2008-10-03 (General release)

Bill Maher first shows up in Religulous standing at Megiddo, the hill in Israel where, he reports, “many Christians believe the world will come to an end.” Picking his way through rocks, he vents, stand-up-style, noting that when this notion was first broached in the Book of Revelation, only God had the power to destroy the planet. Now that humans have nuclear weapons and “know how to pollute on a catastrophic scale,” he reasons, the chances of that end have increased. “One thing I hate more than prophecy,” he declares, “It’s self-fulfilling prophecy,”

This pretty much sums up Maher’s argument in the film. It’s structured as something like a road trip, as he “seeks” encounters with religiously inclined people in order to demonstrate just how self-fulfilling their stories and beliefs are. That’s not to say he means to prove what he already knows to be true — he’s not engaged in such “self-fulfilling.” He is, however, convinced that “religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.”

But you know that already. Bill Maher has never made a secret of his disdain for religious institutions and rigid belief. As a comedian, he takes regular aim at what he sees as hypocrisies in religion, say, the profession of compassion and the practice of closed-mindedness. You might also know, as he underlines in the documentary, that Maher is the son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, becoming aware of both the rigor and the randomness of religion at an early age. The movie, directed by Larry Charles, illustrates this personal story with photos of baby Bill (in his Sunday best plaid jacket, with a cowboy gun in his holster), supplemented by some reminiscing by Bill, his mother Julie and sister Kathie, about their “dysfunctional” family. “What do we believe in now?” he asks, “You’re my mother, instruct me!” She shakes her head, “I don’t know the answer.”

This is why Maher loves his mom. By contrast, he’s troubled by the certainty of religious acolytes he encounters on America’s “back roads.” Much of the film’s entertainment lies in these encounters, of course, with Maher seeking explanations of faith from members of the Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, NC (“You start messing with my God,” grumbles one on his way out the door, “You got a problem”), tourists at the Holy Land Theme Park in Orlando (until he’s chased off by a manager, “Because of what he is and what he does”), and an Ex-Jew for Jesus now selling Christian paraphernalia and awaiting the Rapture (Maher asks if he believes it’s imminent, at which point Steve Berg smiles, “One can hope!”).

Standing in the Truckers’ Chapel, Maher confesses, “I think that being without faith is something of a luxury.” He understands that in prison or poverty, the structure provides hope, or at least a way to get through the day. He’s less forgiving of subjects who plainly profit from their appeals to workers, say, Jeremiah Cummings, former Blue Note (as in, “Harold Melvin”), former Muslim, and current “Ambassador for Christ” in the Worldwide International Campaign for Christ. Maher points to his gold rings and lizard shoes, then lets the reverend explain that Jesus never preached against the rich and wore “fine linens” Himself.

Such certainty grants Maher an easy target, especially as he is, he says, selling doubt: “That’s my product.” To make that pitch, he gets in believers’ faces, wondering how Exchange Ministries founder John Westcott can be so sure he’s right, that no one is born gay. When Westcott asserts, “I’m a heterosexual guy who dealt with some homosexuality,” Maher suggests otherwise. “You’re good-looking,” he observes, “You’re neat.” As the soundtrack kicks in with the Brokeback Mountain theme song, the guys chortle loud and cute, so happy to show — even compete over — how clever and self-aware they can be. Leaving Westcott’s office, Maher accepts a hug (“I hug everyone!” beams Westcott), but just can’t stop himself from joking about the hard-on he may have felt during the embrace.

Maher is less amiable when he goes to visit Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas in his office. Asked to explain how he can believe that dinosaurs existed alongside humans, Pryor insists on the “literacy” of the story of the talking snake (this as a subtitle questions the word: “Literacy?”). Maher wheedles Pryor, a Democrat who keeps a sign that says “Arkansas First” on his desk, suggesting that he’s too smart to adhere to such silliness, like the 10 Commandments or the talking snake. Pryor adheres anyway: “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate,” he says. You don’t even need to see Maher’s response to know what he’s thinking.

It’s not hard to laugh along with Maher at these and other hardcore Christians (say, the “Creation Museum” director whose establishment features an animatronic dinosaur with a saddle, or George Bush’s pronouncement, “I believe that God wants us to be free and that’s part of my foreign policy”), or even when he raises his eyebrow at the rabbi who’s created gadgets to get around prohibitions on activities on the Sabbath. His argument with rapper Propa-Gandhi is less congenial. Taking issue with Propa-Gandhi’s music videos (featuring automatic weapons and ammo belts), Maher suggests that the 1989 fatwah on his friend Salman was not a convincing sign of Islam’s “tolerance.”

Maher underscores his point during a visit to Amsterdam, specifically the site where Theo Van Gogh was murdered, with footage of the bloody body, as well as a clip from the film that incited his killers. Visibly dubious when Fatima Elatik says she finds tolerance in the Quran, he’s equally skeptical of Dutch Parliament member Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom seeks to restrict entry to non-Western immigrants.

Maher’s quickness makes him a great interview and a challenging interviewer. The film is less a series of interviews than smartly edited performances, in which interviewees serve as object lessons. From Mormons (who believe God has sexual relations with Mary) to Scientologists (who believe humans are infected with aliens) to Miami’s José Luis de Jesús Miranda (who believes he’s the second coming of Jesus), Maher’s subjects are firm believers. This makes them scary, a point underlined by footage of suicide bombings, the attack on the Twin Towers, explosions, smart bombs, and street demonstrations featuring raised rifles and grenades. As belief is collapsed into lack of curiosity, Maher contends, means humans are well on the road to fulfilling the prophecies they accept as true. Or, as the closing credits sequence has it, on the “Road to Nowhere,” courtesy of the Talking Heads.

RATING 6 / 10