Synopsis: In this new comedy from director Larry Charles (Borat, Seinfeld), comedian and TV host Bill Maher (Real Time with Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect) takes a pilgrimage across the globe on a mind opening journey into the ultimate taboo: questioning religion. Meeting the high and low from different religions, Maher simply asks questions, like “Why is faith good?” “Why doesn’t an all-powerful God speak to us directly?” and “How can otherwise rational people believe in a talking snake?” For anyone who’s even a little spiritually curious, this divine entertainment will deepen your faith… in comedy!

Religulous 7.75

eyelights: Maher’s bold, totally reasonable, queries.
eyesores: Maher’s rude comments to interview subjects.

Bill Maher: “If Santa Claus can hit every house in the world in one night…”
Steve Burg: “No, I don’t believe in Santa Claus.”
Bill Maher: “Of course not. That’s ridiculous. That’s one man flying all around the world and dropping presents down a chimney. That’s ridiculous. One man hearing everybody murmur to him at the same time… that I get.”

“Religulous”? Look, I understand the play on words that the filmmakers were trying to make. I do. It’s just that it doesn’t jive with me at all. To me, a play on words has to be just one step away from its source for it to make any sense at all. But “Religulous” is two steps away: close enough to understand the roots, but too far removed to make a clear connection.

It doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed this… uh.. pilgrimage. (You can’t really call it a documentary or a comedy in the proper sense – it’s strictly a series of confrontational interviews with a variety of people of faith and/or who have studied faith.)

Bill Maher was raised a Christian in a mixed (Christian and Jewish) household. The first part of the film is an exchange between him and his sister and his mother, discussing their family history and the roots of his now firmly ingrained Atheism. It’s pleasant, but not that enlightening, really.

It’s after that quaint visit that Maher stops being nice: for the next 50+ minutes, he tears into Christianity like a man possessed.

First he goes to a Truckers Church, which appears to be set up in the back of a cargo truck of some sort (it’s hard to say, as we never see it from the outside). He questions faith in this exchange with a bunch of weathered, cross-armed truckers and it inevitably goes sour at one point, with one trucker walking out, upset. Still Maher manages to settle things down by the end, assisted by an ex-Satanist who leads the group in prayer. (Yes, you read right.)

Then he visits with a former pop singer who has since become a pastor. This one was the prototypical example of the money-centred evangelist who claims that being rich isn’t conflictual, that his faith in God is what has brought him fortune and that wearing expensive attire is what people wish for him. You could see Maher’s incredulity the whole way through and he tore into this guy without remorse. And rightly so.

He also explored the matter of Christianity versus homosexuality – a polarizing issue to say the least. One of the major interviews was with an ex-gay man who married an ex-lesbian and who started a Church that preaches that homosexuality is a choice and that only God will save them. This one became tense because of Maher’s tendency to be brutal in his questioning – something which the interviewee was not appreciative of at all.

Speaking of exes, he also visited with a former Jew who has changed faith and now believes in Jesus Christ. This bit was less inspired, but later in the programme, while exploring Judaism, Maher visited with a Rabbi who met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad. This exchange was so intensely one-sided that Maher actually gave up (he probably couldn’t take having someone bowling him over like he usually does to others himself).

He also interviews a democratic senator to address the issue of faith in political decision-making. Maher firmly believes that anyone who would make faith-based decision, as opposed to logic-based ones, is basically unfit to lead or govern, and he did his best to stump the Senator. It worked many times, and the Senator even conceded on a few of Maher points, going so far as to say that it doesn’t take a genius to make it in the Senate.

We then visited a Creationist museum, something which was peculiar because it features animatronic dinosaurs and human beings in the same settings. The owner/manager/whatever had his reasons for mixing everything together (something to do with God creating everything in seven days, I think) and that was a challenging dialogue at times. My big question in all of this was: who paid for such fancy dinosaurs and other gadgets? Heck… government-funded National museums can’t even afford that!

Having been kicked out of the Vatican, Maher then spent quite some time outside of it with Father Reginald Foster, a Senior Vatican Priest. This was unusual because Foster seemed to agree with Maher more than disagree. In fact, he openly stated that he wouldn’t want to live at the Vatican if he were “the boss”. To him, pomposity clashed completely with Jesus’ message. I was quite surprised and taken by this insider with an outsider view. I wonder if the interview caused him any grief since.

We finished off our tour of Christianity at The Holy Land Experience, a touristy recreation of biblical times. Including gift shops (because the Holy Land no doubt had tons of them. Didn’t Jesus have a fit because of all the gift shops in Jerusalem? Oh right… those were temples). Anyway, Maher interviews the man who incarnates Jesus in the recreation of the crucifixion, and he was exceptional at countering Maher’s points – to the extent that he was stumped momentarily. Nice.

Then, for the last 35 minutes of the programme, we zoomed through a few other faiths.

Maher didn’t give much time to Scientology for some reason, but he did start this segment with it – by bellowing Scientology beliefs in London’s Hyde Park amongst the other colourful characters. This reminded me of the sequence in ‘Life of Brian’ when Brian tumbles in with the so-called prophets and finds himself forced to make a speech. Anyway, as tired as it is, this brief moment on Scientology featured clips of Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Of course.

I think that the seemingly craziest religion to be discussed was Mormonism. Honestly, I’ve know TONS of Mormons in my life and I don’t recall any of the bizarre beliefs that Maher brought up. In fact, they took me so by surprise that I can’t recall any of the ones he brought up; it all felt like a joke to me, like tabloid fodder. But he had (musician and ex-Mormon) Tal Bachman discuss some of the weirdness, like its racist roots, …etc. Strange. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was an unspoken agenda or bias here.

He also discussed Islam a little bit more than the others – no doubt because of the concerns raised since 2001. Maher interviewed a wide range of Muslims, from politicians to religious leaders, and was consistently told that Islam is misunderstood, that it is peaceful, …etc. As can be expected, he concluded that he simply couldn’t get any of them to confess to an outsider. I really hope that he was just trying to be funny. Otherwise, that’s just paranoid and bigoted.

He also discusses faith with Andrew Newberg, MD, a neurotheologist who claims that there is a notable difference in the brain activity of people when they pray (or some such thing). This leads to him pondering where the line can be drawn between belief and madness. At this point, we meet a man who claims to be the second coming of Christ. Of course, the line is sort of blurred because he doesn’t claim to be Christ – he’s just his second coming. He seemed very convinced and sober, but he could easily be as nutty as a ten-pound Christmas fruitcake.

Maher closes the film by returning to Megiddo, where he did his intro, which is the site of the end of times. He then proceed to rant that religion is going to destroy us all, that we need to have leaders who are rational so as to make intelligent decisions and policy, and that atheists should organize and become more vocal in order to oppose the masses of religious zealots who have taken control of key positions around the world.

It was all very subjective and not exactly a solid closing argument. It came from the gut – the exact problem with faith-based arguments, and the very thing that Maher criticized all along. Ironically, one of his chief arguments during this spiel was that doubt is humble. And yet Maher is anything but. Sigh.

‘Religulous’ was most certainly an interesting, entertaining, picture – but it was hardly an objective discussion or debate. If anything, if was edited together in a polemic, Michael Moore fashion – fun, but light on actual fact. It was also filled with great clips and songs, which made it all the more enjoyable (how could they afford all of this prime material, I wonder?).

My key complaint about it all, is that, while scepticism was to be expected, Maher was extremely cynical and sarcastic throughout. Perhaps that was the point and likely a lot of people liked that angle, but I would have preferred a more mature discussion than constant refuting and bashing. I mean, Maher even went so far as to insult his guests. Granted, the mockery could be funny at times, but it was plain rude.

And arrogant. It was hardly the mark of someone humble.


Date of viewing: November 4, 2012

One response to “Religulous

  1. Pingback: Bill Maher: The Decider | thecriticaleye·

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