The Good: Funny, Insightful, Makes point well
The Bad: Lack of on-screen citations
The Basics: Funny, smart and well-presented, Religulous exposes the fallout between reason and faith and explores the potential costs for that divide.
It has been a while since I went on a real documentary film kick. I enjoy documentaries, but it has been a while since I just watched a whole bunch of them. In fact, the last one I saw in the theater was probably Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!). This does not mean that I have not paid attention to political discourse of various types or increasing my education. As far as the former goes, I have recently read the Ann Coulter library (Godless: The Church Of Liberalism is reviewed here!), as for the latter, I've read a lot of other things. So when I was able to go to a screening of Religulous, I leaped right on it. It's been too long since I took in a documentary.
Religulous is a documentary by Bill Maher exploring the state of religion in the world today. Going into Religulous, I knew nothing about the film, save that it was a Bill Maher movie and a documentary on religion. I assumed, then, that it would be funny, satirical and generally enjoyable. After all, I have tended to enjoy Bill Maher's sense of humor on his various shows. And so it was.
Bill Maher begins in Megiddo, Israel, the site of future Armageddon with a film that looks at religion around the world. Telling his personal story of his religious life, Bill Maher recounts his childhood as a Catholic with a Jewish mother. At thirteen, he left the church and in the course of interviews, Maher explores religion as it is written in the Bible, Koran, and Torah and the expressions of that faith in the world. This takes Maher through the Bible Belt to a trucker's chapel, to the museum of creationism, to Israel and Amsterdam.
Everywhere Maher goes, he interviews religious leaders and practitioners of every major religion. In the Vatican, he interviews a priest, in Israel, he interviews an orthodox Jew and in Salt Lake City, he interviews ex-Mormons. Everywhere he goes, he attempts to answer the question "Why is believing things without proof good?" He compares religions and attempts to debunk the absolutism of virtually every faith.
Religulous is a tough film to discuss because it has a very direct thesis that it starts out with and it sticks rather close to it. As a result, Maher's point that there is a fundamental lack of rationality in religion is reached more or less instantly when he illustrates that people of faith believe things that they cannot possibly explain or justify. For example, Maher corners an Arkansas Senator who observes that there is no i.q. test to be in the Senate. Maher manages to be appropriately surprised and there are several moments that Maher or the people he is interviewing sit shocked or dumfounded.
As far as the argument Maher is making, he makes it well: Christianity is not an original religion in many of its concepts. Many things that are claimed by Christians are antithetical to the concept of "love thy neighbor." Faith is not rational. Maher makes the point and much of Religulous is about driving that point home with every major religion. As a result, there is an extensive sense of repetition in the film. As far as scholarly actions go, Religulous manages to be remarkably straightforward in that it is attempting to not isolate any one religion. He breezes through interviewing an orthodox Jew who attended Iran's holocaust denial seminar delivered by the president of Iran, just as he makes his points with Islamic leaders rather quickly. As a result, he manages to find a decent cross-section of various Christians who defend and dissent on the absolutism of their faith.
Because the film spends a lot of time repeating or reiterating the same point, Maher keeps the pace up by injecting the film with humor. Maher includes his ironic asides, slips in quips and asides and has snarky comments printed on the screen to make jokes. The humor includes intercut films of religious and secular films that illustrate disasters brought by people of faith, usually driving home a point about the irrationality of faith alone. Maher's humor is abrasive and obvious and he never tries to hide his bias, which makes it easy to differentiate between the humor and the lesson that he is attempting to communicate. The humor is quick-witted and fast and is grounded in the same style of basic logic and the non sequitors that exist in the conflict between reason and faith.
Some might argue that Religulous is anti-religious propaganda. Having seen religious propaganda, like George W. Bush: Faith In the White House, Religulous is clearly not the same thing. Like Fahrenheit 9/11, Bill Maher's Religulous frequently allows the people being questioned to state their view. They state their beliefs, Maher asks about them and while he comments on many of them, most of what damns the people being questioned is their inability to answer questions about their faith. Maher gives people a voice and a space and questions people's beliefs and he may make snarky comments, but at the end of all things, he allows people to express themselves and their own words prove Maher's point: religion is not rational. Maher simply pokes fun at that concept by exposing and commenting on the differences between faith and reason.
Maher is anti-religious, but he is quite straightforward that he does not have all of the answers. So, his commentary and anger at people of faith is not about having a generalized disdain for religion. His problem clearly is about the use of religion as a tool of power. Maher loathes the control religion exerts over the people and the potential for destruction that the lack of reason has in a world with nuclear arms.
Religulous is directed by Larry Charles, who brought the world Borat and much of the style of Religulous follows that "on the road" feel. Maher and Charles and the film crew get into places like the Vatican and famous mosques, sometimes getting thrown out or insulted. There is a spontaneous feel to much of Religulous and as a result, it flows along well as a result.
The truly bothersome aspect of Religulous is that there are on-screen snarky comments, but few (if any) citations. As a result, there are moments when Maher references lines in the bible or Koran and calls out people of the respective faiths on their ignorance, without illustrating the exact lines he is referencing. Fighting the blind faith with the documents they claim to know or believe in without illustrating the lines exactly as they appear in the holy documents seriously undermines the strength of Maher's argument. Sadly, as a result, there are several moments when Maher and the people he interviews degenerate into "yes it is," "no it isn't" type arguments.
Religulous might well seem like it is preaching to the choir, no pun intended, and it is. However, what saves the film in the latest moments of the movie is Bill Maher's wrap-up. After effectively proving what those who stand against religion when used as a tool for legislation or absolute education or control over personal behaviors, Maher issues a call to arms for those of no religious faith. He calls for the supposed 16% of Americans who do not identify or agree with any religion to stand up and stop being a silent minority. After all of the arguments - many of which are known to people who stand against religious extremism - this call to arms is sensible and energizes those who watch the film and are able to agree with Maher or at least open to questioning the execution of their own faith.
And that's reason enough to watch the movie. Laughter is good, standing up is better. Fortunately, Religulous brings viewers both.
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© 2011, 2009, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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