How Shall We Think about Bill Maher's Upcoming Anti-Religion Documentary?


Comic Bill Maher plans to take on religion in an upcoming documentary. (HBO)
TV personality Bill Maher announced on "Larry King Live" his new anti-religion documentary, which he said would be titled "Religulous," as in the combination of the words religion and ridiculous.

"It should come out at Easter. I would like it out right at the time people are celebrating the space man's flying up to heaven," said Maher, a comedian with a show on HBO.

 

Maher said his documentary would reflect the "doubter's view."

 

"How much of an atheist a person is? Even I, who I'm not a believer, say, 'Look, I can't know,'" he said. "My main proposition is I don't know. And, therefore, if some other human being tells me or anybody else what happens when you die, my answer to them is, 'I don't know what happens when you die, so how do you know?'

 

"The answer is you don't know. So to purport to present yourself as someone who can tell in such great detail--and the detail is amazing, isn't it--about what happens when you die?"

 

After referencing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's view that the president should be a person of faith, Maher said: "No, we need a person of doubt in the White House. Stop with the faith and start with the doubt."

When King asked if Maher interviewed religious leaders for his documentary, he answered: "We went everywhere. We went to every place where there's religion. We went to Vatican City, and we went to Jerusalem, and we went to Salt Lake City. And, you know, I think I've insulted everybody."

 

Maher told King that he thinks his film will be comedic: "The topic of religion is just so inherently funny."

 

Religion does have an inherently funny side.

 

Verbal gaffs in sermons, wardrobe malfunctions in worship and typos in religious newsletters generate plenty of laugh-lines within and outside houses of faith. Religious people do make wacky comments, behave weirdly and cling to seemingly quaint doctrines, all of which may earn comedic attention. Some clergy do use humor effectively.

 

Humor is one of the good gifts of God, which religious people should use to advance the common good by taking ourselves less seriously and chuckling more about how self-absorbed and self-righteous we are.

 

Religious humor, however, is not the same as insulting religious people. That's a distinction Maher should respect in his documentary.

 

If Maher's intent is to find humor in religion and religious people, it could be profoundly funny or simply profound. But if his intent is to insult to people of faith, it will depart from civility needed in the global public square.

 

Maher has already offended Muslims with his demeaning comment to King about being at the Islamic holy site, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, where "Mohammed flew up to heaven."

 

With a release date of Easter, the holiest season for Christians, he promises to slur the Christian community as well.

 

With so much religiously based conflict in our world and society, religious ridicule can only fuel the fire for more hatred. Other than venting anger against people of faith and seeking personal financial gain, Maher will accomplish little good with a broadside belittlement of religious adherents.

 

Also troublesome is that Maher's bias against religion appears to reinforce two unhelpful misunderstandings about faith, and Christian faith in particular.  

 

First, it is true that some Christians do believe this earth is just not their home. They are just passin' through. And some day they'll just fly away, by-and-by. 

 

Yet many other Christians are not obsessed with being heaven-bound or flying off to heaven. They see escapist Christianity as wrongheaded. They say faith is about much more than what happens when you die. It's about how you live. Faith, as defined by Jesus, is about love for God and love for neighbor.

 

Second, contrary to Maher's understanding, doubt is not the opposite of faith. For some of us, and for many figures in the biblical narratives, doubt is joined at the hip with belief. Doubt plays a critical role in shaping the lives of believers.

 

Certainly more doubt about a divine mandate in the current White House would be a benefit to global security. All American politicians would do well to restrain their self-perception that there's a straight line from the Bible to public policy and that they are the chosen ones. Maher does make a useful appeal for less faith as predestination in politics.

 

Even with Maher's anti-religious agenda, what he says and does should not be confused with religious persecution. Persecution is not the same as insult.

 

Maher is hardly in a position of power to trample out religious freedom. And when conservative Christians begin to cry foul about his documentary, the rest of us should refuse to play the victim card by joining their claim his movie is persecuting people of faith.

 

To cite Ecclesiastes, there is a time to laugh. Let's hope Maher gives all people of faith such a time.  

 

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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