Religulous is to religion as rape is to sex. Like the versions of religion and religious people in Bill Maher’s Religulous which opens Friday, rape is a terrible thing which must be recognized and combated. But it hardly defines the range of possible sexual experience. Neither do the violent, small-minded, fear-driven forms of religion upon which Maher focuses define religious experience. So for starters, let’s stop giving Maher credit for attacking all religion. He doesn’t.

Instead, Maher selects the worst of religion and compares it to the best of secularism — hardly a fair fight. But he does make some very important points in this wickedly funny, if totally lopsided analysis of religion. And it’s the people who will be most offended by what he has to say that should listen the most. Why? Because religion shouldn’t get a free pass and it certainly hasn’t earned one.
Maher doesn’t have to go far, or look too hard, to find examples of truly frightening versions of religion, versions which are likely to get most of us killed. In fact, more people are dying today in the name of religion than any time since the crusades. And the more religious you are, the more that should bother you. It’s up to the faithful to clean up the mess that we have too often made of faith. Simply saying things like, “that isn’t real Judaism, Christianity, or Islam” is no answer. Religions are, as their adherents live them, and history will judge if we brought honor or shame to the tradition we love.

Religulous misses the fact that while religion is among the most effective tools for mobilizing the ugliest stuff inside us and rationalizing some of the most hateful and violent acts, it also does the opposite. There is no force in human experience which has evoked the capacity for love, hope and altruism like religion. Missing that, makes Maher and Religulous a great deal like the blind man holding the elephant’s tusk and describing the animal as hard and smooth. He is 100% correct about 20% of the elephant.

Maher insists that he is all about doubt, about the willingness to say “I don’t know”. But he demonstrates no doubt about his own passionately held position. He never wonders if in fact he may not have reached the correct conclusion about the toxicity of religion. So ironically, Maher’s journey of spiritual inquiry, which would have been a wonder to behold, becomes one man’s pilgrimage of secularism among equally zealous people who have found absolutist faith much as he has found absolutist secularity.
If this had been a real journey, then Maher and the rest of us, would have ended up somewhere other than where we began. Alas, that is not the case with Religulous. And as a result, the film will mostly preach to a choir of angry secularists and never engage the vast majority of believers who could use the help of someone as smart and funny as Maher to help them see that questioning can be as sacred as believing. Of course to do that, he would need to start questioning his own disbelief as much as he questions others’ faith.
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