‘Religulous’: Bill Maher’s hilarious Church of Doubt

October 4, 2008



I happened to see “Religulous” on a day when there were other screenings later in the day – and so I overheard a couple of other critics at a later screening, when one mentioned that he’d seen “Religulous” that morning.


Asked how it was, he sniffed, “Shooting fish in a barrel.”


To which I wanted to say, “More like sharks, when you’re in the barrel with them.”


This nonfiction film was directed by Larry “Borat” Charles and stars comedian/commentator Bill Maher. Put it this way: Given the nature of fundamentalist fanatics and their intolerance with dissent from their hard-line beliefs, Maher should think about investing in Kevlar – now.


Because “Religulous” is at once the funniest – and most incendiary – film since “Fahrenheit 9/11.” While the far right – the Fox right, the religious right – will characterize the film as an attack on religion and people of faith (which, to be fair, it is), it is really a different animal.


As Maher makes clear in the film’s breathtakingly provocative finale, this film is an attack on certainty: on the notion that anyone has a corner on the truth about what God – whether it’s a Christian, Jewish, Mormon or Muslim deity – thinks about anything. Homosexuality, abortion, evolution, jihad: Think of a hot-button issue and Maher is there, giving a hotfoot to the idea that some lowly human has an inside track to divine understanding.


This is personal for Maher, who doesn’t merely crack wise (though his asides have the sting of a picador’s lance, causing his interview subjects to blink in startled disbelief, even as Maher pushes on to the next question). He does something more dangerous: He questions. 


More important, he doesn’t merely ask questions: He’s like an attorney who has prepared for an expert witness, learning the material as well as witness and finding the weak seams in an argument. It’s not about setting traps (although he’s not above that); rather, one gets the feeling that he’s simply looking for an honest person of faith, willing to admit that, in fact, this stuff doesn’t make sense rationally – but that’s the nature of faith.


What he’s picking at are inconsistencies – such as the notion that Jesus is against homosexuality. (Maher points out that the proscriptions against homosexuality are in the Old Testament and go unmentioned in the New Testament.) Again, it’s that notion of certainty that the Bible is God’s word and is meant to be taken literally – when, as he points out, the Bible wasn’t written by eyewitnesses – that he’s trying to get at.


Over and over, however, the clerics he talks to take the wrong fork, offering answers on the level of that bumper-sticker: “God said it, I believe it – and that settles it!” And they say it with such self-assurance that Maher can’t help deflating them with a well-placed pin.


Obviously, Maher’s reputation precedes him, which may account for some of that “fish in a barrel” response. After all, the Pat Robertsons, Oral Roberts and Billy Grahams of this world aren’t going to sit down for an interview with a well-known skeptic like Maher. For that matter, he was thrown out of the Vatican (while wondering aloud whether Jesus would really require his messengers to live in the palatial grandeur that the pope commands).


But there are plenty of people who are willing to meet with him, whether out of ignorance, hubris or both. He lands an interview with U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and sits down with a Florida minister who claims the ability to help gay parishioners renounce homosexuality, as he has done. “So you were homosexual and your wife used to be a lesbian,” Maher says, adding Groucho-style, “I guess the jury’s still out on your kids.”


He visits a Holy Land theme park in Florida, where actors daily perform a version of the Passion Play, speaks to the director of the Creation Museum (which has animatronic dinosaurs coexisting with Adam and Eve) and meets an anti-Zionist rabbi (as well as visiting the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and chatting with an imam whose cell ringtone is Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”).


Maher has an acute eye for the absurd and an irrepressible iconoclastic impulse. His deadpan mode apparently softens the surgical sharpness of his off-handed zingers.


But you also get the feeling that this is personal for Maher, who delves into his own family history. His mother was Jewish but his father was Catholic, so he was raised in the church until he was old enough to say, “No way.” As he notes, his decision to abandon church-going came at the same time as his father’s choice not to take the family every week. Maher sits down with his elderly mother, who tells him they stopped attending church because they were using birth control and his father was angry about hearing the practice vilified from the pulpit every Sunday.


Is this film anti-religion? The short answer is: Yes. The long answer: Yes, but only if you believe that the Bible is the literal truth, that TV preachers are actually being given stage directions by the Creator himself and that faith means never having to say, “Hey, wait a minute…”


If, on the other hand, you find it scary that a president would actually say out loud that God told him to run for president, then “Religulous” will hit you like a blast of fresh air, blowing away the smoke (and mirrors) that too much of organized religion seems to rely on.


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