By Bill Maher:
the documentary Religulous, Bill Maher put forward a number of criticisms of
various propositions made by the religious and presented people of multiple
faiths who tried to offer justifications for their beliefs. As the title would
suggest, the purpose of this film was to demonstrate that religion is
ridiculous and an impediment to man’s progress. While many of his criticisms
are fair and cogent, he seems to frequently stray away from his points. This
can likely be explained by the fact that this is a documentary with the
purposes of being at least partially comedic and entertaining, rather than a
well structured, formal argument. In this essay, I will examine the film and the
arguments made therein to see how well they stand up to scrutiny.
film opens with Maher talking about how religion is detrimental and that we can
no longer afford to harbor such beliefs in an age where man has the capacity to
unleash mass death and destruction by pressing a button. Maher points to how
religious people who believe in apocalyptic prophecies are actively working to
ensure 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 the
documentary. He then proceeded to have informal debates with religious people
about their supposedly ridiculous beliefs, sprinkling snide remarks throughout.
The film ends with Maher reiterating that man must move passed religion to
survive, while displaying horrific images meant to drive his point home.
often make a series of ostensibly absurd claims, people who accept ostensibly
absurd claims as fact are irrational, therefore religious people are irrational
for accepting these ostensibly absurd claims as fact. This is essentially the
thrust of one of Maher’s main arguments. While I feel that versions of this
argument can be compelling, his iteration is riddled with issues. Maher does a
decent job of pointing out some of the absurd ideas put forward by religious
people and how these are either contradictory or at odds with available
historical and scientific evidence. To show that those who accept absurd claims
as fact are irrational he shows a series of interviews with religious people
defending aspects of their faith. Their efforts were generally lacking and they
often made use fallacious arguments. However, showing multiple religious people
being irrational in one area of the lives is not sufficient to demonstrate that
all are necessarily less rational than nonreligious people.
argued that religious faith is irrational and that it is largely to blame for
the conflicts that man faces. Unfortunately, he also makes a number of
extremely broad and unjustified sub arguments. He claims to be only promoting
doubt and only presenting agnostic, atheistic position, however, this is rather
disingenuous. While I find the agnostic, atheistic position compelling, I do
find that many of his arguments go well beyond what he can support. He never
explicitly defined the term rational, but he holds that it is not rational to
believe in god or the claims made by religious people. He attempts to validate
this perspective by highlighting contradictions, inconsistencies, and
fallacious arguments of the religious.
means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And
those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are our intellectual
slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned
and justified so much lunacy and destruction” (Maher 2008).
conflated being irreligious with being rational, which is not necessarily
accurate. There are a number of people who have rejected religion yet still
espouse absurd beliefs and doubts or accepts religious claims tells you nothing
about how rational an individual is. At any given time, everyone holds a suite
of unjustified, unfalsified, incorrect beliefs, be they Christians, Jews,
Muslims or atheists. I accept that it would be better for the country if we
were not be run by people who balk at higher education, scoff at critical
thinking, or chuckle at the fact that one need not be particularly intelligent
to become a politician, but the implication that only nonreligious people would
be up to the task is not borne out by the evidence.
the 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’s
remember what the real problem was: That we learned how to precipitate mass
death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That’s
it. Grow up or die” (Maher 2008).
seemed incredibly quick to diagnose people with psychological and neurological
disorders merely because they happen to be religious. What are the symptoms of
religiosity that he points to as indicative of such issues? He continuously
points to the seemingly delusional ideas accepted by theists, but delusions are
commonly defined as false beliefs. Now, it should be noted that delusions can
be symptomatic of certain illnesses or disorders, but they can also be the result of indoctrination or improper
reasoning. He also pointed to the violence that has been inspired by religion
for thousands of years. This also fails, as there are many mentally ill people
who are not violent and many neurotypical people who are violent. There are
those in the field of psychology that argue that what distinguishes a
psychologically healthy individual from someone who is ill is not necessarily having
delusional beliefs, but the repercussions of their beliefs (Emanuelle 2001).
Given that the vast majority of people who hold religious beliefs are able to
live normal, productive lives, it does not make sense to claim that all of them
are somehow ill.
plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very
late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people, by
irrationalists, 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).
endeavored to depict himself as an unbiased voice of reason and skepticism in a
sea of irrationality and dogmatic certainty, though his decision to primarily
focus on Abrahamic religions, despite the fact that there are billions of
adherents to religions that are not tied to that tradition is indicative of
biased perspective. Religiously motivated violence and fantastical claims are
not the exclusive domain of Abrahamic faiths, so choosing not to include
interviews with Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists seems unbalanced.
was relatively even handed when it came to Judaism and Christianity, but made
the claim that Islam is necessarily a more violent ideology. While it is true
that there are tenets of Islam that call adherents to act violently in certain
instances, the same is true of Judaism and Christianity. When Maher was
interviewing muslims who objected to him claiming that Islam was the primary
cause of violence in the middle east, he simply dismissed the notion that it
was largely politically motivated. Though I would agree that Islam provides a
rallying point for extremist groups, there is evidence indicating that those
who join such organizations are influenced by a number of factors, not faith
and Mayall 2015).
are a number of violent groups that have arisen from multiple faiths, and
violence and irrationality are hardly the distinct purview of the religious.
There are secular ideologies like nationalism, racism, individualism, HIV
denialism, etc. that can and have been used to justify causing harm to people
and the destroying the environment. If Maher’s ultimate aim was to challenge
beliefs that threaten the survival of mankind, then excluding irrational ideas
that are not necessarily religious in nature is problematic and appears rather
dishonest. An acknowledgement of the fact that there are irrational,
nonreligious beliefs and actions that pose a substantial danger to the world
would seem to undermine one of his final statements, that “religion must die so
that man may live.” Let us imagine that man suddenly cast aside religion and
faith tomorrow. Other serious problems, assuming that religion is a problem,
would remain. There is no evidence that all sociopolitical conflicts would
simply evaporate once people no longer believe in deities or miracles.
is a stark lack of nuance that permeates this work, and the the arguments
tended to devolve into petty mockery, which did little to advance his
perspective. Maher’s overall point, that religion is irrational and detrimental
to humanity, is one that I largely accept. Holding beliefs in the absence of
evidence or in the face to evidence to the contrary can be harmful, and this is
considered a virtue in many religions. The things that we believe influence our
actions, which is why developing strong epistemological foundations and methods
of critically examining the beliefs that we hold is crucial. Doing this has
allowed us to make great strides as a species and when we reject these in favor
of protecting our beliefs and biases, our growth is often hindered.
and Larry Charles. “Religulous.” Director
Larry Charles (2008).
Emanuelle. “Are delusions on a continuum? The case of religious and
delusional beliefs.” Psychosis and
spirituality: Exploring the new frontier (2001): 191-207.
Sara, and James Mayall. “The Role of Religion in Conflict and
Peacebuilding.” British Academy, (2015).