Bill Maher is a comedian disguised as a pundit. However strong his political and religious views, he is essentially an entertainer. Despite what you may have heard, he has made, with the help of director Larry Charles, a comedy, not a documentary. The only difference between his 2008 film “Religulous” and a traditional comedy is that instead of fictional characters, his stars real people.
Maher is an agnostic. Unlike true-believers, he doesn’t know whether or not there is a God, if anything in the Bible actually happened as fact, or what happens to you when you die. He’s filled with doubt and tons of questions. Most importantly, he cannot understand how otherwise logical and rational people can firmly believe in, what seems to him, supernatural, fairy-tale nonsense. So he sets off on a road trip to interview people of faith and ministers of faith to find out why. And maybe also to make fun of them a little bit. Okay, a lot.
His journey takes him from a trucker’s chapel in North Carolina to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where the Jewish messiah will supposedly raise the dead. From the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, where he gets thrown out, to the Vatican in Rome, where he also gets thrown out. From the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida where he almost gets thrown out, to a church in Miami presided over by a man who claims he is the Second Coming of Jesus. And he visits a creationist museum in the heartland that depicts ancient humans living in harmony with dinosaurs as an attempt to reconcile the existence of dinosaurs with the belief that the Earth is only 6000 years old.
Lots of laughs along the way. Maher asks questions that seem fair and objective but on closer examination are actually calculated to highlight the ridiculousness of a person’s beliefs. It’s a bit like a Michael Moore documentary, except with more laughs.
A lot of the humor also comes from the editing. Sometimes you get the sense that you’re seeing things out of context. And subtitles are used to mock a subject when he or she gets their facts wrong or uses the wrong vocabulary word. Also, very brief clips from other films are thrown in as humorous responses to what a person has said. For example, when explaining the Mormon belief that after he was crucified Jesus came to America and preached to the Native Americans, a short clip from Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” shows an Indian speaking in Yiddish. (At least I think it was “Blazing Saddles;” it went by very fast.)
Another example. At one point he’s interviewing Mark Pryor, a United States Senator from Arkansas who is a fundamentalist Christian who takes the Bible as literal fact. Maher asks him if he literally believes in the story of Adam and Eve and the talking snake. Pryor says he does. Maher then says, “It really bothers me that the people running my country believe in talking snakes.” Pryor responds, “You don’t need to pass an IQ test to get into the Senate.” There’s about a five second pause and then Pryor gets this horrified look on his face as if to say, “Wait. What did I just say?”
Sometimes just trying to explain beliefs in Maher’s humorous style makes them look idiotic. He goes to Hyde Park in London and starts spouting the tenets of Scientology which involves an extraterrestrial invasion prior to the beginning of the universe, weird things in your body, and something to do with volcanoes. The crowd thinks he’s nuts. But Maher contends that this is no more ridiculous than the Christian belief in God dividing himself into three parts and having sex with a virgin who gives birth to a man who can walk on water and raise the dead. Or the Muslim belief that a black stone meteorite in Mecca is a message from God. Or the Jewish notion that if you break any of 30-odd types of forbidden work on the Sabbath, such as pushing a button, making a phone call, or tying a knot, you’ll go to Hell. Maher visits a Jewish Orthodox man who makes items that can circumnavigate these silly regulations and asks him if he’s exploiting God’s loophole.
The only seemingly rational people in this movie that Maher talks to are, ironically, priests from the Vatican. Both laughingly dismiss much of the official dogma of the Catholic Church as nonsense. Say what? Yep.
During the interviews, many of Maher’s subjects get angry with him and threaten to walk out on him. But there is one guy who so offends Maher, that Maher walks out on him. This is an anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox Jew who argues the Jewish people have become unholy by not following God’s laws and they don’t deserve the state of Israel; he actually sides with the Palestinians who wish to overthrow Israel. Now this guy is wacko.
So why does Maher interview him? Perhaps he’s trying to prove that if you search the Earth long enough and hard enough, you can find some pretty f*cking-crazy characters. But is it right to hold up these twisted zealots as representative of all religion?
Maher completely ignores moderate or leftist religions, such as Unitarian Universalists, Reform Jews, and many others, that put more focus on ethical lifestyles, questions rather than answers, tolerance for other points of view, and a tendency to see the Bible more as a metaphorical and spiritual guidebook rather than divinely revealed literal history.
It hardly seems fair that Maher picks the craziest, most radical fundamentalists to represent organized religion while completely ignoring groups that run homeless shelters and soup kitchens. And, among other things, Maher mocks Jewish messianic beliefs, forgetting that most contemporary Jews no longer subscribe to those tenets.
But I really do think, despite all the problems with this film, that this really is a movie that asks important questions and brings up issues that open-minded churches, synagogues, and mosques should be discussing.
“Religulous” ends with a bit of a humorless rant. Maher puts aside the comedy and goes off complaining about how religious views of Armageddon and the end of the world can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t need a supernatural God, he says, to destroy the planet when political leaders, with their fingers on nuclear triggers and other means of mass destruction, who believe that they may be the hand of God, can do it easier. It’s a good point and a good speech, but seems to strike the wrong tone for a comedy.
He almost seems to be making a contradiction. He spends most of the film arguing that religion is silly. But he ends saying it’s destructive. Maybe it’s both. But if we ultimately destroy ourselves for silly reasons, that’s not very funny.
Hmm… Maybe I was wrong at the start. Maybe Maher is a pundit disguised as a comedian. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Note: A similar version of this article was posted to Chizfilm exactly two years ago, on October 4, 2008, when “Religulous” was first released in theatres.