Bill Maher's film Religulous is being touted as a comical-serious examination of the beliefs and practices of religion, with particular attention paid to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. According to the film's site, Maher is "known for his astute analytical skills, irreverent wit and commitment to never pulling a punch." You can go here for the film trailer.
Maher's subject in Religulous, and it's a useful one, is religion as it is actually practiced in the suburbs, the country and the streets. He's an agnostic, not an atheist. His goal is to proclaim doubt about the mysteries that surround our mortality (such as what happens at death), and thus promote rationalism. He leaves certainty to true believers. He doesn't ponder what faith can do except summon a vision of the afterlife or provide an alternative to nothingness for the jailed or destitute.
Early on in the movie, Maher makes a trip to Raleigh, North Carolina. Good choice. It's actually one of my favorite places to visit. But the Raleigh that Maher visits in the movie looks nothing like the Raleigh I know. His entire visit seemed to consist of a trip to a tiny chapel at a truck stop where a few truckers meet for church. They obviously didn't know who Maher was, or what his shtick was, and they quickly become offended when he peppered them with questions about the credibility of the gospel they passionately believe in. Watching that scene, I had only one thought in my head: If you want to pick on someone your own elitist intellectual size, Duke University Divinity School is right down the road!
And that incident more or less sums up the problem with this movie. There is plenty to satirize about religion. There is plenty to debate about religion. But Maher spends time offending those believers of all faiths who are easily offended or fearful and never engages with believers who aren't afraid of clever banter, witty one-liners, and cheap shots. Not only is there not much sport in that, but, come to find out, there's really not much entertainment value in it, either.
Religulous will not inspire any person of faith to give up their beliefs, of course -- and whether you see that as a demonstration of unyielding devotion or unthinking dogma will, again, depend on your point of view -- but Maher and Charles, to their credit, seem to be focusing their film more at challenging non-believers than believers. Maher's big finish for Religulous is tonally very similar to the way he closes out his HBO show Real Time -- a stern, serious discussion that follows the jokes like serving broccoli after dessert -- where Maher's line of argument is that non-believers need to step up, speak out and be heard to try and change the course of public opinion, that religious 'moderates' need to see their behavior as dangerous, enabling complicity that helps empower radical elements which cannot go unnoticed or unchallenged in an age where, as Maher puts it, "We learned to precipitate mass death before we got over the neurological disorder of wishing for it." And Maher also -- in his own words, in his own way -- conveys the conflict felt by every non-believer who would like to believe in a just, kind and loving god but can't. Religulous is full of contradictions -- it's a funny film about some depressing things, it's a lighthearted tour through terrorism, injustice and intolerance. But those contradiction and challenges are, ultimately, what make the film linger uneasily in your mind, reaching past comedy and confrontation to challenge the audience with a fierce and forceful prayer that there might be no god.
You don't need to believe in God to take issue with Bill Maher's Religulous, a quasi-documentary that mocks religion as ridiculous, crazy, even dangerous. It's a nasty, condescending, small-minded film, self-amused and ultimately self-defeating. Its only accomplishment is to make atheists look bad - and in this political climate they didn't need Maher's help with that.
In the end, Maher reveals his serious intent, to put forth the idea that not just fundamentalism but religion in all forms is a danger to the survival of civilization. Agree or not, that's a serious idea, but the obnoxious interviews and the zany treatment undercut it. Certainly, if his intent was to persuade anyone of his view, well, fat chance of that. (If anything, Maher is obnoxious enough to make people want to get religion.) In the moment, the message of "Religulous" is that everybody who believes in God is stupid, cowardly or intellectually dishonest. That's a sentiment better expressed in a single wisecrack, not a feature-length documentary.