Religulous, written by Bill Maher, directed by Larry Charles, produced by Thousand Words, distributed by Lionsgate. 101 minutes.
Anyone familiar with Bill Maher’s television work should suspect that his documentary about religion would have a certain . . . point of view. His show Politically Incorrect, which began airing on Comedy Central in 1994 (and later on ABC), and his more recent Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO 2003 to the present) have given him abundant opportunities to speak his razor-sharp mind about religion. Religulous gives him a sword for more than an hour and a half.
Maher’s outspokenness has led to some controversy. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer blasted Maher for his on-air remarks the week after September 11, 2001.* Some ABC affiliates pulled the show for a time, and the show was cancelled less than a year later.
The fact that the movie’s title is a melding of the words religious and ridiculous ought to cue people that the film is not an impartial look at faith. This is not a movie about liberal Unitarians with a live-and-let-live attitude. It’s about the religious among us who aggressively try to impose their beliefs upon the rest of us. Religulous (pronounced re-lij-u-lous) questions, argues against, and resents religion—and for good reason.
Before I discuss content here, I should mention that this film looks good and spares no expense in getting the footage it needs to make its points. Three cameras are used during many of the often very funny interviews, and they catch lots of telling moments that would have been missed with fewer angles. Masterful editing squeezes every drop out of the footage then adds clips from television and film archives that comment on what’s happening on screen. During one segment featuring a Florida preacher named José Luis de Jesús Miranda (who claims to be a direct descendent of Jesus Christ), the film drops in clips of Al Pacino portraying Tony Montana in the movie Scarface that perfectly mirror Miranda’s wackiness.
The movie’s structure alternates between Maher’s monologues—sometimes scripted, sometimes riffing in the car—and interviews with several believers on the extreme end of the religious spectrum. Readers of Free Inquiry will recognize many of the theological arguments that Maher uses in his monologues. (My wife remarked that he sounded like me arguing about religion at a dinner party.) Maher knows his Bible and Qur’an pretty well, and he’s not afraid to say, “Isn’t that just a little bit childish?” when it’s warranted. He takes a few well-deserved shots at Scientology, Orthodox Jews, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but evangelical Christians and Muslims get the brunt of his embarrassing questions.
The faithful he interviews possess varying levels of intelligence, and some hold mistaken ideas about what their own religions profess. Maher catches many of these mistakes on camera and uses subtitles to highlight the rest. It is very funny, by the way, when a fact scrolls up on screen that completely refutes what the interviewee just said.
Maher’s interview style is surprisingly disarming. Early in the film, he engages a group of drivers in a trucker’s chapel and manages to keep all but one (who left in a huff) in a reasonably friendly conversation. His look-’em-in-the-eye style serves him well for most of the movie—even when he’s arguing with people. But we do feel the tension now and then.
Navigating tension is where director Larry Charles’s experience comes in handy. When Charles directed Borat, he couldn’t very well tell people he was going to have a fake character interview them and probably make fun of them. Documentaries or spoofs that are looking for folks to interview often have to camouflage the true aim of the movie. Religulous producers must have soft-pedaled the movie’s intent. How many believers would have consented to take part in a movie slamming religion? I’d bet certain details were withheld from Ken Ham of the Creation Museum about the movie. Ham looked like he wanted to punch the eternal damnation out of Maher by interview’s end.
Our entertaining tour of several of the major religions of the world takes a turn for the serious near the end, when the movie shifts tone to warn us of the dangers of fundamentalism. Here, Maher warns us that this is no joke and that these people are not just trying to impose their beliefs on us—they are in fact dangerous and may usher in the kinds of conflicts that could change all of our lives, regardless of what our beliefs are. This late change in mood is a bit out of character from the rest of the movie, but it does underline the point that the stakes are high.
In a way, open nonbelievers have already seen this movie. We’ve experienced the arguments, laughed (and cried) at the absurdities, and corrected folks about their own religion. But the ride through Religulous is a lot more fun than our normal encounters and worth sharing.