Bill Maher’s Religulous is a bracing slap in the face. Descendents of Moses or Mohammad may consider his cinematic rant a call to arms, another blow in an bloody duel. Christians may consider it an unfair fight, more low blow than gentlemanly engagement. At its best, Religulous serves as a wake up call, a slap to attention, to do more homework, to better inform the faithful. So how does it strike you?
Maher is an equal opportunity offender. He takes shots at the three major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Religulous also mocks the more bizarre elements of Scientology and Mormonism. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism get a free pass, perhaps because they are perceived as less doctrinaire. There is something to offend almost everybody, but Religulous delivers on its first goal—to entertain. I overheard two women exiting the theater say, “It was entertaining, but it wasn’t very educational.” The laughs come often, but enlightenment proves elusive.
There are plenty of places where Religulous doesn’t play fair. Director Larry Charles employed the surprise bait and switch tactics with Borat. Confident rubes agree to be interviewed for a documentary and then only after the cameras are turned on, does Bill Maher appear. (See some of their valid, off camera complaints here.) While Borat unnerved his conversation partners with absurdity, Maher berates believers with an array of objections. I found myself agreeing with his attacks on prosperity preachers, gay bashing ministers, and young earth creationists. His interview with self-proclaimed messiahs like Jose Miranda, illustrate how profitable packaged Christianity can be.
The faith of followers can easily be abused by charlatans. Even in Rome, a self-effacing priest admits even the splendor arising within the Vatican seems incompatible with Jesus’ ascetic practices. Religulous rightly exposes those who have turned a religion born out of sacrifice into big business.
Maher’s greatest fears arise from the merging of nationalism and religion. He begins and ends the film in Megiddo, wondering if prophecies about violent last days will become self-fulfilling in the Holy Land. Surely the west has valid questions about how terrorism can spring from Islam, a religion named for ‘peace’. Whenever God and country get conflated, Maher (and I) get nervous. It is tough to defend killing in the name of God from any humane standards.
Where Maher appears most insincere is in his claim to seek answers. Maher veers more towards the snide Christopher Hitchens, than the scientific Richard Dawkins. He picks on some very easy targets, as when he crashes a worship service at the Truckers’ Chapel. Maher ultimately thanks the truckers for being “Christlike as well as Christian.” Their sincerity and patience with his hijinks demonstrates a way forward. Character counts in an era when almost no one is listening.
Unfortunately, Religulous is more of a monologue than a dialogue. It reminds me why we made Purple State of Mind. Our highly politicized era has turned faith into a divisive lightning rod. But while Religulous opts for easy laughs, in Purple State of Mind, we aspired to something more—to genuine disagreement and ongoing respect. We decide to live together in disharmony rather than merely dismissing each other.
Having pointed out the leaps of faith needed to accept Jonah’s three days in a whale or even the Virgin birth, Maher concludes with his own bit of proselytizing. He is an apostle of doubt, suggesting we’re all on the road to nowhere. While he wants religion to die, it is not clear what he proposes in its place. Does he really have such faith in humanity’s ability to self-regulate? He would disdain the efforts of ecumenical religious leaders to create a brotherhood of man or a commonality of faiths. Is reason alone supposed to suffice? Didn’t the myth of progress already come crashing down in the bloody 20th century?
Religion can be dangerous. But we’ve also witnessed what gulags and gas chambers resulted from a world that devalues humanity, where might make right. In his closing rant, Maher says, “Faith makes a virtue out of non-thinking.” We’ve seen unfortunate examples of blind faith in death cults and suicide bombers. But why can’t we advocate faith and reason, encouraging more thoughtful religious expressions? Religulous exposes how nationalism, creationism and capitalism can become substitute religions. Like the prophets of old, Maher seeks death to false religions. But rather than following his road to nowhere, I exit with a renewed hunger for a rigorous Christian faith. How about you?
Thankfully, a refreshing alternative is enroute. Check out the trailer for the upcoming documentary, THE ORDINARY RADICALS.