(No longer in theaters)
Oct 1, 2008
Bill Maher might well be a flaming asshole, but more often than not the flame burns brilliantly, and his documentary-demolition job Religulous has an unholy fervor that should start many bonfires. Maher’s thesis, articulated at the outset from the spot in the Israeli desert where the world (according to Revelation) is supposed to end, is blunt: “Religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.” Maher’s is no big tent: Believers, he says, have been sold “an invisible product”—the uses of which are often selfish and murderous. He does not know if God exists, but neither do you.
Religulous is directed by Larry Charles, who made Borat, and this movie, too, is a mock odyssey, a series of encounters with the bamboozlers and the bamboozled. A militantly lapsed Catholic (his mother was Jewish), Maher engages with fervent truckers at a makeshift parking-lot chapel, confronts a once-gay minister who works to make gays see the error of their “choice,” and challenges Evangelists on their un-Christ-like flaunting of riches. He is openly aghast at Senator Mark Pryor’s assertion that there’s scientific disagreement over evolution. Using shock cuts to florid religious spectacles (and, in one case, footage of an Islamist suicide bomber), he questions the existence of Jesus and lumps Christianity with Mormonism and Scientology.
I can’t review Religulous without admitting my own allegiances. As a longtime Skeptic magazine subscriber, I think Maher’s call for atheists to come out of the closet and question political leaders who justify their acts as “the will of God” is right-on. But skeptics can be a sniggery bunch. They tend to be libertarians, as rigid in their ways as fundamentalists. At a Skeptics Society conference, I once argued with one over the benefits of ritual (the Sabbath, days of atonement) and the notion of transcendence. “What does that mean?” he said. “Well, the state in which you feel something beyond yourself, a connection—” “What does that mean? You’re not saying anything I understand.” I doubt he’d have settled for anything less than a neurochemical explanation.
My ideal skeptical documentary would explore the idea that aspects of religion might well be adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint—but until that comes along, this will do. Maher doesn’t hang back in the studio and call his subjects dickheads like Penn Jillette in the Showtime series Bullshit! He’s in their faces, letting them have their (lame) say. As he delivered his climactic sermon in the Israeli desert, I murmured, “Amen, brother.” Religulous is a religious experience.