsistencies, andfallacious arguments of the religious. “Faithmeans making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. Andthose who preach faith and enable and elevate it are our intellectualslaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawnedand justified so much lunacy and destruction” (Maher 2008).Heconflated being irreligious with being rational, which is not necessarilyaccurate.
There are a number of people who have rejected religion yet stillespouse absurd beliefs and doubts or accepts religious claims tells you nothingabout how rational an individual is. At any given time, everyone holds a suiteof unjustified, unfalsified, incorrect beliefs, be they Christians, Jews,Muslims or atheists. I accept that it would be better for the country if wewere not be run by people who balk at higher education, scoff at criticalthinking, or chuckle at the fact that one need not be particularly intelligentto become a politician, but the implication that only nonreligious people wouldbe up to the task is not borne out by the evidence.”Ifthe world does come to an end here or wherever, or if it limps into the future,decimated by the effects of a religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let’sremember what the real problem was: That we learned how to precipitate massdeath before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That’sit. Grow up or die” (Maher 2008).Heseemed incredibly quick to diagnose people with psychological and neurologicaldisorders merely because they happen to be religious.
What are the symptoms ofreligiosity that he points to as indicative of such issues? He continuouslypoints to the seemingly delusional ideas accepted by theists, but delusions arecommonly defined as false beliefs. Now, it should be noted that delusions canbe symptomatic of certain illnesses or disorders, but they can also be the result of indoctrination or improperreasoning. He also pointed to the violence that has been inspired by religionfor thousands of years. This also fails, as there are many mentally ill peoplewho are not violent and many neurotypical people who are violent. There arethose in the field of psychology that argue that what distinguishes apsychologically healthy individual from someone who is ill is not necessarily havingdelusional beliefs, but the repercussions of their beliefs (Emanuelle 2001).Given that the vast majority of people who hold religious beliefs are able tolive normal, productive lives, it does not make sense to claim that all of themare somehow ill.
“Theplain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting verylate to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people, byirrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass,but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken” (Maher 2008).Maherendeavored to depict himself as an unbiased voice of reason and skepticism in asea of irrationality and dogmatic certainty, though his decision to primarilyfocus on Abrahamic religions, despite the fact that there are billions ofadherents to religions that are not tied to that tradition is indicative ofbiased perspective. Religiously motivated violence and fantastical claims arenot the exclusive domain of Abrahamic faiths, so choosing not to includeinterviews with Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists seems unbalanced. Maherwas relatively even handed when it came to Judaism and Christianity, but madethe claim that Islam is necessarily a more violent ideology.
While it is truethat there are tenets of Islam that call adherents to act violently in certaininstances, the same is true of Judaism and Christianity. When Maher wasinterviewing muslims who objected to him claiming that Islam was the primarycause of violence in the middle east, he simply dismissed the notion that itwas largely politically motivated. Though I would agree that Islam provides arallying point for extremist groups, there is evidence indicating that thosewho join such organizations are influenced by a number of factors, not faithalone (Silvestriand Mayall 2015).
Thereare a number of violent groups that have arisen from multiple faiths, andviolence and irrationality are hardly the distinct purview of the religious.There are secular ideologies like nationalism, racism, individualism, HIVdenialism, etc. that can and have been used to justify causing harm to peopleand the destroying the environment. If Maher’s ultimate aim was to challengebeliefs that threaten the survival of mankind, then excluding irrational ideasthat are not necessarily religious in nature is problematic and appears ratherdishonest. An acknowledgement of the fact that there are irrational,nonreligious beliefs and actions that pose a substantial danger to the worldwould seem to undermine one of his final statements, that “religion must die sothat man may live.” Let us imagine that man suddenly cast aside religion andfaith tomorrow. Other serious problems, assuming that religion is a problem,would remain. There is no evidence that all sociopolitical conflicts wouldsimply evaporate once people no longer believe in deities or miracles.
Thereis a stark lack of nuance that permeates this work, and the the argumentstended to devolve into petty mockery, which did little to advance hisperspective. Maher’s overall point, that religion is irrational and detrimentalto humanity, is one that I largely accept. Holding beliefs in the absence ofevidence or in the face to evidence to the contrary can be harmful, and this isconsidered a virtue in many religions. The things that we believe influence ouractions, which is why developing strong epistemological foundations and methodsof critically examining the beliefs that we hold is crucial. Doing this hasallowed us to make great strides as a species and when we reject these in favorof protecting our beliefs and biases, our growth is often hindered.
References Maher, Bill,and Larry Charles. “Religulous.” DirectorLarry Charles (2008).Peters,Emanuelle. “Are delusions on a continuum? The case of religious anddelusional beliefs.” Psychosis andspirituality: Exploring the new frontier (2001): 191-207.Silvestri,Sara, and James Mayall.
“The Role of Religion in Conflict andPeacebuilding.” British Academy, (2015).