[2 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There are certain unwinnable arguments in life, debates where no one side can claim clear victory. Argue over abortion, and see how staunch either position becomes. Discuss race and prejudice and the majority and minority never see eye to eye. While it’s always been a bit of a hot button, religion has become an even bigger sticking point over the last few decades. Call it the Moral Majority effect, the Neo-Con crusade, or the Islamic fundamentalist backlash, but Christians are chastising the non-believer and taking names - at least politically. Even in the face of clear First Amendment protections, the new faithful want Jesus and those who chronicled his life and time making policy.
There are a few people who find this as morally reprehensible as those on their principled high horses. Journalist Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not great takes a frank and honest look at how, in his words, “religion poisons everything”. And now noted political humorist and TV host Bill Maher is out to back the side of the blasphemer. With Religulous, his new documentary, he teams up with Borat director Larry Charles to travel around the world, interviewing various religious individuals. That’s it - no skits, no spoofing, no fake characterizations or commentary on American values. Just a razor sharp wit sitting around with devout believers, our host letting his subject’s own words systematically undermine their professed positions.
At times, Religulous celebrates the rather obvious. Most Christians don’t understand their Bible, nor have they read it enough to ably defend the reality of what it does and does not contain. Maher proves that most believers function within a kind of pocket of propaganda. A preacher explains the Gospels, loosely interpreting passages or parables, and his listeners legitimize it as truth. When pushed to prove their points, they can’t find the Lord’s supposed words to support them. Naturally, this leads to a few angry attitudes. At a trucker’s chapel somewhere along the highway, a stout driver storms out of the converted trailer. He wants no part of Maher’s “mockery”. Those who stay put and argue, however, are treated to the opportunity to make their case - with just a minor amount of derision from our guide.
Some sequences don’t need commentary. When Maher visits a Creationist Museum in Kentucky, the owner’s illogical statements make the point all too well. Even better, a trip to a religious theme park in Orlando Florida (known as “The Holy Land Experience”) turns the Passion into a daily ritual, including the parading of a blood soaked Jesus before an audience of teary eyed patrons. In each instance, Maher approaches the material with the same mad twinkle he brings to his other projects. By picking on the extremes, however, he underlines the obviousness of the project. Religion will always have a hard time defending itself. By bringing it out into the open, this documentary may only be preaching to the non-converted.
Still, Religulous deserves mention for what it means outside the tenets of certain dogma. Maher’s bigger message is clearly one of critical thinking. He illustrates how most organized belief systems remove curiosity to claim divine intervention into any unexplainable situation. A pair of ex-Mormons sit down with our host as he discusses the just plain bizarre ideals propagated by the followers of Joseph Smith. When asked why more people don’t question the church and their claims of magic underwear and a Missouri based Garden of Eden, the men are quick to answer. “Family and friends” they say, indicating their status as pariahs for leaving their faith. You lose everything when you leave, they continue, because of the cult like ways of the community.
Since Maher was born to a Jewish mother and a staunch Catholic father (his sister and mom are on hand to discuss the past), the Judeo-Christian ethic gets the most ribbing here. Islam is left for a last minute discussion, while other worldwide beliefs such as Buddhism and Hinduism are rendered relatively unscathed. Even the jokefest that is Scientology (at least from an aliens/thetans/e-meter conceit) is relegated to a brief comic rant in London’s Hyde Park Sunday Soap Box. In some ways, Religulous is meant as a reactionary responsorial to the West’s demonization of the Middle East. That Christians tend to be as extreme as the radicals they rail against really comes as no surprise.
Most of Religulous is oblivious in its outrage. That Maher fails to find a single level headed individual might be a product of the production scheme (even a Vatican condemning Catholic priest winds up on the weird side). Indeed, Charles is more singular in his focus. He intercuts scenes from faith based propaganda films and other cinematic efforts to accentuate points, and while they earn their laughs, they also cut the scholarship attempted. Maher, who clearly finds religion one of the reasons for the world’s muddled state, seems eager to peel back the layers of hypocrisy and argue that all belief is just a way of avoid responsibility and advance magic problem solving. Miracles are nothing more than coincidences, the answering of prayers an indirect self-fulfilling prophecy.
He ends the film at the same place he starts it - on Tel Megiddo, the hill where the Second Coming of Christ is predicted to occur. With Jesus’ return will come the Rapture, followed by several Revelation realities. As he explains the path to Armageddon, Maher makes Religulous’ most cogent point: The Bible was written by men who at the time had no knowledge of how to destroy each other completely. The notion of wiping mankind off the face of the planet was reserved for a higher power. Now, third world countries have the ability to predicate the Apocalypse. How much of what was written was foresight, and how much was simply a keen insight into the destructive nature of humanity stands as Religulous’ biggest unwinnable disagreement. Neither side - sacred or profane - can argue their way out of that reality.