Let's face it: most documentaries these days don't bother to document anything in an objective, journalistic sense. We can thank Michael Moore for re-conceiving the documentary film as something akin to a sensationalistic, cinematic op-ed piece. If you have something you hate, or something you want to humiliate in as public a way as possible, make a documentary! And this is precisely what Bill Maher does in his new anti-religion film, Religulous.
Maher, who grew up Catholic (with a Jewish mother), loathes religion. This film doesn't make it clear why he hates it so, aside from some comments about how Catholicism "wasn't relevant" to his life as a child. But hate it he does. Religulous is Maher's attempt to sell the idea that religions are the most dangerous threat facing mankind, that "religion must die for mankind to live."
Maher spends the film traveling all over the world, along with Borat director Larry Charles and a small camera crew proficient in the art of "sabotage interview." The first half of the film is mostly focused on evangelical Christians, how they believe in things like a 5,000-year-old earth, etc. Maher takes a trip to the Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky, where he interviews creationism guru Ken Ham against the backdrop of animatronic dinosaurs with saddles (for humans to ride on). And he also interviews young-earth evangelical Mark Pryor, a democratic senator from Arkansas who creates some of the funniest moments of the film. To be fair, Maher also interviews Christian evolutionist Francis Collins, but he too comes out looking a bit buffoonish.
Ever the equal-opportunity atheist, Maher spends the second half of the film undermining religions and cults of every shape and size. He goes to Utah and skewers Mormonism, interviews Puerto Rican cult leader Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda (who claims to be the Antichrist), and even gets high with a leader of a religion based around marijuana. He goes to the Vatican and interviews some crazy Catholic priest, and Jerusalem to deconstruct Judaism and Islam. Maher is particularly hard on Islam, offering somewhat surprising pronouncements about the inherent violence and barbarism of that most touchy of all world religions. At moments like these, Maher might actually find allies in conservative Christian circles.
All along the journey, Maher and Charles jazz up the images with achingly sardonic voiceovers and music, and some very clever quick-cut editing (inserting 2 seconds of Charlton Heston-as-Moses at opportune moments, for example). It's stylishly presented, to be sure, but for all its panache, Religulous is ultimately a very predictable movie. It borrows from the usual suspects (Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock) in formatting the agitprop docu-comedy template for this particular crusade, and we can almost see the punchlines coming as a result.
What do you expect to happen when Maher stops at a truck-stop chapel in North Carolina to quiz long-haul truckers about biblical inconsistencies? What else but exploitative ridiculousness can result when Bill "religion is too easy" Maher spends a day in Florida's Holy Land Experience—where the Passion of the Christ is reenacted with cheap props while a Sandi Patty wannabe sings "Via Dolorosa"?
Honestly, it's not the hardest thing in the world to make a religion look silly when you only focus on the kitschiest, most grimace-inducing practitioners of it. Sure, we have to own up to these unfortunate (but fortunately fringe) elements within our ranks, but Maher shores up little credibility for his cause by refusing to talk with any opponent with an ounce of nuance of theological rigor.
He also loses credibility by sheer fact that he is Bill Maher—an ardently liberal, slightly greasy elitist with a penchant for condescension. Maher doesn't help break the "out of touch liberal" stereotype when he smokes pot on camera, for instance. And on Larry King Live in August, Maher exposed his amoral approach to life when he defended John Edwards' extramarital affair, saying, "people like new; you can't stop human nature." This "anything goes" view of adultery is doubtless not an opinion many people share with Maher.
Maher's biggest problem with this movie is not that it is reckless or condescending (which it is), but that it espouses a point of view that, quite simply, is not shared by many people in the world. Maher's ideology has no room for the miraculous or supernatural. Such things are all hocus pocus to him and cannot be believed by anyone with a brain. Faith of any kind (i.e., believing in something that can't be proved) "makes a virtue out of not thinking," according to Maher. Right there he loses about 98 percent of the world's population.
Still, Maher certainly isn't timid. He's about as aggressive as anyone can be in espousing an opinion. This becomes evident in the final five minutes of Religulous, when the tone of the film gets deadly serious and Maher presents his closing monologue. Here, he summarizes the argument: religions are dangerous because they make people think they know the answers, even when doubt is the only rational approach to life. Maher ends by calling on all anti-religionists (apparently he thinks there are huge numbers of them in hiding) to quit being timid and take up the cause of shutting down religion in the world. Otherwise, the religion-caused apocalypse will surely be imminent.
What nuance Maher had up till then is lost in this final segment of alarmist hysteria, which reminded me of LBJ's famous "Daisy Girl" ad during the 1964 presidential election. It's a cheap shot scare tactic—somewhere between An Inconvenient Truth and Future Shock—and it conveniently ignores certain facts about history, namely that religion has been the source of untold good in the world. Maher's thesis that all things evil and destructive are a result of religious delusion simply does not hold water historically. Countless atheistic regimes have bred violence and calamity in the world, totally outside of any religious motivation. Religion has far from a perfect record, but then again, nothing has a perfect record.
Religulous is best seen as a comedy (and there are many funny moments) and not as a serious or measured examination of anything. It's a movie meant to make religious people look stupid, to "prove" that religious belief and intelligence are mutually exclusive. If you are already prone to believe that, then this movie is for you. For everyone else, Religulous is a trifling and shoddy tirade that, ultimately, is not much of a threat.Discussion starters
- What do you think are Maher's best arguments against Christianity? How would you respond if he had asked you the question on camera?
- What do you think of Maher's assertion that religion and nationalism do not mix well?
- What would you say to Maher if you could offer him your best "sell" of Christianity, given the numerous objections and doubts he raised in the film?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Religulous is rated R, mainly for language. Maher uses the f-word frequently, among others. He also smokes marijuana on camera and jokes about other drug usage. This content makes the film inappropriate for most children, though older teens might benefit from discussing Maher's objections and arguments, similar to those they will likely hear in high school, college and beyond.
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