Documentary starring Bill Maher

by Tony Copple

I was challenged to watch this by my son James Copple, author of The Truth Seeker, which I have reviewed eleswhere in these pages. Religulous is a satire of religion in general, but with Christianity primarily under the telephoto lens, with a Roman Catholic filter. While "Life of Brian" was the Python's humourous exploit in this fertile territory, one felt that it wasn't attacking Christianity's basic truth. Religulous goes for the jugular, using elements in the Christian story to throw scorn on the whole concept. A talking snake! Get real!

Religious satire has been fair game for a long time, including inside the church. Denominations have satirized other denominations, though today more in friendship than a century ago. The best religious jokes will be found in pastor banter. Satire that casts doubt on the fundamentals of Christian belief has been a lot rarer, partly due to political correctness. As new generations of children receive no Christian knowledge from parents or schools, core concepts and beliefs accepted by many have been ridiculed by those who don't get it, and this in turn has some Christians questioning their faith. Bill Maher is one of these. Religious satire has become an effective force in the world of atheist activism. Among the convinced faithful, however it is largely water off a duck's back.

Religulous made me laugh out loud. Bill has a very quick wit and perfect timing and this is made even more telling by the excellent editing. I felt sorry for most of the good people he interviewed. None of them could have had any idea what was about to hit them. They had a fraction of a second to respond to his stiletto questions, while he had been honing his ideas for years after a Christian childhood. The moral of this dilemma is to take heed of 1 Peter 3:15 - "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." Near the start of the film, he interviews his mother. She (like mine and millions of others) has never questioned the faith of her fathers; just benefitted from it all her life. I am sure that God, if he exists, has a special place in his heart for those who believe without question.

Some of the trappings of cults on the periphery of Christianity (eg. Freemasons, Mormons, Scientologists) deserve all the criticism they receive. Religulous rightly exposes them, but then asks if some elements of Christianity are any more acceptable to a 'rational' mind. I didn't feel sorry for the weidos that he exploited. Some of them are nuts. Not really fair, Bill, to engage a nutcase in serious debate, since they tarnish the very small number of genuine, committed, down-to-earth believers who tried, and failed to respond to your earthly questions except with heavenly answers which you didn't understand.

The film ignores any depiction of well-presented, mainstream Christian worship. This is far the majority, and it meets the needs of thousands of millions of worshippers. He ignores the fact that agnostics and most atheists will attend church funerals, marriages, remembrance services, and receive genuine solace. In the world's hospitals, hospices, prisons, retirement homes, we see Christian counsellors, pastors and volunteers ministering to the needy and dying. Many make a Christian committment when in deep despair, and later credit it with turning their lives around. Christian relief organizations like Mission Aviation Fellowship, Samaritan's Purse, the Salvation Army, and Shaftsbury Young People exist because their founders and leaders today are continually inspired by Jesus Christ's teaching and his presence in their daily lives, with a huge amount of prayer being the common denominator. Like it or not, after 2000 years we are steeped in the mysticism of Christianity, and Jesus' influence on every aspect of the lives of believers and non-believers alike continues to affect their actions, decision-making and morality. The Chinese government allows massive growth in the official Christian Church because it sees benefits to the nation from the teachings of Chritianity, just as Constantine did in Roman times. Bill's push against Christian belief would have the ultimate aim of dismantling this. Is he seriously suggesting that taking away the hope that comes from faith would benefit the population?

Religulous does not explore what appears to be the human need for belief in (a) god or gods, apparent throughout history. It would seem that this is built into our DNA. In the Christian context it has expanded to offer believers meaning for their lives. The popular Alpha course has a slogan Explore the Meaning of Life. As a trainer for this course I have seen many come to a comforting understanding that we are here as part of a divine purpose. Atheism rejects meaning in life, substituting theories of pre-determination of all events like a huge sequence of dominoes tumbling, one after the other.

Christianity is like a corporation, but unlike most companies which seldom outlive a generation, it is growing fast after 2000 years. For its 2 billion+ believers, it allows them to make sense of their lives and of the world. It explains evil, and it delivers joy and hope. It provides a fascinating intellectual exercise that I can only describe as a huge jig saw puzzle which we can attempt to solve - but never will. There are pieces that we will never figure out in this lifetime. While this film concentrates on the negative fall out from religion, the benefits of Christianity to world society have been immense. So many great exploits - so many fine organizations - so many leaders - have been inspired by their faith in Jesus to accomplish so much. Along the way they will all relate a continual stream of miracles, large and small that they passionately believe to have been the hand of God providing them the means to accomplish what he has inspired them to attempt. William Wilberforce is one that everyone has heard of, recently brought to our screens in the movie Amazing Grace. In our time Mel Tari travels the world telling his amazing story. There are hundreds like him, telling anyone with ears to listen what they have experienced. The documentaries Transformations and Transformations II show how whole regions have been changed though the apparent activities of divine forces. It has been calculated that a medium sized church provides the equivalent of $60,000 a year to its community in social services (food banks, helping the poor and the sick, charitable giving, etc) which otherwise would be the responsibility of taxpayers. Take this away and the effects would bring our societies to their knees, probably in prayer (as people almost always pray to God when in trouble).

But is it true?

I am an ex-atheist, though taught Christianity as a child. Gradually it made less and less sense, and in my early twenties I abandoned it. In my forties I came back to it after years of tentative engagement, including reading "The Late, Great Planet Earth," where Hal Lindsey examines biblical prophecy. Despite the book's faults (looking back), I could not explain to myself, then or now, the fulfilment of prophecy without ascribing divine inspiration to the writers of the Bible. If this were true, and I ignored it, I could be making a huge mistake. I began rediscovering the trappings of Christianity. My journey back to the church culminated in a Christian experience on the turf of Queen's Park Rangers stadium, London, at a mass rally with Luis Palau on 19 June 1984. Luis presented the gospel from a practical point of view, without relying on emotional tricks, and this appealed to me, as an engineer with analytical tendencies. What had happened, and has continued to happen, is the daily sensing of the presence of God and his angels. To me this is real. I can't see the wind either, but I can feel it. Since then I have become an enthusiastic member of the body of Christ - the church - in concert with millions of others who have enjoyed similar conversions. We are joined in faith with the apostles and saints down the ages, sharing that continual communion with God who knows and loves each one of us. Of course, it is possible we are all mistaken, and Bill, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and their disciples have reasoned that all two billion of us are engaged in a huge conspiracy.

Darwin dealt a blow to God in the 1840s with his theory of evolution. For many scientists, it was the deathnell to their faith. What need was there now for a creator God? That was until the last 50 years when discoveries in astronomy and biology have spawned a new generation of believing scientists, some converted from their previous Darwin paradigms to total support for 'intelligent design.' This phrase means, for those who have come to accept it, that the chance of life forms being synthesized from primeval soup or any other naturally ocurring chemical chemical reactions is way less than negligible. The only hypothesis or explanation is the purposeful design in the minutest detail of extraordinarily complex systems, none of which could have come into being in a series of finite stepts, since without all their ingredients they cannot fulfil their function. In a relatively short time span called the Cambrian Exposion, many of today's species appeared on Earth, making the theory that we all have a common ancestor almost impossible to accept any more. The conditions for life are so narrow that we now know that throughout the vast majority of the universe, the elements in the stars exclude the basic building blocks for life. In fact, it is becoming increasingly likely that Earth is the only heavenly body with conditions suitable for life. Furthermore, Earth's location in a spiral arm in the Milky Way galaxy is the ideal spot from where the universe can be studied and explored. It would seem that the infinitely capable designer also wanted his supreme creatures - us humans - to be able gradually to fathom out the details of his created heavenly bodies. While postulating such a designer is not exactly the same as saying God exists, and has the characteristics described in the Bible, this is not a huge stretch. At any rate, once one accepts an intelligent designer, the concept of God becomes reasonable to hard nosed scientists, and certainly to the rest of us. This has galvanized the intelligent design versus Darwinism debate, and some of the world's leading scientists are now passionate believers in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Such a power to create surely has no problem with simple miracles, even a talking snake, and dare I add a virgin birth? If you are not convinced of these things by my bald statements, read The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel, from whom I have learned more science than throughout the rest of my 70 years. Once over the hurdle of whether God (the intelligent designer) exists, the rest of the puzzle slots into place relatively easily.

Maher's thesis is that Christianity and Judaism expect us to believe and accept things that defy the rational mind. Raised as a Catholic he takes issue with transubstantiation (wine becomes blood of Christ) but ignores the fact that Protestants don't believe that either. He throws scorn on the idea of a universe that began 6000 years ago, in common with the vast majority of perfectly sincere Christians who accept a scientific view of the development of the universe, though seeing God's hand in it all rather than random chemical reactions producing the infinitely complex reality.

In 48 BC, the Royal Library of Alexandria was burned down. Parts of it may have survived several hundred years before they too were destroyed. Only a tiny part of its huge volume of scrolls have survived, to be found by archeologists in modern times. But how tantalising is the scope of human knowledge then as revealed in these fragments from the past. It had contained the collected knowledge of the world, including scientific knowledge of scholars like Eratosthenes and Euclid. It was not until the 16th century that many aspects of our understanding of the universe reached the level that had been documented in the library. We had lost 1500 years of progress. The passing of knowledge down the generations has sustained or curtailed civilization, for the dark ages were a time when knowledge was not valued. The human race takes the instruction of children very seriously. In the ancient Jewish world children were taught the Torah by heart since scrolls were held only by the wealthiest. The Apostles passed on what they had seen and heard of Jesus to the early churches, verbally and in letters and finally in books which became the new testament. Some of these were witten by the Aposltes in their later years, clearly burdened with the responsibility of documenting their experience before they, as eye-witnesses, died. The Byzantium Civilization took on the task of copying the holy books in huge numbers so as to preserve the stories and wisdom. It has become each generation's sacred responsibility to pass down the good news (gospel) to future generations. The integrity of the Bible has been established by textural criticism - it has come down to us without alteration other than translation into modern text. The authenticity of much of the Old Testament was established by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. No-one would suggest that Plato's Republic, or the theorems of Pythagoras' geometry had not come down to us intact. Yet Bill Maher gives no credence to the huge volume of information passed down to us on Jesus and his teachings, at the cost of many human lives, and extraordinary diligence and effort by our forfathers. After 2000 years while the Bible has been revered as the most valuable thing history has to offer, the new generation of sceptics would throw it into the toilet. This is a travesty like burning the Library of Alexandria, and no less a threat of a darker age ahead.

Lest you are hoodwinked by Religulous to believe that the Bible is just a book of fantasy, recent archeological discoveries continue to confirm its accuracy. In an artice in August 2012, the Ottawa Citizen reported the finding of the exquisitely preserved head and torso of a figure that would have stood four metres tall in the historical Neo-Hittite city of Kunulua. It exemplifies a monumental sculptural tradition referenced in the Bible, including passages that describe the "graven images" created in the "kingdoms of the idols" north of ancient Israel. The researchers, headed by University of Toronto archeologist Tim Harrison, believe that it may represent "the physical manifestation" of the Old Testament account of the fall of "Calno" and the destruction of its monuments. The destruction of Calno-Kunulua was invoked by the prophet Isaiah as a warning to the Israelites that they should follow the will of God or face a similar eclipse of their civilization.

The very idea of a god who might wreak destruction is bothersome to atheists. The God of love that the Christians promote cannot be conceived as feasible by them if he would become a force to be feared. Indeed many Christians seem to have the idea that God's role is like some all-powerful protector against disaster, and they lose faith at the death of a child or similar disaster. Let us briefly examine this apparent contradiction. Should we fear God? To explain this I remind you that whatever camp you are in, you will know that the war of evil against good is continuous. Christians chararcterise this as God (good) vs the devil (evil). Christians believe that in this fight against evil, there will be collateral damage, and that God will help them through the bad times, sometimes even with miracles. The central element of the Christian faith is that those who have been tainted with evil (by the devil) can be redeemed through a combination of their sincere repentance, and atonement once for all by the death of perfection (Jesus). But what about those who do not repent or show remorse for their wrongdoings; those who remain in the devil's camp. Let's try a thought experiment here (Einstein style). Imagine you are God, creator of the universe, and of man, whom you love to distraction. Your prize: the acknowledgement and love of all men and women whom you made. Your greatest fear: the future of those who are unrepentant, refusing to acknowledge you as their source of life, or even that you exist. How can you reach them? You tried love, and it didn't register with them. Option 2 can only be fear, that faced with eternal punishment, they might yet repent. If the benefits of belief are so significant, then it is clear that unbelief will be significantly unpleasant (to say the least). In the war of good vs evil, the most dangerous situation is for those who have heard of God, have heard the desires of his heart, but still refuse to take that leap of faith. Those will surely risk the wrath of God, as an errant child risks the wrath of his father who has made their welfare his life's work. With God, who is unlimited, the extent of his wrath should indeed be a source of terror for us. Isaiah knew this, and warned kings and princes of the outcome if they continued to worship graven images. Today's graven images: greed, huge wealth, power. [End of thought experiment.]

Go back to 1800, and many of the things we accept today would have seemed even more the product of fantasy than healing miracles. Radio, anaesthetics, immunization, flight, motor cars come to mind. Is it really such a stretch to suggest that there is a spirit world? Stretch a little further, and maybe the tangible world is quite small compared with the spirit realm. The effects of angels as God's helpers, and an evil angel, Lucifer, and his hoards still in a rearguard action is a theory that fits our everyday experience of life.

Bill Maher and I agree on many things, and one of them is that we should all allow for an element of doubt. Faith + Doubt = Truth. If God's existence were scientifically proven, removing doubt, Faith would equal Truth, which cannot be, since Faith has no merit if Truth is known 100%. God, if he exists, takes his pleasure from seeing Faith in the hearts of some of the the humans he created. Christians take pleasure in giving God pleasure, because he created them. They take so much pleasure in this that it gives meaning to their lives, a fundamental need for most of us (as mentioned above), not apparently shared by orthodox atheists. A element of Doubt legitimizes Faith. Bill says at one point - "I am just trying to suggest that there is doubt about the truth of religion." I agree 100%

A book written 4000, or even 2000 years ago will describe events in the style of the times, trying to explain how things have come to their present reality. While Christians believe the Bible writers to have been divinely inspired, that doesn't exclude topical ideas and descritions that would raise eyebrows in later ages. Believers accept these things as the products of the times. Religulous latches on to such curiosities and presents them as evidence that the whole book is flawed. The wisdom of the Bible in the gospels, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job is timeless, yet the naysayers ignore this and focus on irrelevancies. There are no other writings to compare with the riches in the Bible, just as poignant today as when written thousands of years ago, many by men of little education. How is this explainable without the spiritual dimension?

I would like to have seen Maher interview Franklin Graham - but allowing Franklin the courtesy of preparing considered responses to his questions. The huge contribution that Samaritan's Purse has made in the relief of suffering can only be explained by acceptance of miraculous events. His love of, and actions to bring help to, downtrodden men and women, particularly in war theatres makes no sense outside of a Christian context. He has done exactly what Jesus would have done. Like his father before him, he is trusted by heads of state, military commanders, and the church at all levels. To suggest that his faith is based on misunderstandings and wishful thinking is to fail totally to appreciate the measure of the man. The single most compelling factor that turned Franklin from a sceptic and a rebel into a powerforce was seeing the prayers of others answered to perfect accuracy when all seemed lost. The hospital mission leaders would pray for exact amounts when there was a financial need that was beyond their own resources. It is related in his excellent autobiography Rebel with a Cause that on the day the money was needed, the exact amount would be received in the mail. Franklin learned from this that if the heart is true and the cause is just, miracles will make a mockery of the secular universe, and the impossible will become the norm. Divine intervention is not occasional; it is continual for those who first believed, then understood and now practise. Explanations of such events defy human experience and can only be seen as the work of an infinite power for good which is most prevalent when there is a need to turn hearts to God.

My friends in Christ are true. They are ready to help. They want to pray for me - many do so even though I don't ask for it, as I do for them. Seeing them is always a joy because they don't put themselves first and their own interests foremost. In any country I may visit, either physically, or virtually through the marvels of communications, I encounter these same virtues. They are known as the fruits of the Spirit, by Christians. You can count on them. Being married to a Christian is not only a great joy, but provides significantly higher odds of staying married. Christians call themselves 'The Church,' or 'The Body of Christ,' since the Holy Spirit lives within them and has lit up their lives.

In an enterprize as huge as the Christian church in all its many sided facets, there will be fanatics, false prophets, crazies. Bill Maher has done his research and brought many of them together in the film. But he has used the same scathing techniques on a few true souls such as Francis Collins, a giant in the world of biology. Collins' faith is based on trust and acceptance of the love of God. Maher has no faith, and lives without accepting anything he cannot prove. Maher should envy Collins, but cannot do so because of pride. I know which of the two I respect more.

- Tony Copple
Kanata, Ontario
July 2012


If even a single point I have made makes you want to dig deeper into these eternal mysteries, I recommend Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, who also uses no circular arguments. When you've read Mere Christianity, and belief is settling in, try The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel. Nicky Gumbel's Questions and Life, and Og Mandino's The Christ Commission should bring you even closer into the fold.

No one laughs at God in a hospital; no one laughs at God in a war - "Laughing With," Regina Spektor

Thought experiment #2. Let us "imagine" that God never existed, as suggested by John Lennon in the song of that name. I will list some of the elements of our lives today which would then be absent or significantly changed.

  1. No bringing of babies to be baptised and named
  2. No 'Christian' names
  3. No Bible stories for children
  4. No Sunday school
  5. No church schools (the backbone of education in many countries)
  6. No day of rest
  7. Saints Patrick, Bede, Aiden, Cuthbert, and Billy Graham were (are) all laughable dupes; and guilty of subversion
  8. Einstein was wrong about God
  9. No inspired church architecture - no churches
  10. No inspired church music
  11. No gospel music
  12. No guardian angels
  13. No OMG
  14. Noone to turn to when alone and in trouble, or one ones deathbed
  15. No visions or Christian dreams (the #1 way Muslims become Christians)
  16. No inspired art
  17. Movies like The Way lose all religious significance.
  18. El camino de Santiago - the pigrimage in Northern Spain was travelled pointlessly for 1000 years.
  19. Hundreds of Christian movies were based on a super-elaborate hoax
  20. No Christian literature, and no Bible
  21. No wish to please God by living pure lives as fathers and mothers
  22. Not the faintest concept of loving those who hate us
  23. No reason therefore not to react to every negative action by others
  24. In the absence of Christian goals, people are focussed on their personal selfish goals, ignoring the needs of others
  25. No compassion for those in lower social strata (eg., in India, total disregard for the needs of the Dalits - untouchables)
  26. No universal standard for morality. Replace it by whatever doesn't harm others
  27. No incentive to preserving the traditional family unit as the basis of our society
  28. Less incentive to protect marriage as between a man and a woman (though why else would there be men and women?)
  29. No rhyme nor reason for prayer, or lives of prayer
  30. No relief organizations, Salvation Army, hospices, welfare for homeless, prison ministry
  31. No concept of God as sovereign and important to countries (God save the Queen)
  32. No wonder at the heavenly creations
  33. No wonder at the way our bodies are put together
  34. No forgiveness for wrongdoing
  35. No religious traditions, eg Communion, Ramadan
  36. No Christmas, no Easter, no Thanksgiving
  37. The first will always be first, and the last will remain last
  38. Don't help, and certainly don't love your neighbour
  39. No incentive not to hate anyone or anything that crosses you
  40. No hope for the future (after death)
  41. No joy from unselfish and pure living unobserved and unremarked on by others
  42. No hope that when in trouble, divine assistance may become available
  43. No joy in serving (You gotta serve somebody, the devil or the Lord - Bob Dylan)
  44. No daily miracles - the many small ones that make life work
  45. No divine inspiration, for example as I write this.
  46. No chaplains in military services and ships, prisons, hospitals, commercial corporations (now bringing chaplains in to their organizations).
  47. No Christian funerals, or crosses on graves
  48. Never have that glorious knowledge and understanding in your heart that you have found the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  49. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic or massively evil
  50. The 10 martyred apostles who accepted death rather than compromise their belief were all stupid, as are the 5 who will die for their Christian faith today and every day.

The Truth Seeker
The Case for Christ - an antidote for Religulous
One mind
God not so dead - 2005
If I were the devil - Paul Harvey: 1965 predictions come true