[17 February 2009]
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)
When President Barack Obama said in his inaugural address that “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers,” satirist Bill Maher and others fitting into the latter category must have been pleased to be included. As Maher (“Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Politically Incorrect”) claims in “Religulous,” his feature-length documentary from 2008, a “hidden minority” of 16 percent of Americans consider themselves “non-religious.”
Out this week on DVD, “Religulous” (Lionsgate, $29.95, rated R) is a combative, profane, gleefully blasphemous and frequently hilarious film essay that argues for the validity of science and reason over faith. Claiming that 16 percent of Americans consider themselves “non-religious,” Maher launches an equal-opportunity assault on religious dogma and the tenets on which some of the major religions are based. His aim is to demonstrate that “religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.” Proudly wearing the banner of agnosticism, Maher proclaims “I preach the gospel of ‘I Don’t Know’.”
Maher’s skepticism towards religion appears to have emerged from his growing up in a “mixed-marriage” - his father was Catholic, his mother Jewish. He attended Catholic Church until he was about 13, when his father decided he could no longer accept the Church’s teachings on birth control.
Maher’s documentary approach in “Religulous” is the antithesis of PBS-style “balanced” filmmaking, where one point of view is countered by an opposing point of view, ad infinitum. His strategy is to mock and offend, through monologues and combative interviews. Maher’s comrade-in-dissent is director Larry Charles, of “Borat” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame, and the two provide a joint DVD audio commentary that is almost as funny as the film itself.
Maher makes no attempt at fairness: He uses jokey subtitles to challenge and ridicule claims made by those he’s interviewing, and for humorous effect intersperses archival footage of preachers in action and silly scenes from Biblical movies. The goal is to both educate and induce laughter.
In looking critically at Christianity, for example, Maher pokes fun at money-grubbing televangelists, ministers making outlandish claims (we meet one who says he is a direct descendant of Jesus Christ and another who says he can turn gay people straight) and Biblical stories like Adam and Eve and Jonah and the whale.
He travels to a Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, N.C., where he argues good-naturedly with the parishioners; to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where dinosaurs are shown living side-by-side with humans (a cut to “The Flintstones” is particularly funny); to The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, where he interviews an actor who portrays Jesus Christ in a musical crucifixion pageant; and to Salt Lake City, where he discusses tenets of Mormonism with some former LDS members.
Leaving the United States, Maher and his camera crew journey to the Vatican, where they get kicked out for filming without permission and he has some eye-opening discussions with Catholic priests who challenge doctrinal beliefs about science and theology. In Amsterdam, he engages an assortment of Muslims in relatively serious discussions on Islam, violence and intolerance. And in Megiddo, Israel, he surveys the land where Christian evangelists believe life on earth will end.
Maher also throws some barbs at an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who attended a conference in Iran of Holocaust deniers, pokes fun at a store in Jerusalem catering to Orthodox Jews who want to get around Sabbath prohibitions like tying or untying knots, delivers a monologue on the exotic teachings of Scientology and visits a Cannabis Ministry.
Some critics have complained that Maher takes cheap shots at easy targets in “Religulous,” rather than talking with learned scholars of particular religions about their faith. He isn’t interested in exploring subjects like the crucial role of religion in struggles for social justice like the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Whether Maher goes too far in “Religulous” depends, of course, on the views of the beholder. Piling wisecrack upon wisecrack and barb upon barb, Maher sometimes engages in comedic overkill. Take the case of his interview with Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda of Miami’s Grace Ministry. He’s the minister who claims to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and has over 100,000 followers internationally. Rather than just taking on the minister for his claims, the film mocks his Spanish-accented English by cutting to scenes of Al Pacino hamming it up linguistically as Tony Montana in “Scarface.”
It’s doubtful that Maher will change any minds with “Religulous,” though those of a more open-minded persuasion will find a good amount of provocative entertainment and much to laugh at.
Maher ends his film with a call to action. With the hatreds unleashed by religious fervor threatening the future of humanity, Maher argues that “Rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves ... Religion must die for mankind to live.”