Craig J. Hazen, Ph.D.
Graduate Program in Christian Apologetics
La Mirada, Ca
Comedy tastes change over time. I’m sure a water-squirting daisy on a
jacket lapel was a riot in its day. Knock-knock jokes kept me and my
friends pretty entertained in second grade. And I’m sure Henny Youngman
would not get the same laughs today if he were still alive doing stand up.
The new film Religulous starring comedian Bill Maher (HBO’s Real Time with Bill
Maher) and directed by Larry Charles (Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm) seemed to
fall pretty flat in the laughs department-like it was appealing to an audience
that may have been amused by it twenty years ago. I was struck by how
little laughter there was among those in the opening-weekend crowd. (In
terms of magnitude, I use the word “crowd” here in the sense of the “crowd” that
might attend a Joe Biden campaign rally.) Religulous was showing in the
smallest theater in the multiplex (not much bigger than the “truck-driver’s
chapel” that appeared in the film) and even then it was only about a third full.
It was pretty clear that the few folks attracted to the movie were already fans
of Bill Maher and his open hostility to all things religious. Why, then, so
little laughter from them? I think it’s obvious. Anyone who fits
that strange “I’m smarter than Blaise Pascal, John Milton, C.S. Lewis,
Maimonidies, and Averroes put together” mold has already had his laughs.
After all, anyone who is able to work a TV remote control has immediate and
never-ending access to some of the strangest displays of human religiosity
imaginable on global network broadcasts. Those who get affirmed in their
irreligion by watching such things have already tuned into the craziness many
times to reassure themselves that believers are some fully evolved species of
super kook. They do not need Bill Maher to replay it with a new
soundtrack. The movie audience seemed pretty bored-and rightly so.
They’d seen it all before on their own living room TVs.
Well, if it’s not very funny, then what does it have to offer? Nothing,
really, except a chance for Maher and Charles to make a fast buck (glad I got my
ticket for free). Maher is pitching this film as mavericky-telling the
truth about religion that everyone else is afraid to address. But
Religulous is nothing more than filthy, nudie, druggie, and obtusey. There
is little to laugh at and nothing to learn (except maybe that if you quit being
Religulous you get to act like Caligulous).
Christianity gets more than two thirds of the attention in the film. Were
there any thoughtful and penetrating objections to Christianity in the film?
No. Did they interview any thoughtful and accomplished Christian scholars.
No. The closest they came to this was an interview with renowned scientist
Dr. Francis Collins whose segment in the film made almost no sense indicating
that they had butchered it down to nubs in the editing room.
Maher does bring up two points that are argued on occasion by knowledgeable
opponents of Christianity. These are 1) that the New Testament was
produced generations after the events they record, and 2) that the basic story
of Jesus is simply a retelling of myths that predated him, myths that came out
of Mitharism and Egyptian religion.
The latter argument is itself a retelling of the myth re-popularlized by Dan
Brown in the The Da Vinci Code. Bill Maher and Dan Brown made the
inexcusable error of never actually consulting experts in these ancient
religions-or even doing a brief Google search. For instance, Prof. Gunter
Wagner has set forth the conclusion of the evidence attempting to link
Christianity with Mithraism. Writes Wagner, “Mithras does not belong to
the dying and rising gods, and no death and resurrection ritual has ever been
associated with this cult. Moreover, on account of the lateness of its spread,
there is no evidence of the Mithras cult influencing primitive Christianity.”
As for the idea that the New Testament was written much later than Christians
have traditionally believed, again, even a cursory study of the facts of the
case would be helpful to people like Maher who claim to have objections based on
evidence. It has been for many years the consensus of most modern
scholars-believers and skeptics alike-that the Gospels were written in the
latter half of the First Century AD The most common date ranges for the
authorship of these documents are 70-80 AD for Matthew, 60-70 for Mark, 70-80
for Luke, and 80-90 for John. Since Jesus departed earth around 30 AD,
these dates of authorship all fall into the generation that had first-hand
contact with the events recorded. Maher simply seems to buy the popular
mythologies and unquestioned assumptions that often pass for knowledge about
early Christian history.
If a careful examination of the evidence did not drive Bill Maher to his
conclusions about Christianity, then what did? Maher is wide open in the
movie about the religious environment of his childhood. He was raised in a
religiously schizophrenic home with a Roman Catholic mother and a Jewish
father. He attended mass and Catholic school until he was thirteen when
his family suddenly stopped. His mother said it was because she and her
husband were tired of feeling guilty about using birth control. It
wouldn’t be a stretch to propose a causal relationship between the way Maher’s
family treated Christianity like a semi-useful fiction and Bill’s adult
conclusion that Christianity is bunk. It reminds me of the great atheist
of last century, Bertrand Russell. We really don’t get much in the way of
substance when we read Russell’s famous book, Why I Am Not a Christian.
But we seem to get far greater insight about Russell’s rejection of Christianity
when we read his less famous autobiography. Like Maher, Russell’s
dysfunctional religious upbringing seems to be far weightier than any rational
argument in moving him to godlessness.
If there is one important lesson for Christians of all sorts to learn from this
movie it is this: we have got to start talking differently about “faith.”
Unfortunately, we have let the secular world and antagonists like Bill Maher
define the term for us. What they mean by “faith” is blind leaping.
That is what they think our commitment to Christ and the Christian view of the
world is all about. They think we have simply disengaged our minds and
leapt blindly into the religious abyss.
The biblical view of saving Christian faith has never had anything to do with
blind leaping. Jesus himself was fixed on the idea that we can know the
truth-and not just in some spiritual or mystical way. Rather, he taught
that we can know the truth about God, humans, and salvation objectively.
That is, the very best forms of investigation, evidence, and careful reasoning
will inevitably point to God and His great plans for us. The early church
learned well from the Master because they too were fixed on the idea that they
knew that Jesus was raised from the dead and that we could know it too.
The Apostles never made any room for interpreting their experiences of the risen
Christ in some mystical or fictional fashion. As the Apostle Peter put it,
“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power
and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2
What we mean by “faith” is not blind leaping that is oblivious to the evidence,
especially evidence to the contrary. Rather faith in it’s biblical context
is trust grounded in objective knowledge. Faith is trusting that which we
can know to be objectively true. I run a graduate program in Christian
Apologetics at Biola University in which we train students at the highest levels
to give compelling reasons for their faith. Maher did not knock on our
door. But unfortunately, I think many of the Christians he interviewed
would be surprised to learn that there is a robust knowledge tradition in
Christianity. I long for the day when a guy like Maher would never
consider making a film like this because it would be so difficult to find
Christians that he could hound and hoodwink.
Maher and Charles successfully put some of the goofiest strands of the Christian
movement on public display for cinematic ridicule. Great skill, intellect,
or cleverness, that did not require. The greater feat would be for the two
documentarians to jump out of their own shallow presuppositions and prejudices
to get a fresh look at what has made Christianity attractive to some of the
greatest minds in human history. But I think it’s a good bet that they
don’t have a sequel like that on the drawing board.