Jacques Berlinerlblau, program director and associate professor of Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A.Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, thinks Religulous is like screaming “suicide bomber” in a crowded theater. He makes a lame attempt to act as film critic by comparing Bill Maher to Sacha Baron Cohen. (Kind of obvious, since Borat and Religulous have a director in common, but little else). But what really seems to get his goat is that Maher scores solid points against religious idiocy:
Maher, a talented stand-up performer, is simply not skilled at, or comfortable with, rapidly converting ideological bile into comedy gold. In one scene where he is almost cruelly antagonizing some sort of fellowship of Christian truckers, a beefy driver walks out the door in protest. He exits unmolested. Daredevil Borat would have tried to extend the encounter–perhaps by questioning the trucker’s manhood or challenging him to a duel (using tasers, of course).
Maher is no master of squirm comedy. Maybe this accounts for why Religulous is larded with soundtracks, stock movie footage, captions, sound effects, you name it. These are Maher’s post-production “life lines”–gimmicks that help him cover up the fact that watching two ideologues run head first into one another is not inherently illuminating or pleasurable to watch.
And let there be no doubt, Maher is an ideologue (a point that Andrew Sullivan brought home in a recent exchange with the host of Real Time). His worldview and politics are decidedly New Atheist. This means that he must focus obsessively on religious extremists and oddballs. He must provoke and mock them.
And he must do so while maintaining the peculiar insistence that he actually understands their religion better than they do. Thus, he counters their assertions about the Bible with equally literalist counter-factuals. (Somebody buy Bill a book on the history of biblical interpretation, if only so he would stop assuming that all Jews and Christians read their Scriptures literally. Bill meet Philo of Alexandria. Philo. Bill.)
It also means that he must steadfastly avoid speaking to, or even thinking about, religious moderates. In accordance with the New Atheist creed, they are seen as enablers of religious zealots, or in Maher’s phrase “mafia wives.”
Excuse me if I don’t quite buy Berlinerblau’s impartiality. My comment at the On Faith site:
This is a predictable slam on a brilliant film by a brilliant comic. The author is simply revealing his own self-image as ‘sophisticated’ apologist for religion.
Over and over we hear it repeated that critics of religion are not actually talking about the “real” version that theologians follow and study. There are two problems with this defense: 1) Millions of followers of religion don’t seem to be bothered to learn about the “real” religion either. 2) The idea that there’s a “real” religion that in some way holds together intellectually is a pipe dream.
Over and over this defense is repeated. But where is this “real” religion? It doesn’t exist. All religions are based on tales and scriptures of dubious (and very human) origin. All religions privilege personal experience and belief without (or in spite of) evidence.
I love how apologists claim to want to advise atheists on political strategy. “The anger is not working” they say. The “mocking of religious moderates is counter-productive.” Pardon me if this sounds a little disingenuous. I’m supposed to believe that religious apologists actually have the political interests of atheism at heart? It’s far more likely they realize the mockery is in fact working, and they’re trying to do whatever they can to silence it.
Bottom line, as Maher says, religion is based on tall-tales about things like talking snakes. You can’t dress that up in intellectual garb. More and more people are now realizing the obvious absurdity of trying.
After I posted this, the Daily Variety came in the mail: Religulous took in a phenomenal $6,972 per screen on 500 screens for $3.5 million on its opening weekend. Second only per-screen to Disney’s “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” Some large group of people is showing up to see this movie. Not all of them are ideologues. It’s genuinely funny. Documentaries are cheap to produce. Lionsgate probably made back most of the film’s cost on the first weekend.
A final question: Am I to truly accept the idea that Berlinerblau would have been more satisfied with the film if Maher had more successfully skewered religious moderates?