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From One Jerk to Another: An Open Letter to Bill Maher

by Dear Jon
September 9, 2009

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Dear Bill,

I am 24 hours behind deadline on submitting this article. The reason is that I have had house guests from overseas. The city I live in has a great library; in fact, it recently won an award. We who live here like to brag about our library. So I took my German guests to show them our library, and they were impressed. It was from the "Quick Flicks" section that I checked out your 2008 movie Religulous. We spent the evening watching it.

So now you know that I am a jerk already, because I have not contributed one thin dime to your personal advancement. I understand that. Believe me, having written a book that nobody is buying, the world out there is full of jerks. However, not having rented your movie or bought a ticket does not keep me from commenting about it and about you, since I did watch the whole thing.

First of all Bill-- and I'm going to call you Bill; you can call me Jon, but please not after 9 PM--you are a very funny man. You have a great delivery. I salute your comedic skills. You are an example to me of the kind of funny I try to be. A thinking white man's funny. You would actually do pretty well on the Blue Collar Tour, I think, especially if you were set up in a Cage Match with Larry the Cable Guy. (This is it boys! Last tractor standing wins the whole tank of diesel!) He is just as irreverent as you are, although some of your bits were over-the-top rude, and he might set you down and instruct you in some midwest manners. Which brings me to my second point:

Second, either everyone from New Jersey is just like you, or, you are a jerk. What was up with your interview with the two gay Muslims in Amsterdam? When you watched Mike Moore in Bowling for Columbine try to bait Charleton Heston into another stroke, did you think, "Wow! Now that's film-making! What can I do to make me look like an even bigger twit? I know! I'll go to the Netherlands and interview two gay Muslims who have no idea the English slang I am using to describe acts of sodomy! Har har! Who needs a film editor?" My hunch is that a lot of Jersey folks are embarrassed for you in that scene. I don't know though. I've only ever driven through New Jersey--on a bus. I do know that in the parts of the country I come from we are trained to be more polite.

Third, you are also lousy at logic. The bits where you were on with your one-liners were funny, but I was laughing harder at the parts where you were taking yourself seriously, like at the end, where you defeat your own premises. After a verbal tirade about the propensity of religious people to be arrogant in their certitude, you pontificate on the superiority of doubt as the source of "humility," and then you describe the scourge that religion has been on the world, leading to your prophecy that religious fervor will lead to violent world-ending conflagrations. "Grow up or die!" you say. Was the Rev. Jerry Falwell ever so arrogant in his tone of voice or ad hominem bombast?

Within that sermon on the virtues of anti-religion, you describe a parallel between religious movements and political parties. You state that if one belonged to a political party which was tied to the misogyny, homophobia, mass murder etc. of these religions, one would resign from the party in protest.

Oh really? What about the last hundred years gives you such faith in the wisdom of human beings to resign their political affiliations over such issues as genocide, for example? Count the number of born again evangelicals or Sufis or Tantric monks who worked for Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. How many can you find? You're a journalist, why don't you work on that project for your sequel. Along the way you can ask yourself another profound question: What was the connection of National Socialism to the very Bible you so roundly criticize? In fact the bloodiest wars and scourges have been precipiated and perpetrated by gangsters who threw the Bible out in order to co-opt a more "scientific" approach to religion and philosophy on the one hand, and who called religion the "opiate of the masses" on the left hand.

In the mean-time, more Christians have died as martyrs in the last 120 years than in all the previous centuries of Christendom combined. You were showing the pomp and hypocrisy of the Vatican and of health-and-wealth preachers. What about those women who were, golly Moses, so utterly INSANE that they went to remote parts of Ecuador to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the very same tribe that had murdered all their husbands? I guess there was no time to work in that story.

Ooh, ooh. Sequel idea! Religulous 2: Roast the Martyrs, a hilarious look at people who don't murder for their faith, they only die for it. In the preview there is a byte from Bill Maher interviewing an aging chief of a remote band on Papau New Guinnea. "So, do you serve missionaries with ranch dressing? ... Look over here." (Pan to a door post lined with shrunken heads.) "To think a born again Christian's cranium could have gotten any smaller. Har har." (He and the chief laugh together. The chief has a blank look, because his total English vocabulary is about 45 words.)

Fourth, it strikes me that you must have attended the Dan Brown School of fact-checking. You demolish the idea that a scientific understanding of the universe can be organically discovered from within the scriptures, and you film a Catholic priest to strengthen your case. You have ignored that premise, however, when it comes to journalism. You expect all four authors of the gospel to do what you would do as a modern journalist, which is in your mind, include the detail about the virgin birth. But they were not modern journalists. Two gospels describe it as you point out, two others do not because those two gospels do not include a birth narrative at all. If the gospel writers had cheap paper and endless supplies of writing utensils, who knows, maybe you would have gotten something that meets your standard. But instead they had their resources and they had their own purposes, and is it not interesting that every single one of them DID include those bits about appearing before Pilate, dying on a cross, and what was that other thing? Oh yeah, rising from the dead.

You want them to be writing newspapers because you have filmed this movie with no understanding of the thought-world of the ancient mind. Reproducing the story of Horus does not mean you understand the ancient mind and its sophistication, nor do you understand how that thought-world translated into rules for rhetoric and presentation that are vastly different from the snide cheap-shot approach on which you and I thrive. In all your interviews you did not make room for a single exegetical Biblical scholar. Was Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright too busy for you? He made time for ABC.

As an aside: Your best bits were with the people who were as smart as you. Your worst bit was with the person who was smarter than you; the genome scientist. The humility you allege you possess and preach about at the end of the movie would have served you well in that clip.

Fifth, you ask the question throughout the movie: "What if you're wrong?" This question was posed by Medieval apologists for the faith of the church about a thousand years ago. They followed an Aristotelian logic. I will now paraphrase a man I believe is named "Anselm" but I'm not sure and I don't look anything up:

If am right in trusting the evidence of several hundred eye-witnesses who established the legacy of the faith by risking themselves and dying for it, I live in a way that brings a healthy contribution to my community and world, and then I die and go to heaven. If I am wrong, I have lived with peace in my heart and made a healthy contribution according to a faith that proved naive in the end. Is that so bad?

The one who lives in the conviction that faith is a sham, who is proved right, has lived a life empty of conviction, filled with doubt, and certain only that all things are random, and then dies. That person is right, but of course nobody cares. However if that person is wrong, that person dies and discovers the truth on the other side.

Sixth, You ask, how does a loving God send people to Hell? That question has been  answered in many ways. If you want to engage that question seriously read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. It is not a long book, but I doubt you will read it, because even if you come upon this article and got this far, I don't think you really want to know the answers that are available. You wear doubt like the Pope wears a robe. You lose that, you lose your schtick, right? And what's a thinking white man's comic without a schtick?

In short, Bill, your movie was hilarious. Really. You have no idea how much.


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