Religulous and the Problem of Belief


Kelly Baker

Over at Religion Dispatches, S. Brent Plate has a thoughtful opinion piece on Bill Maher's documentary, Religulous, and the "antiquated" definition of religion that Maher uses to ostracize religious people. (Also, check out his newest book, Blasphemy Art that Offends.) Plate argues that Maher's belief-centered vision of religion ignores how practice defines religious life and presents religion as an individually centered enterprise. By parodying and ostracizing what people believe, Maher misses the communal and ritual aspects of religion and how both define why religious people believe and act in the ways that they do. Plate questions why Maher sticks to such a definition, and he concludes that Maher would probably garner a "C" in his Intro to Religious Studies Course. Here's an excerpt:

Bill gets this low grade because his definition of religion appears to have been culled solely from Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary in which religion is essentially defined, in solid US-Protestant style, along the lines of a set of beliefs in God. (To give credit where credit is due, the problem also lies with the director Larry Charles and whatever half-baked research team they assembled; and while Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are all susceptible to the same critique, in these pages I’ll confine myself to Religulous.) This is the kind of thing a fair number of my students, raised in the Protestant-dominated United States (even Catholics and Jews have assimilated this definition), come to university thinking about religion; the two key components of which are “belief” and “God.” Religion is some cryptic interior, individual thing that exists in one’s own head, and is only understood in relation to a God. I don’t blame my students for the deficiencies in their cultural upbringing; rather, I see a chance to expand their horizons, to get them, as my wise colleague Andy Fort says, to “mentally migrate,” to come to terms with the radical diversity of religions as they historically and presently occur around the world. ... It's somewhat unfortunate, given the film's title, that Maher and Charles never offer a working definition of religion. But the mode of questioning lays bare the thinking that went into Religulous. Except for an early scene at the “Truckers Church,” Maher interviews individuals, alone, as if he’s on his HBO talk show (but even there, there’s a panel . . .). It’s a great strategy for TV but that’s not the way life, to say nothing of religious life, operates. This is the first key problem with the modus operandi for the film: it functions like a talk show, imagining that religious life can be reduced to a few sound bites, told via spoken words, by a single person, in an artificially constructed environment. Maher’s question to the “ex-Jew for Jesus” about suicide (“If heaven’s so great, why not kill yourself now?”) only underscores the individualistic framework of the film: religion is about solitary individuals and their own pleasures and desires. No traditional rituals are shown—almost no communal gatherings at all in fact—nor do many of the realities of religion, either good or ill, make much of an appearance.
So, here’s the thing: Maher mocks people for their antiquated beliefs though he never moves beyond an antiquated definition of religion himself. He borrows the same viewpoints of religion that all the way-out interviewees have. He is indignant that people actually believe in an existing Adam and Eve and the attendant talking snake, or in a man (Jonah) swallowed by a whale (or, really a “big fish”). These are the problems he keeps seeing: conservative religious people actually believe the myths of their traditions. But then Religulous splices in images of explosions, violent street demonstrations, and other aggressive activities. So, what’s the relationship between people who actually believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and suicide bombings? The film doesn’t really make those connections, nor could it, because they don’t connect. The broader connections between belief and violence could have (and, I’d say, should have) been made, but it would have taken some much more careful consideration of the topic at hand.

What Maher and filmmaking cohorts don’t appear to understand is that a person can be a Jew, have an enjoyable evening around the Sabbath table, and not believe that God actually created the world in seven days; that a Christian can stand up with her community, recite the 1700-year-old Nicene Creed, not believe a word of it, but still be moved by the experience of collective recitation; that a Muslim can make the pilgrimage to Mecca, touch the Kaaba, and still realize that at its base it is, indeed, a meteorite and not a holy rock from God. Maher even goes so far as to claim that “Christians believe” they are drinking the blood of a man who lived 2000 years ago. But he never asks anyone if they believe that. It’s a straw man argument. Even if this theological idea of “transubstantiation” has been written into Catholic dogma for centuries, I’ve yet to meet a Catholic who believes what Maher claims they believe (though I’m sure he could find a couple if he just kept throwing money at the film).

Funny thing is, had he watched Tim Burton’s Big Fish, he could have garnered some insight about how stories operate within human life. Here’s a hint, Bill: The big fish doesn’t have to be real! It’s a great story.


Randall at: October 13, 2008 at 2:40 PM said...

Kelly - Thanks for crossposting this. I enjoyed reading S. Brent Plate's piece

I think that the major problem here is that religious studies scholars do not reach a larger audience. Their works may excite eager undergrads hoping to land an A in a survey course, but remain unknown to a larger audience. There's a reason why Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and now Maher reach millions of readers. These authors (and this one comedian) tell interesting, accessible stories with verve and humor.

Plate writes: "Albanese and Taylor have spent decades of their lives investigating this strange beast called religion." But, I wonder, does anyone care? And, more importantly, why doesn't anyone care? Don't these and other scholars write primarily for others in their field? Do they have any interest in writing for a larger public?

But maybe things are getting a little better now. Ten years ago historians, religious studies scholars, and social theorists seemed to be walled off by impenetrable prose and matters of no concern to anyone. Here's a pearl of wisdom from Homi Bhabha's _Location of Culture_:

"If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to 'normalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality."


Manlius at: October 14, 2008 at 7:57 AM said...

If Maher is wrong to assume that all religions are creedal, Plate is also wrong to assume that none are.

Christianity is a creedal religion, so it is not unfair to attack it on that basis. Whether Maher's attacks are fair, accurate or persuasive or not is obviously another question.

Kelly Baker at: October 14, 2008 at 10:19 AM said...


Wow. I think you hit the nail on the head. Stephen Prothero's books have larger audiences, but most of us stay well within our ivory tower. Unfortunately, this means that journalists, authors like Dawkins and Hitchens, and pundits make assessments about religion. How do you think we should broach this? What should we practically do to reach a larger forum? I think blogging is one method but we have to become more visible don't we.

Manlinus, Plate would be the last one to assume all religions are NOT creedal. However, what he does assess is that religions contain elements of practice and belief, and unfortunately, practice is often ignored as a legitimate and central piece of religious experience. Christianity has creedal elements, but it also contains objects, rituals, music, dance (practice)to name a few. People do things in religion, and this is commonly overlooked by those who classify belief as the most important.

Manlius at: October 14, 2008 at 10:29 AM said...

Kelly, you're right. I overstated it. But I do get the sense that Plate believes that while Christianity is creedal, he thinks it is less than creedal in its essense. I would respectfully disagree with that. He'd be right about most religions, even Judaism and Islam, but Xy is creedal at its very core.

Manlius at: October 14, 2008 at 10:36 AM said...

Just to clarify: I realize that many Xn denoms advertise themselves as non-creedal, but that is really only in relation to binding nature of certain creedal documents. In fact, many of these denoms are more creedally-oriented than the officially creedal communities.

Possible exceptions to my general assertion, however, include the Society of Friends (at least some of them) and various forms of modernistic Xy.

Anonymous at: October 14, 2008 at 10:42 AM said...

And Catholicism, a form of Christianity that outnumbers your creedal Protestants by a huge number.

Anonymous at: October 14, 2008 at 10:52 AM said...

disregard that last post; misread something above.

UUC and Friends are noncreedal, and many Baptists claim to be noncreedal (but others do cite creeds). What an interesting and complicated subject.

Randall at: October 14, 2008 at 12:21 PM said...

Kelly, that's certainly true about Prothero. One could add high-profile authors like Garry Wills or Elaine Pagels.

And, blogging, as well as writing for the mainstream media, does seem to be a way to move beyond the academy. But I also think that historians and religious studies scholars should attempt to write for a general audience. I can't remember off the top of my head how many rel studies scholars have published with major trade presses: Knopf, Random House, FSG, Hill and Wang, Norton. My guess, though, is that far more historians have done so.

Anonymous at: October 14, 2008 at 1:56 PM said...

There are far more historians than there are religious studies scholars in the first place. I'd be interested in percentages.

Randall at: October 14, 2008 at 2:14 PM said...

That's true about numbers. But even as a percentage I would think there are still far fewer trade books in religious studies.

Anonymous at: December 6, 2008 at 11:37 AM said...

Ladies and gentlemen, in your religion you help each other? Best regards. Giacomo Montana /

newer post older post