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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Religulous" Movie Review

The main idea of Religulous seems to be pretty well encapsulated in the title's portmanteau: Religion is ridiculous. But a film that seems like it might just be a lighthearted—if slightly mean—romp through a cascade of religious idiosyncrasies takes a left turn down a dark path in its final five minutes.
In a lot of ways, this isn’t so much a documentary about religion as it is about Bill Maher, or, rather, about Bill Maher’s views of religion. And, to Maher’s credit, he does not zero in exclusively on one religion. The film has him talking to (to name just a few) Christian truckers, Jewish scientists, a Muslim singer, and ex-Mormons. He takes shots at Scientology, the Creation Museum, and at the religion of Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda—a man with followers in about 35 countries who calls himself both the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and the Antichrist.
Of course, this scattershot approach means Maher really can’t go any more than ankle deep in any of these discussions. But that’s really his point: You don’t need to go beyond ankle deep. To Maher, religion is just that shallow.
This helps explain why he doesn’t spend more than a minute or so with genome researcher (and Christian) Francis Collins: It’s not as easy to make him look ridiculous (though Maher and director Larry Charles—who also directed Borat—do their best). Father George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory and another proponent of the compatibility of science and religion, comes off significantly better; Maher’s purpose with Coyne is simply to undercut the creationist Ken Ham.
In the end, two things really bothered me about Religulous. The first was pretty predictable: The interviews were somewhat akin to bullying, just intellectual rather than physical. While Maher was certainly able to mine some comedic moments, my response as an audience member was caught in that uncomfortable place between wanting to laugh and wanting to shout “Hey! Pick on someone your own size!”
The other troublesome aspect was the film’s jarring and somewhat unexpected final moment. Bill Maher delivers a rousing monologue—intercut with images of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks—that essentially boils down to this: Religion has been used to violent ends in the past, and it will be again, only now we have nuclear weapons. He calls upon his allies—atheists, agnostics, even the religiously uncommitted—to come out of hiding, to break the polite code that we don’t talk about religion, and to challenge religious people’s beliefs.
Certainly, certainly, certainly, Maher means well. His intentions, by all means, seem completely pacifistic and idealistic. The problem is this: We’ve seen calls to convert the unconverted in this way before, and—even when they’re delivered by the most well-intentioned, non-violent messengers imaginable—they frequently do devolve into hatred, resentment, and violence against those not in the group with the “truth.” He’s not really speaking to religious believers in this film (as the R rating will ensure); he’s rallying his base.
In the end, one of the most prescient lines in the film comes from the unlikely source of Tal Bachman (the musician famous for his 1999 hit “She’s So High,” but interviewed by Maher because of his credentials as an ex-Mormon). Bachman, answering a question from Maher about why more people don’t leave Mormonism, explains that once you call into question the teachings of founder Joseph Smith, you’ve severed a tie with your family and friends.
Unfortunately, the moment passes with no follow-up comment. Which makes sense: There’s no reason for Maher to explore the idea of religion as a social adhesive. His goal in this film was to splash around in the puddles of religion, not to plunge into the ocean. Dan Messier