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Showing a Keen Incite: Bill Maher’s Religulous

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageI went through a phase growing up where I was a chronic liar. No matter what I got caught doing, there was no lie I was unwilling to tell to get me out of that situation. I got very good at it, so that I could get away with just about anything…provided people (read: my parents) bought it immediately. However, the second they started to poke holes into my elaborate webs and ask questions, they inevitably fell apart, and got me in trouble. To me, the moral of this chapter of my life was clear: nonsense does not hold up to scrutiny.

This too is the truth deep at the heart of Bill Maher's new documentary Religulous.

While ostensibly a travelog of Maher's travels around the world to try to figure out the phenomenon of religious faith, Religulous most obviously (and none too subtly) serves as a pulpit for Maher to preach his message of agnosticism. He openly admits at the beginning “I'm promoting doubt,” and then spends the rest of the film showing us why. And the case he makes, no pun intended, is very damning.

The first third of the film is dedicated to Christianity, a subject that Maher admittedly has a complicated relationship with himself. He visits churches across the country, interviews all manner of pastors and preachers, and visits several Christian tourist destinations, including the Holy Land park in Florida, and the Creatonist Museum in Kentucky. In every case, he brings a list of thought-provoking questions, and a healthy disdain for the subject matter. The results are both hilarious and infuriating (at different points, depending on your views), but his success is clearly mixed; as a promoter of doubt, he fails to affect a single interviewee, even as their answers can not begin to make even an ounce of sense to us. He gets a televangelist to claim that Jesus dressed very well (and so why shouldn't he?) because he was given gold at birth, a fundamentalist Senator to admit that “you don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate,” and acquires footage of Kirk Cameron urging people to find ways to “circumnavigate around peoples' intellect” in order to talk to them about God. And this is just for starters. In perhaps the most eye-opening segment, Maher reveals a very unpleasant truth to several fundamentalist Christians: the story of Christ was not original. You have to feel some sympathy for people who grew up viewing the bible as The Word, when they learn the story of Horus, the Egyptian god whose story was first told over a thousand years before Christ. Horus was born of a virgin mother and a god-father (On December 25th), he performed miracles throughout his life, including raising a man named Asar from the dead (whose name is roughly translated to “Lazarus”), was killed on Earth, and then rose from his tomb after three days to ascend into heaven. If you have built your life on faith, HOW can you move forward after that?

Christianity is by no means the only source of Maher's scorn in Religulous. He also spends time street preaching the tenets of Scientology next to other cultists, gets kicked off of the grounds of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and visits the workshop of a Jewish inventor who specializes in appliances that get around the Shabbat restrictions, thus making everything they purportedly stand for a moot point. And then he turns his eye to Islam. Maher interviews several Muslims including religious leaders, journalists and even rappers, all to ask probing questions that go nowhere. When he looks out over the skyline of Jerusalem, with the holiest spots of all three major religions literally looming over each other, he then comes to his main point: religion is not just nonsensical, it's also dangerous.

In Maher's worldview, to be a blind adherent to any one religion is akin to ceding your willingness or need to think about that same world. Couple that with the fact that almost all holy texts claim that their way is the ONLY way, and follow that up with incendiary passages that allude to a coming holy war, and you have a recipe for utter calamitous disaster. In other words, it is one thing to give your life over to GOD, but religion, in every single case, was created by MEN, and when human beings are concerned, there are going to be problems.

This is, in my humble opinion, a worthy theme that deserves to be examined and discussed. However, Maher is nothing if not a polarizing figure, and his name at the top of the credits is probably enough to prevent anyone who should see a film like this from doing so. And even if one of those people does decide to step into the theater, Maher (and director Larry Charles) have included plenty of jokes and jabs that are sure to be offensive and enraging to the piously religious-minded. Through tongue-in-cheek use of songs, clips and subtitles, they allow their editorial slant on the proceedings to shine through, leading to moments of hilarity (at least to those who will stay long enough to see them). Nothing is taboo: popes outfits are compared to rock star costumes, televangelists are compared to pimps, and archival footage of old religious movies are used to mock the very points they were originally trying to make. These segments are guaranteed to make you laugh, though they will also almost certainly make you cringe, as you realize that these are precisely the sort of moments that will allow others to dismiss the entire movie and its message as merely offensive.

However, while Religulous IS inciteful, it is also quite insightful at the same time. In fact, the very fact that a movie about a man traveling the world merely pointing out discrepancies is modern religious tenets could be so controversial (and it already is: press screenings in the D.C. area have been held up by a terrified studio sending guards along with every print) shows just how far we need to go in this world. Wherever Maher goes, he is met with scorn, and disdain, and in some cased open hostility. This is the very intolerance that modern religion seems to propagate while claiming to decry. If your beliefs are so tenuous that they can't stand up to a bit of scrutiny, then they SHOULD be questioned, rather than held up to meaningless adulation.

At one point in the beginning of the film, a man walks out of on Maher, claiming that he wasn't going to sit there and listen while his beliefs are bashed. Maher lets him leave, and then states simply “All I'm doing is asking questions.” That, it would seem, is precisely the problem.