COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Jesus and Religulous
Not long ago, Bill Maher, controversial HBO talk show host, did a documentary called "Religulous" which mocked religion in general and Christianity in specific. Maher attacks Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, Judaism and other religions, but seems to spend the most time on Christianity. The section on Christianity is an attempt to prove that the entire religion was borrowed from other existing cults and faiths, and was little more than a cheap knock off with stupid ideas. Here's a sample:
Maher's main points about Christianity are as follows:
- Jesus Christ was fake and undocumented
- The main elements of the life of this mythical Jesus were borrowed from other faiths
- the founders of Christianity knew it but built up this religion as a cult to make money and get power
- Christians are anti-scientific and believe idiotic things about evolution
For example, Maher claims that themes of the life of Jesus such as the virgin birth, walking on water, and death on a cross were all borrowed from previous existing religious figures, particularly Horus, Dionysus, and Mithra
Religulous was the best-selling documentary-type film of 2008 and has made over $13,000,000 so far worldwide and only cost about $2.5 million to produce. It is successful and has been widely lauded by various groups, including an award from the Independent Investigative Group for "the promotion of science and critical thinking in popular media."
So what about Maher's claims, do they have any validity? Is Christianity a ridiculous fiction copying elements of other religions, following a mythical figure in a religion created by hucksters for wealth and power?
Um... no. Not even slightly.
Usually in these posts I can find a measure of truth, of distortions or omissions rather than just falsehood but Maher's film is just trash when it comes to these claims. Calling this film a documentary is like calling Dumb and Dumber a textbook on military tactics. Its almost entirely invention and falsehood, at least when it comes to Christianity. Maher's work was almost entirely fiction, and easily disproven fiction. Even Cracked ripped this film's claims to shreds.
Bill Maher chose his experts to support his attack on Christianity from the same pool of experts he picked to mock in religious fundamentalism. His primary source for the Egyptian god Horus was a book by Gerald Massey written in 1907 called Ancient Egypt, the Light of the World. Maher repeats the claims in this century-old text without question.
Horus was born of a virgin, and the Jesus story was stolen from that, Maher says. Horus was the son of a god (Osiris), he points out. Maher claims that Horus was baptized in a river by Anup the Baptizer, a man later beheaded. Horus was later tempted in the desert like Jesus, Maher claims. Horus walked on water, healed people, and raised the dead, Maher claims... to the point of claiming the man raised was "Asar" which translates into "Lazarus." And for the clincher, Horus had 12 disciples, according to this book. Amazing!
Except... there's no living Egyptologist who supports these claims. William Gasque is a scholar from England who holds a Ph.D. from Manchester University (UK). He's a graduate of Harvard University’s Institute for Educational Leadership (1993), and is is President of the Pacific Association for Theological Studies. He reached out to ten Egyptologists and experts in Egypt's history and legends and every one of them categorically and resoundingly refuted all of the claims Maher gives... except for Horus being the son of Osiris. Literally nothing else Maher claims, none of the stuff from the 1907 book except that one piece is accurate or true. Massey apparently just made all that up.
Baptism wasn't even a think in Egypt until Christianity reached it, and there's zero record anywhere of either the Asar or Anup the Baptist stories. No disciples, no walking on water, no raised from the dead, none of it. Saying Horus was like Jesus because he was the son of a god is like saying Hercules or Thor is.
Mithra was a Persian God which the Roman centurions picked up as a sort of club religion. The religion was largely made up of secret rituals and focused on war and combat. Maher claims that Mithra was born on December 25, performed miracles, and died then was raised again on the third day. He claims that Mithra was known as the "Lamb," the "truth," and the "way," the "savior," and the "messiah." Maher claims Mithra (along with others such as Krishna) were born of a virgin as well.
Except... Almost none of that was true either. Yes, Mithra was born on the 25th, but almost no Christian alive thinks Jesus was actually born that day, we celebrate it that day, like "president's day" in America is a holiday we celebrate the birth of presidents in the past. We don't really think Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and so no were all born on February 17th this year. Jesus was born in the spring at some point, you can read about it in my essay on the King Star.
Mithra was born of a rock, not a virgin girl. Technically you could say that the rock was a virgin, but it doesn't really have the same meaning, does it? Krishna was born of seven different mothers (not virgins). Mithra was never raised from the dead, not three days later, not ever. In fact, none of the similarities Maher lists between Jesus and Mithra were even mentioned until two centuries after the death of Christ, which strongly suggests that it was not Jesus borrowing from Mithra stories at all, rather than opposite.
As for the historical Jesus, there's massive evidence confirming His existence, and no rational, credible historian on earth questions that fact. Its just not up to debate, there's more contemporary support for Jesus' life and existence than for Julius Caesar. And that leaves out four historically confirmed biographies of the man - the four gospels.
Basically, Maher's entire case is trash, he fails in almost every single academic and scholarly category in his attempt to portray Christianity as a fiction created on the basis of previous religions. Why? I can only speculate, but my guess is he took a comparative religion course and talked to atheist buddies, and rather than doing any real research just assumed it was all true. The term for this is "confirmation bias" and we all fall prey to it. If something claims what we figure is true, we tend not to question or doubt it.
I've fallen prey to this effect in the past. But then, I'm not making a multi million dollar film claiming to be a documentary, either.
Like most "documentaries" of this type, the bulk of the film is made up of carefully edited portions of interviews by Maher, followed by snarky reflections on the clips. Bill Maher went and picked what he considered the most ridiculous representatives of fundamentalist portions of each religion and asked them questions, then used select portions of the responses which would be what he believed would be the most comical.
Bill Maher is an entertainer and comedian, and he tries to make the film funny. For someone who is predisposed to hate religion and mock the faithful, it probably works, but overall it misses the boat quite a bit because of Maher's tactics. Instead of taking the time to find intelligent and informed people to talk to honestly and attempt to triumph, he picks people he believes he can make fun of and while they are giving him simple answers on the good faith that he's genuinely curious, he turns that around into making them seem simplistic.
For example, Ken Ham does a very good job defending his ideas on evolution, dinosaurs, and creation, but it takes a long time to develop and make his case. Generally speaking I disagree with Ham's ideas, but he's not a simplistic buffoon (even if he looks the part). But developing radical or unusual ideas takes time and effort to explain properly, which doesn't play well in a documentary format - at least, not ideas of one's targets.
Bill Maher approached each of the people he was interviewing claiming he was working on a piece called A Spiritual Journey and was genuinely curious about each faith. Obviously, that wasn't the case. He was doing a hatchet job on ideological enemies. Maher is one of those atheists who doesn't just reject the idea of god, but claims that idea, and religion its self, is the source of all evil and horror in the world, and that religion its self is evil.
That's not to say Maher has no good points, even if delivered with snark and crudity. There are real problems with religion in the world, and much evil has been done in the name of one religion or another. Organized religion has problems in terms of its authenticity and faithfulness to its beliefs, particularly mainstream Christianity in America. Too many people who claim Christianity know little about its theology or even the Bible its self.
There is much to mock about Christianity as it is practiced - South Park in particular did a brutally good job making fun of the "contemporary Christian music" scene in the episode Christian Rock Hard.
Maher's problem is that he seems unable to do what the South Park guys do: make a consistently funny, wicked satire attacking a problem within Christianity. Maher sees Christianity and religion as inherently evil and wrong; the South Park guys see problems in how its practiced.
If I were to approach atheism the way Maher does religion, I'd spend a film pointing out the bitter hateful attitude of men like Maher toward religion, the incredible amount of murder and horror committed in the name of atheism (the 20th century's greatest horrors under Communism and Fascism) and so on. That doesn't mean atheism or atheists are particularly evil, but it would be easy enough to portray them as such.
Evil deeds carried out in the name of a movement does not necessarily condemn that movement. For example, men hacking the heads off of captives in the name of Allah is actually and directly condemned by Muhammad in the Koran. Forcing conversions by swordpoint in the crusades is condemned and prohibited directly by Jesus in the Bible. Evil deeds by people claiming a movement are almost always just those men being evil, not evidence of evil in the entire movement.
And since Maher was unable to even present a condemnation of Christianity without absurd distortions, misleading and deliberately fraudulent cutting and editing, and replaced with with snark, the entire film ultimately falls flat.
Incidentally, the Cracked article does a pretty good job ripping apart other "documentaries" such as Supersize Me (although they left off the fact that the man in that movie went off a diet to make the film and magically gained weight). Its hit and miss, for example their attack on Waiting for Superman seems especially weak, and they didn't even bother mentioning Gasland or anything by Michael Moore.
Just.. caveat emptor when you watch a documentary, especially one which is obviously someone's axe they're trying to grind. The best documentaries are not about someone's passionately held cause but one that's simply curious and examining a topic carefully.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.