Articles & Reviews

René on Religulous

Bill Maher’s new movie “Religulous” is bound to stir up heated emotions. At the time of this writing the movie is not yet showing in Santa Cruz, so my comments are based on reviews I’ve read.

In the film, Maher questions adherents of various faiths, but primarily Christianity, in an attempt to show that believers have no good reason for their faith and in fact are harmful to society.

I believe in an absolutely free marketplace of ideas, so of course I have no problem with Maher’s right to film all of this. But I do have three points to make:

1. Just as with “Jesus Camp” last year, I am concerned that viewers may assume that the people Maher interviews are the best examples of Christian thinkers. He conveniently leaves out any interviews with well-known theologians such as Darrell Bock or William Lane Craig, or Christian writers and intellectuals like Anne Rice or Lee Strobel. The only name I recognize from his list of interviewees is celebrity geneticist Francis Collins—a brilliant scientist, to be sure, but not a trained theologian or philosopher.

Instead Maher interviews strange televangelists, cast members of shows at Bible theme parks, and members of cults and other fringe movements. This is akin to a sports reporter interviewing only the nuttiest fans and cheerleaders in a story about football, but leaving out professional coaches and athletes.

Most reviewers seem to overlook this, but here’s a fair review by The Hollywood Reporter, of all places, that nails it: As the writer says, it would have been really something to see Maher take on William F. Buckley or some other devout pundit. Now that would’ve been a fair fight.

It’s another example of the curse of the sound-bite. Maher and his crew would probably argue that they were making a comedy, and looking for the most entertaining answers. Thoughtful, nuanced responses from academics who spend professional lifetimes considering the questions about evil, God’s existence, and miracles that Maher poses would be probably be considered too long or boring. But they’d more accurately reflect real Christian positions.

2. I also want to mention that many of the points Maher and others make against religion were made first in the Bible itself! Corrupt, gullible, lazy, and legalistic religious believers and leaders were the primary target of Jesus, Isaiah, Paul, and others.

Isaiah calls people to reason, and away from superstition, in their faith. Jesus skewers the religious leaders of his day for their corruption and complete missing-of-the-point. Paul calls out people within early Christianity for their nonsensical application of Old Testament religious law to converts from Greek culture.

So it’s important to note that criticism of religion is very strident in the Bible (If you think Bill Maher’s criticism of religion is harsh, try Jesus in Matthew 23!) and should be welcomed and weighed with all seriousness by believers today.

Maher’s right that religion has been off-limits to real criticism for too long in our politically-correct culture. Critique of abusive or hypocritical religion is a solid biblical tradition, and the courage it takes should be applauded. I just wish that “Religulous” dared venture more onto the less-travelled road of thoughtful criticism instead of taking the easy road of snarky sarcasm as often as it does.

3. And of course I disagree with what has been reported as Maher’s conclusion: That religion in general is harmful to society and must stop.

From my perspective as a pastor, I do see the damaging effects of abusive religious leaders and superstitious, fear-based faith. But I also see the powerful effect of healthy faith on marriages, on human health, on human psychology.

For amazing documentation about the role of faith in human health, read “God: The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Post-Modern World” by Patrick Glynn. If you’re part of the choir that Bill Maher is preaching to in this movie, you owe it to yourself to give the other side a hearing by reading this book.

I also see churches contributing to society in innumerable ways. Maher apparently leaves out many (to him) inconvenient truths about the role of churches in the post-Katrina hurricane recovery efforts, the abolition of slavery, the advancement of civil rights, the rights of the Dalit caste in India, alleviation of suffering in AIDS-stricken Africa, and so much more. Our own church is the largest local donor in the annual Second Harvest food drive, supports orphanages in Latin America, Africa, and India, has sent numerous teams to help in hurricane- and tidal wave-ravaged areas around the world, plus much more. And we’re just one of many dozens of churches quietly doing excellent work right here. In my observation a generic philanthropic emotion does not motivate as effectively as a belief that we have a calling from a loving God to love others.

And here’s the thing: None of these orphanage directors or missionary doctors we support is likely to stop their work to make a movie answering the same exact objections against faith that didn’t make an impact on them anyway when they first heard them back in their freshman dorm. They’re too busy making a difference.

Maher also omits the very salient fact that, so far, history’s few atheist societies have been every bit as abusive as the worst examples of religious extremists (Stalin’s Soviet Union, communist Albania, etc.). This leads me to conclude that the problem lies not just with religion, but with human nature.

And that begs the question: What’s the cure?

I would assert that the solution is not substituting one potentially abusive system for another (the tyranny of religion for, God help us, the tyranny of government, or the tyranny of some aristocracy of intellectuals or of pop culture), but in the transformation, one life at a time, of selfish, cruel humans into Christ-like, loving people.

And this does not really happen through “religion”—if by this you mean a system of rules or beliefs imposed from some inscrutable authority. It happens when individuals surrender their self-seeking ways to the way of Love. As a Christian, I would assert that this is the message of Jesus Christ: It’s a relationship with Him, it’s (to borrow a phrase from 12-step programs) about turning over my selfish will to the Higher Power, that changes me, incrementally to be sure, into a truly loving, godly, non-self-seeking individual.

Imagine a world full of people who really begin to reflect the heart of Jesus Christ, not just because of their own effort but as a result of spiritual transformation. Imagine a world full of people who do not judge, whose highest priority is to love God and love their neighbors, who do not worry, who find wisdom and joy in children, whose religious life is not for peer approval but is a truly intimate relationship of love.

René Schlaepfer, Teaching Pastor
Twin Lakes Church, Aptos, CA

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