There's Nothing Holy About Religulous
Bill Maher's Religulous is a perfect example of how not to make a good documentary.
A self-confessed agnostic, Maher sets out on a worldwide trek to understand how people can place their faith in something as seemingly irrational as religion. At least, this is what he claims his mission is.
It doesn't take long, however, to see that Maher's real goal is to make fun of just about everyone he interviews, and to use the formal elements of filmmaking, especially editing and music, to show himself to be a morally superior human being. What a missed opportunity.
No Regard for the Truth
Artists are not exempt from the ethical obligation to treat others with respect, and one of the most important ways we show respect for people is by telling the truth. What makes Religulous so troubling both from an artistic and an ethical perspective is that Maher shows almost no regard either for the truth or for the integrity of other human beings. His interview subjects can best be described as fringe-dwellers: an anti-Zionist rabbi, an Orthodox Jew who invents contraptions to get around the prohibition against working on the Sabbath, a Dutch fellow whose religion is based on the virtues of marijuana, and a Miami man who claims to be Jesus Christ 2.0.
What these oddballs are doing in a documentary that purports to be a serious exploration of rationality and religion is hard to fathom. Maher may want you to come away from these interviews thinking, "Boy, these religious people are real lunatics," but all you get is the sour feeling that Maher is using delusional people for entertainment value. By taking cheap shots in the name of philosophical inquiry, Maher abuses his privilege as a documentary filmmaker and reveals himself to be more petty, smug, and self-righteous than those he thinks he is exposing. (Is it really news that some people use religion to justify any bizarre point of view they can come up with?)
Another ethical problem is the issue of informed consent. This doctrine applies not just to health-care providers and patients; documentary filmmakers also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their subjects are apprised of the nature of the project in which they're participating.
Deceived the Interviewees
But Maher told the Los Angeles Times in August that he had no regard for any of this: "It was simple: We never, ever, used my name. We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it A Spiritual Journey."
How a major film distributor like Lionsgate could release a documentary made under such conditions is a mystery. Why were the rights of these interview subjects treated with such contempt?
But what's really wrong about Religulous is that Maher spends no time examining the good works of religion and religious people. Maher seems to think that a religious tradition is nothing more than a set of beliefs, but it's actually much more than that. Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism (totally ignored by the film, incidentally), and, yes, Islam are rich cultures that are as much about community, social justice, and service as they are about doctrine, sacrament, and prayer.
Cultural Contributions Shortchanged
Yes, there are bigots out there who twist the noble messages of the great religious traditions to fit their own evil ends, but this is the fault of individual human beings, not the traditions themselves. As a Jew who grew up in the Bible Belt, attended a Quaker college (Swarthmore), and trained at a Catholic graduate school (Georgetown), I have been blessed to know a wide range of kind, loving people who guide their lives by the moral teachings of religion and who have brought a lot of joy to others through their religious devotion. I know I'm not the only person who feels this way, but none of the film's 100 minutes acknowledges any of this.
Also conspicuously absent is any mention of two of the best things about religious traditions: their art and music. The world would be a much poorer place without J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the gospel singing of the Golden Gate Quartet and Mahalia Jackson, or Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. On a more mundane level, why doesn't the film make reference to any of the great foods we associate with religious holidays? Isn't Hanukkah today as much about latkes as it is the story of Judah Maccabee?
The truly ridiculous revelation in Religulous is not that a lot of people around the world have beliefs that don't stand up to scientific scrutiny, but that a gifted comedian sought to use his considerable skills merely to make a laughingstock out of institutions that have contributed something of value to the world.
Not So Smart
It may be irrational to place one's faith in the unknowable, but it's downright unethical to use a documentary to make fun of people and believe you've spoken truth to power. Comics like to say that "Dying is easy; comedy is hard," but discovering meaningful truth is the hardest thing of all. With Religulous, the only truth Bill Maher reveals is that he isn't as smart as he thinks he is.
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