Last post I promised a review of Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous. Sorry it’s taken so long, but I’ve been busy editing the final draft of my forthcoming book with Zondervan, The Myth of the Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion to Discover the Beauty of a Revolution (formerly entitled Revolting Beauty).
Maher weaves together autobiographical reflections, personal interviews, historical reflections and hilarious B-footage to produce a comical but hard hitting documentary that exposes the lunacy and danger of religion. Over all, I actually thought it worked. I, for one, was very entertained (which clearly was the central goal of Religulous).
I also have to say that I found myself in agreement with much of Maher’s commentary. While many Christians seem to feel the need to defend religion – at least the Christian religion – from the sort of criticism Maher raises, I think its imperative for followers of Jesus to side with these sorts of criticisms. For the undeniable truth is that religion – including the Christian religion — is often irrational and extremely dangerous.
Fortunately, the kingdom Jesus inaugurated has got nothing to do with religion. Indeed, Jesus’ main opposition came from the guardians of religion, and religion continues to be a main obstacle to the advancement of his kingdom. (For more on this, see my Repenting of Religion). If Maher’s documentary does anything to help people get free of religion, it’s done humanity and the kingdom a great service, in my opinion.
Having said this, there’s much to criticize in Maher’s documentary. I’ll offer one general and one specific criticism.
First, Religulous is utterly devoid of nuances and objectivity. Maher lumps all religion in the same silly and dangerous bucket while never bothering to tell his audience what he means by the term “religion.” One gets the impression that humanity can be divided up into two well defined groups: on the one side you have rational humane people who have no religious beliefs and who simply want to make the world a better place; on the other side you have irrational misanthropic people who have “religious” beliefs and who inhibit progress and threaten the world.
But surely Maher is aware that people without religious beliefs have done their fair share of stupid and evil things throughout history while people with religious beliefs have often been extremely rational and have done a lot of good in the world. And surely Maher is aware that there’s a world of difference between (say) a Buddhist monk who practices total non-violence and whose aspiration is to eventually escape the wheel of reincarnation and become nothing (nirvana) and (say) a Muslim extremist who slaughters innocent people by blowing himself up in a crowded market square so he can eternally enjoy sex with 72 virgins in heaven! Maher could have given his documentary a little more credibility had he nuanced his slam on religion a little and at least tipped his hat in the direction of fairness.
Along the same lines, Maher seems to equate “faith” and “religion.” If a person believes in God, Jesus, life after death or (it seems) anything beyond the physical world, they fall under his category of “religious” and are therefore ridiculous (= “religulous”). It’s at this point that I’m afraid Maher comes close to making himself look ridiculous, for he seems to be completely unaware of how much faith permeates his own life as well as this documentary.
To give just one illustration, Maher clearly believes that the Gospels are myth and that the Jesus story is largely a version of an ancient Egyptian myth about the god Horus. He may be right in believing this or he may be wrong (see below), but the point is that he is in fact exercising faith in advocating his position– as much as I or anyone else who believes the Jesus story is rooted in history. Whether Maher’s belief is more rational than mine must be decided on the basis of historical argumentation, but we both have to go beyond the evidence to arrive at our conclusion.
Even more importantly, we’re both staking our life on our faith convictions. The evidence cannot give either of us absolute certainty (historical evidence never can), but on the basis of my assessment of the evidence, I choose to live my life as though Jesus is Lord while Maher chooses to live as though he is not. This, folks, is faith.
In reality, it’s utterly impossible to live without faith. All of us have to act on beliefs we cannot be certain of. (Charles Pierce defined faith as that upon which we’re willing to act when acting counts). We get onto planes we aren’t certain will fly safely. We enter into marriages we aren’t certain will work. We invest in stocks we aren’t certain will rise. And we draw life-impacting conclusions about God, Jesus, the Bible and a host of other spiritual matters we aren’t certain are correct. Our conclusions about spiritual matters are in principle no different from our conclusions about planes, marriages and the stock market. If we’re rational, all our beliefs – “spiritual” and otherwise – are based on the evidence that is available to us as well as other relevant considerations. But all our conclusions – spiritual or otherwise — nevertheless go beyond evidence and other relevant considerations. They all involve and element of faith.
I suspect Maher can’t see that he exercises faith simply because he’s so convinced his beliefs are true. He thinks he’s simply “being rational” in believing the Gospels are myth and that the Jesus story is a variation of the Horus myth. But, quite frankly, this simply demonstrates his naiveté. Maher’s myopia is, in principle, no different from the myopia of Christian or Muslim fundamentalists who are so certain their views are true that they lack the capacity to see how intelligent and sincere people could honestly disagree with them.
This brings me to my second, more specific, criticism. Maher provides absolutely no evidence to support his remarkable claim that the Jesus story is a variation of the Horus myth. To his credit, Maher did interview Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome project, about the Gospels (the only educated “religious” person included in the documentary by the way). But Francis Collins is unfortunately an expert in biology, not biblical history. It’s hardly fair to call on him to give a robust defense of the historicity of the Gospels or refutation of the Horus-Jesus theory. (Yet, for all we know, he provided one that was edited out).
The truth is that there are many compelling reasons to conclude that the Gospels are substantially rooted in history, not legend or myth. Paul Eddy and I provide these reasons and argue against all the major Jesus-legend or Jesus-myth theories in The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007) and (in a much more popular format) in Lord or Legend? (Baker, 2007). Had Maher seriously interacted with this material his documentary would have been much more informative. But it also would have undermined the objective of the film, which was to entertain audiences by making all religion (including faith in Jesus) look silly and dangerous.
The same holds true for the claim that the Jesus story is a variation of the Horus myth. Maher simply asserts – without any evidence –a number of parallels between Jesus and Horus. For example, both were supposedly born to a virgin on December 25th and had wise men visit them as infants. And both supposedly had 12 disciples, walked on water, raised people from the dead and were themselves raised from the dead.
I can’t begin to get into this now – this blog is already too long. It’ll suffice to make three points.
* This theory is not new. It’s been around for more than 100 years. It was seriously entertained by some scholars of comparative religion at the turn of the twentieth century but then was almost completely abandoned because, on closer investigation, the alleged parallels simply don’t hold up. Indeed, many of the claims have no basis in fact whatsoever. (For more on this, go here and here.) Even many who argue that the Jesus story is mythic, such as Robert Price, dismiss the Jesus-Horus parallels as bogus. While Paul Eddy and I discuss and refute a number of alleged pagan parallels to the Jesus story in The Jesus Legend, we didn’t deem the alleged Horus parallels worth commenting on. For some inexplicable reason, however, this debunked theory seems to be getting a new lease on life on a popular level. It’s most recent resurgence is undoubtedly partly due to its inclusion in the film Zeitgeist which has been receiving a wide audience over the last two years.
* Aside from the alleged specific parallels, the very idea that first century Palestinian Jews would have or could have appropriated a pagan myth from Egypt is, frankly, ludicrous. As we demonstrate in The Jesus Legend, first century Palestinian Jews loathed pagan mythology. On top of this, the Gospel authors are not telling a story about something that happened “long long ago and far far away” – along the lines of all pagan myths. It’s rather a story about a contemporary human whose brother (James) was alive when the story is being told. It’s a story that takes place in very recent memory – when Herod is king, when Ciaphus is high priest, when Pilate is governor and when Joseph of Arimethea is a member of the Sanhedrin (equivalent to our Supreme Court). These and other household names are mentioned in the story, which itself puts the Gospel story in an entirely different category from the many myths that circulated in the ancient pagan world.
* Finally, I’ll once again mention that when the Gospels are subjected to the same critical criteria historians typically use to assess the veracity of ancient documents, the Gospels give us every reason to conclude that they are substantially historical. (I say “substantially” because historical evaluation alone cannot rule out the possibility of some legendary accrual.) Even if one could show that the Jesus story has certain parallels with ancient myths, this wouldn’t prove the Gospels are themselves myth. For just as reality sometimes imitates art, actual history sometimes imitates myth. Hence, the determination of whether any particular story is historical or mythic must be made on the basis of historical evidence alone.
In closing, while I was entertained by Religulous and while I agreed with its basic critique of religion, there was nothing in this documentary that did anything to unsettle my confidence in the Lordship of Jesus – not even a little.