Philosophy and Film - Return to Main Page


PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Religion and rationality

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR LARRY CHARLES: Borat (2006), Masked and Anonymous (2003)

SYNOPSIS: Comedian Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous—a hybrid of the words “religion” and “ridiculous”—aims to expose the absurdities and dangers of religious belief. While his main targets are Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists, he also examines smaller religious groups that we might commonly refer to as cults. What they all have in common, Maher argues, is an adherence to irrational views without any proof, and an emphasis on blind faith and private conviction. The film is a sequence of five-to-ten minute interviews with members of religious groups, during which Maher tries to get his subjects to defend the most outlandish components of their religion. Maher’s own skeptical view of religion is, as he describes it, “The Gospel of I don’t know,” which he develops in monologues interspersed between the interviews.


1. In the director’s commentary, Maher and Charles discuss the angry public reaction to their movie, and state that people did not want to hear that their religious beliefs were B.S. Is that surprising?

2. A fundamentalist Christian in the Trucker’s Chapel states defends his faith saying “When I’ve seen what I’ve seen, you can’t change my mind.” Assuming that his experience was profound, does that justify him in being resistant to any change of mind upon further consideration?

3. Throughout the film a few believers justified their faith with something like Pascal’s wager: if they disbelieve and they’re wrong, they risk eternal punishment. Is there anything wrong with that rationale?

4. In his interview with Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Research Project, a caption on the screen says “93% of scientists in the American National Academy of Sciences are atheist or agnostic.” Collins, though, is a conservative Christian believer, who holds that the New Testament is something close to an eyewitness account of Jesus. Maher asks if that would stand up as absolute fool-proof evidence, and Collins responds that Maher is setting up a standard of proof that is almost impossible to meet. In the directors commentary, Larry Charles states that Collins was a disappointment since “he created an almost convoluted logic for himself to justify the existence of Jesus.” Do the New Testament accounts stand up as reasonable evidence as Collins suggests?

5. Pastor Jeremiah Cummings, former member of the R&B group The Blue Notes, argues that God does not want us to be poor. In response, Maher notes that religious leaders and rock stars both dress flamboyantly. What’s Maher’s point, and is it relevant to the credibility and value of religion?

6. John Westcott (reformed homosexual) states that no one is born gay. In the director’s commentary, Maher says of Westcott himself that “You don’t have to have the highest level of gaydar to get that this guy is right there.” What’s Maher’s point, and is it relevant to the credibility and value of religion?

7. The owner of the Catholic merchandise store told Maher of the miracles that God performed in his life, and how God listens to us all when we pray. Maher responded with a comparison between belief in Santa Clause and belief in God: “[Santa is] one man flying around the world dropping presents down a chimney; that’s ridiculous. But one man hearing everybody murmur to him at the same time, that I get.” Is he comparison valid?

8. Maher states that one of his favorite nonsense stories from the Bible is Jonah living inside a whale. He notes that believers unfailingly answer that “The Bible does not say whale, it says big fish,” as though this makes the story more credible. Maher also states that if a child was raised in an environment in which fairy tales and Bible stories were switched with each other, the child wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Do stories like Jonah undermine the reasonableness of religion as Maher suggests?

9. The film displays quotations by Franklin that “Lighthouses are more useful than Churches,” by Adams that “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it,” and by Jefferson that “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man” In the director’s commentary, Charles notes that a part of the movie that people found most astounding was that the U.S. founding fathers were not religious. What’s so shocking about these quotes?

10. U.S. senator Mark Pryor from Arkansas did a campaign ad in which he said that the most important lessons in life come from the Bible. In his interview with Pryor, Maher stated that in the Ten Commandments, the prohibitions against murder and stealing are the only critical ones, and other moral rules critically important today were left off the list, such as prohibitions against child abuse, torture and rape. He then asks, “can you think of anything else that we still cleave to from the Bronze Age?” What is your answer to Maher’s question?

11. According to Maher, among the 32 most industrialized countries, more people in the U.S. doubt evolution than every other country on the list except Turkey. Ken Ham of the Creation Museum discusses their displays that depict dinosaurs and people living together in the same time period some 5,000 years ago. By contrast, Father George Coyne of the Vatican Observatory stated that evolution is an historic fact and that Pope John Paul II himself said that Darwinian evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis. According to Coyne, since the scriptures were written so long before modern science, there can’t be any science in scripture. If Catholics can embrace evolution, why can’t Protestant fundamentalists like Ken Ham?

12. Reginald Foster, senior Vatican priest, criticizes people who accept many traditional discussions in the bible as literal. He states that the standard doctrine of hell “is all gone, it’s all finished.” He also notes that a lot of traditional views of Jesus are just “nice stories.” Maher asked him “how do you convince people of what’s the true faith,” to which Foster responded “You don’t; you forget it. You just have to live and die [leaving them] with their stupid ideas.” Is Foster right that such traditional beliefs are so entrenched in believers’ minds that they cannot change?

13. Maher says that the traditional biography of Jesus parallels the lives of earlier mythological figures, such as Krishna, Mithra and Horace. Common elements include a virgin birth, baptism, temptation in a desert, healing the sick and blind, casting out demons, walking on water, raising a man from the dead, having 12 disciples, being crucified and resurrecting on the third day. In the director’s commentary, Maher and Charles note that this fact was the biggest shocker for viewers of the film. Assuming that these parallels are accurate, does this create a credibility problem for the traditional notion of Jesus?

14. At one point in the film Maher dresses up like a homeless man and starts preaching the doctrines of Scientology in a park. The people in the crowd think he’s crazy. What’s Maher’s larger point, and is it a valid criticism of religion?

15. Maher lists several Mormon doctrines that he believes defy credibility, such as that God is a physical man who lives on a planet and had sex with Mary, that righteous dark-skinned people can become light-skinned, celestial marriage (getting to rule over your own planet with your spouse after death), baptism of the dead, that temple underwear protects people, and that Jesus came to America in 400 A.D. to preach to the natives. Two ex-Mormons tell Maher that if you doubt Mormon teachings then you commit social suicide by losing family and friends. Is this an adequate explanation for why Mormons or similar religious people continue to believe what they do?

16. Rabbi Shmuel Strauss displays a series of gadgets that enable Orthodox Jews to keep the Sabbath, yet still perform some tasks such as dialing a phone or moving in an automated wheel chair. How, from Maher’s perspective, does this show the craziness of the orthodox religion?

17. In his interview with Jose Miranda, who claims to be the second coming of Jesus, Maher asks why God always speaks privately to prophets, rather than directly to the world at large. Is there a good answer to Maher’s question?

18. Maher interviews a Muslim women and Amsterdam about intolerance within Islam. She states that she doesn’t like the image that if Muslims don’t like what you say the kill you. Geert Wilders, a Dutch Parliament member, states that Islam is a violent religion that gives people the choice to either convert or be killed. In the DVD extras, Harold Bloom discusses the expansion of Islam in similar terms. Maher says that moderate Muslims commonly say that Islam is a religion of peace and that the more violent components of their tradition are all politics. How is any of this an indictment against Islam or religion in general?

19. Maher visits the Rude Man of Cerne Abbas, a chalk-covered trench on a hillside in the shape of a naked man that traces back at least 300 years. According to Mahar, its upkeep has been perpetuated by tradition, just as all religious beliefs are. How is this a criticism of religion?

20. Maher concludes stating the following: “The plain fact is that religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people, by irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken. Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, 'I'm willing Lord, I'll do whatever you want me to do.' Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas. And anyone who tells you that they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions, is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble and that is what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong. This is why rational people, anti-religionists must end their timidity, and come out of the closet, and assert themselves, and those who consider themselves only moderately religious, really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price. If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler -- a mafia wife -- with the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limbs into the future decimated by the effects of a religion inspired nuclear terrorism, lets remember what the real problem was: that we learned how to precipitate mass death, before we got pass the neurologist disorder of wishing for it. That's it. Grow up, or die.” Is Maher right about any of this?


Bill Maher’s “Religulous” starts out promising, but devolves into, I think, self-defeating claims. Bill Maher is attempting to show the incredulity of religion in this “documentary.” He and director Larry Charles start off well enough; by making light of many people’s rather unbelievable beliefs. But, they soon cross over into claims about religion and make these claims without doing proper justice to the argument. They find the craziest fundamentalists possible and show only, I’m sure, the craziest things those people said. However, they do not present the beliefs of the one or two rational religious people they do talk to. And the movie was incredibly funny, and I could overlook most of these things, and take it as mostly light-hearted documentary. However, they finish the film without statements that religion, in all its forms, will bring about the end of the world, and they do so at one point by showing the fear-mongering that many religions use to get people to behave and accept that religion’s beliefs. Yet, that is exactly what they are doing in the final 10 minutes of the movie with the apocalyptic music and the scary images of death and destruction alongside priests, believers, and other religious people. This, to me, kills the whole point. — T.E.

Religulous was a very well played movie. From what I understand, Bill Maher spent many years on this documentary on trying to interview and get specific accounts. I enjoyed how he made people really take into account what exactly they are trying to put faith in and how some ideas can be considered insane. Bill Maher started the movie off slow by giving specific details as to what he was trying to prove by this documentary. He went around to many places that held very interesting view points. I was very enthused to find out that he wasn't afraid to try to talk to very important people in the religious community of the world. He clearly wanted to express how he felt about the subject of religion and have a few misunderstandings cleared up. Bill Maher did happen to upset a great deal of people with how he was going about his understanding, but in the end it only makes these people want to question and study further into what exactly these people are putting so much stock in. There were a few people who actually knew what they were talking about or at least had some clue as to what Bill Maher was trying to achieve. I do have to admit that he might have taken certain situations during this documentary too far when it came to the point where someone he was interviewing would get confused and upset by his questions and statements. This movie really made me think about certain objects of religion that are never fully explained that should be studied further in depth and this was just the thing to make people realize how affecting religion can be on people. — D.H.

Religulous is a very thought provoking movie. The plot revolves around the famous comedian Bill Maher who asks the religious community of America to really think about why they believe what they believe. Maher talks about many philosophical and ethical questions when dealing with “fundamental” faith. Maher talks to a number of people dealing about these issues. He talks about biblical morality and asks a certain actor at a theme park why a good God would allow such evil in the world to exist. Maher also talks with a pastor about religious exploitation of the poor and so called prosperity preaching in light of what the scriptures say about how the “poor will inherit the Kingdom.” Maher talks with a truck stop ministry and a store clerk about the literacy of the bible discussing issues such as a big fish actually swallowing a man and an actual talking snake. Should this account be taken literally? Should we answer these tough questions by a religious text or by scientific reason? A certain catholic priest in the movie would say we should leave the bible and accept a more scientific approach. He demonstrated in the movie the large time gap between the biblical recordings and the birth of modern science, and therefore could not allow for the compatibility to faith and scientific reason. Why should we face 21st century questions and problems with the ideological mindset of first century religious writings? Finally, Maher asks us what we should do with these religious peoples. How do we deal with people who believe that a chaotic and violent world is the only conditions suitable for a coming Messiah? Maher asks us to stand up and inject a voice of reason. — A.V.

I found “Religulous” to be a great movie. This is a movie that showed the many different views people have about religion. Bill Maher is a wonderful spokesperson for those who fell the same way he does. He believes that those who preach religion are simply trying to “sell an invisible product.” I am a church going Christian and I am a firm believer in the Bible, but Maher makes some really good points in the movie. I have never thought about how we are told that Christianity is a monotheistic religion when we pray to God the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The conversations with the people at Tucker’s Chapel were very interesting. Some of these people did not know what they were talking about and were afraid to answer Bill’s questions. The one man who walked out did do the Christian thing and he turned the other cheek. He also brings up good moral points about the virgin birth. It was talked about in the Old Testament, but it really was not mentioned in the New Testament much. If this religion is based upon a miracle of this magnitude, then why would it not be present all over the Bible? I also found it interesting how Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda made everything in the Bible to fit him. He said that God sent two angels down to him to tell him that he was the prophet for the people to believe in and that the Bible spoke about him; and those who do not believe will parish. He was very self centered and ignorant. Overall I would recommend all peoples of all religions to watch the movie.— C.J.

I loved Religulous. It was a very honest view of the role of religion in today’s society. It showed the hypocrisy and dishonesty plaguing organized religion today. I have never had much respect for Bill Mahr but this movie really impressed me. He was very funny showing people how ridiculous their beliefs were. I especially loved when he did the compare and contrast scenario for instance, when he would ask if a person believed in Santa Clause and when they said no he would ask how they could believe in a divine birth from a virgin mother but not in a relatively human figure giving out presents once a year. Bill brought up a lot of good points in the film. I really liked when he did it right in front of the person he was questioning. Like the rock star preacher, he was pretty much saying that the preacher was a fraud to his face. He asked why the guy was claiming to be a man of God, whom would never condone such lavishness, when he was wearing thousand dollar suits. In response the pastor said that he was expected to dress flashy and that he got the suits at a discount. The film as a whole really just reinforced my beliefs that organized religion is bogus and corrupt. The things pointed out in the film are all things that I recognized myself at a young age and eventually led to my disillusionment. Good job Bill!!! — J.R.

I enjoyed Religulous very much and it made me think of certain parts of religion I had never before thought about. Like what the guys at the top of the totem pole of the different religions. When it came to Bill Maher talking to Reginald Foster I was very surprised by his attitude about Christianity and how most of it was none sense. I had believed that the people like the Pope and his close associates would be just as the all others I ve seen during my life have seemed. For example, in the Trucker’s Chapel how the men believed most of the stories in the Bible were actual events and not nice stories as Mr. Foster had called them. It seems to me that people have become almost brainwashed during their childhood and when they grow up they know only that they should believe what the bible says. They put their faith in it without question and do not realize how ridiculous they sound. Like how some of the people Bill Maher interviewed said that they believed that Jonah lived in a whale for 3 days. I also was surprised that even though the Pope himself said evolution is true, that some of the people such as the senator said the jury was still out or they man who owned that museum with the dinosaurs and humans living together because evolution was true seems and ridiculous. This is just Christianity, but all of the religions Bill Maher talks about seem to be just as ridiculous. — D.H.

Religulous was an entertaining movie. It was not all that thought-provoking to me, since I agreed with all of Bill Maher’s views, but I still enjoyed watching him interact with people. One of my favorite places in the film was the Creation Museum in Kentucky. I would love to go there and see the statue of the triceratops with a saddle on its back. The owner of the knick-knack store was a little “out there.” His claims to multiple miracles were laughable, especially the one involving his wish for rain. John Westcott (the reformed homosexual) had a few awkward moments with Bill Maher that were pretty funny. I felt sorry for Westcott because it was easy to tell that he was repressed in some way (probably his ever-present homosexuality). He seemed a little too forced and eager to pass judgment on other homosexuals. Jeremiah Cummings was hilarious and saddening at the same time. His expensive suits and shoes (and cars, and houses, and so on) blatantly display the amount of money he is racking in from believers. He was much like a rock star; people admire him so they throw money at him, he uses their money to buy more stuff and become more admirable, they throw more money at him. I thought Larry Charles did a great job directing. The movie had continuity even though the scenes changed drastically. Bill’s interview with his sister and mother were humorous as well. The end featured interviews with Muslims and commentary about the violence they have been associated with. I thought this should have been in the film even though it scared me more than the foolish Christians. — C.R.

Religulous: Let me just say I love Real Time with Bill Maher and if you haven’t watched it or never had the opportunity to listen to an atheist talk about religion then I doubt you are ready for this movie. So off the bat, you have to an open mind. This movie is for believers and nonbelievers alike and should be seen by whom ever to broaden their minds about contemporary religion. All the film is doing is questioning religions and faith, Maher also critizes both in the film. It is not only remarkable to see reliougous leaders stumble through the questions as they get harder and more in depth but also Maher’s utter disbelief in how other intelligent people, mind you not all fit that description in the film, believe in a power higher than their own. The film can get offensive to the faint at heart but you have to take it for what its worth: Bill Maher’s view of the system and politics of religion. YES, POLITICS. That’s the problem and that’s always been the problem and Maher points that out also. So take Religulous with a hint of salt or if you are really close-minded a pint of salt. — B.C.

Bill Maher is no stranger to controversy and Religulous is certainly controversial, if nothing else. Fortunately, it’s also incredibly funny; that is, if you’re not a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim etc. Maher lampoons some of the world’s most widely followed religions—save for Hindu and Buddhism—by Borat director Larry Charles’ favorite method: the ‘gotcha interview’. Most interviews consist of Maher asking logical questions of the follower’s respective holy books. This is intercut with video clips, subtitles and outright interruptions by Maher. All of this is completely unfair to the interview subject, and completely hilarious. Sure, Maher didn’t exactly pick academic theologians to debate, but his points are all valid. The people he interviewed believe many of the same things that those with higher IQs believe and have just as much evidence to support them: none. As an atheist, this is one of the few documentaries on the subject of religion (and critical of it) that I can watch. The others simply make me too upset. It’s not that Maher’s treatment of his guests is any better (it’s by far the worst), it’s just that it’s not serious. Watch The Root of All Evil, a similar but much more polite, cordial and fair documentary on religion by Richard Dawkins, and if you’re an atheist, agnostic or progressively minded you’ll become upset, upset to think that the people being interviewed represent such a large swath of humanity. Watch the same types of people in Religulous … and you’ll laugh. — J.B.

Religulous was a cleverly edited movie based on an ignorant if not evil idea. The movie starts out with Bill Mahr saying that man has learned to destroy the world before he learned to use reason. By destroying the world Mahr is talking about nuclear weapons. Hasn’t Mahr ever heard of Aristotle, Francis Bacon, or Galileo? I believe that what Mahr really means is that evidentialist, rationalist atheism hasn’t really become popular until the latter part of the 20th century. To Mahr atheism is the last hope of reason with faith and reason being incompatible. That is the thesis of the movie. I really don’t think this is true nor do I think Mahr did a very convincing job of proving his case in Religulous. It was irritating to see intolerance masquerading as objectivity in this movie. The entire premise for this movie is a fallacy of composition. Bill Mahr places on screen the worst examples of religion with the message being that all religious people are as intolerant and unintelligent as the people on screen. Imagine some white power nationalist group producing a movie with a similar premise. If a movie took the worst examples of minorities and made it seem that everyone who wasn’t white was unintelligent I doubt that such a movie would receive the positive reviews that Religulous did. I’m not saying a person can’t question or criticize religion. Mahr didn’t have an objective curiosity, he had an ax to grind. The entire premise of the movie was that humanity needs to turn away from religion and become atheist. Bill Mahr is to atheism what Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly are to conservatives. Their motives are entertainment and profit, not objectivity or education. — N.T.
Philosophy and Film - Return to Main Page