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Alternative Culture Magazine

Religulous is Less

a review by Nowick Gray

In a usual kind of coincidence, I saw the movie Religulous at a time when I'm also reading a book of the same ilk, Help!: Debunking the Outrageous Claims of Self-Help Gurus. At least the film was, for the most part, entertaining. Comedian Bill Maher made short work of most of his interviewees, lampooning them to their face: Mormons, gays, Catholics, anti-Zionist Jews, Muslims, fundamentalist Christians ... In the process he unashamedly preached his own brand of agnosticism, the religion of "Doubt," of which the central and only tenet of belief is "I don't know."

Along the way, Maher betrayed his supposed objectivity by remaining faithful to his 50% Jewish heritage. He insistently reinforced the stereotype of Islam as a "violent" faith; walked out on the interview with the anti-Zionist Jew while presenting no critique of orthodox Judaism; and gave a one-sided (pro-Israeli) view of contemporary Middle East conflict, jabbing at Palestinians and Iran/Persia without so much as a glance at their Israeli adversaries.

The end of the film, likewise, betrayed the comic intent of most of the film. We are met with a barrage of apocalyptic scenes and statements, overdubbed by a serious sermon from St. Maher on the folly of organized religion and the warfare it spawns from intolerance and self-righteous, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unlike the artful conflation of genres in a film such as the Coen Brothers' latest, Burn after Reading, Maher's documentary clumsily sidesteps comic detachment in an attempt to frighten viewers into giving up faith. "I don't know" becomes, in effect, "You don't know, but I do."

Paul Damien's book Help! sounds promising enough, as a critique of the wave of self-help books such as Rhonda Byrne's The Secret, Deepak Chopra's Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, and Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics. But after 36 pages, I realize that the attempt to characterize all of the above as "fluff" and "claptrap" consists of nothing more than the same method of "repetitious drivel" as the works Damien criticizes. In effect, the unanalytical and pre-judgemental treatment of the Eastern mystical approach to personal growth causes the critique to tread on equally slippery ground.

Now, in taking the above approach I might well fall into a chain of the same errors. Then again, I admit a bias in "accepting on faith" a fundamental personal affinity for Eastern mysticism. Basically in all of above disputations of faith, whether of organized religions or their New Age spinoffs, it comes down to personal taste and inclination. If you are a person of faith in whatever system suits you, it is unlikely that the slapdash efforts of "debunkers" such as Maher and Damien will dissuade you. In the end they, like the prophets and pundits they so self-righteously ridicule, are also trying to carve out their piece of the philosophic / entertainment pie. If their bottom-line premise is "buyer beware," then I would apply the same disclaimer to their own presentation.


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