Bill Maher just doesn’t know. And that’s why Religulous is less of a documentary and more of an interactive concert film where he goes around belittling religious zealots in the effort of spreading the gospel of purported truth. He spends the entire movie berating his interviewees with a smug sense of superiority without once listening to them. Essentially, his message is that religions are dangerous and stupid because people use them not as a crutch, but as a cannon, even though most of their arguments for doing so are nothing more than smoke and bullshit. To prove this, Maher travels around the world making evangelicals foolishly stutter while sneering at them. Is it funny? Oh, undoubtedly. Bill Maher is a comedian, a snide observer who’s able to smirk and deride intellectually like Dennis Miller without the thesaurus regurgitation and feathered Heather Locklear hair. But a pack of putdowns cleverly packaged with one final arrogant monologue doesn’t make you a documentarian. It makes you Michael Moore with a shave and a Slim-Fast.
The movie starts off promising with Maher discussing rationally his notion of doubt. Maher plays himself off as agnostic, a person who just doesn’t know if there’s a God. From this point it seems like the movie is going to be him going around asking probing questions of people of faith. It quickly devolves into Maher finding anyone who’ll talk to him and then hitting them with snarky questions and making pithy responses over their stammering. There’s no thoughtful debate on evolution. It’s more or less Maher finding someone who’s a staunch creationist who sits slackjawed while he says, “You really believe that? Really? You’re that stupid? Wow.”
Maher’s debate partners were poor representations of their religions. It’s Butterbean taking all comers. He finds any dupe who has a religious credential, and then uses a series of blue index cards to tear them apart. He has a conversation about scripture and spirituality with Jesus at TBN’s “The Holy Land Experience” in Orlando, where for $30 you too can take part in the crucifixion. This guy isn’t a scholarly theologian, he’s a fucking summer stock reject trying to pay for his shitty studio apartment by growing out a beard and long hair. Why doesn’t he go down the street to Walt Disney World and ask one of the guys in the Mickey Mouse suit his take on Walt Disney’s rampant anti-Semitism? But this is Maher’s worthy opponent, because no one of any import will speak to him. Most of his interview victims will start to mutter, “Look I don’t know what your documentary is about, but…” So it’s not even like these second tier mooks even know Maher has come to discuss religion. Because he hasn’t. He just wants to get a laugh out of mocking the stupidity of fundamentalism by reheating leftovers from his comedy bits in the 1990s.
Case in point: He decides to do a segment on how several fundamentalist Christian groups hate homosexuality. He cues up a bunch of stock footage of protest groups with signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Matt Shepard Burn In Hell.” Then he goes and has a sit down with an ex-gay minister. Maher proceeds not to foster any sort of discussion about how the minister was converted, but instead asks him about the gay gene and repeating the point that nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus speak against homosexuality. All of which has been said before, and better, by other filmmakers. The minister mostly sweats and gives awkward responses that amount to, “Well, I think it’s wrong.” At the end of the interview, Maher gives the minister a hug and makes a crude erection joke. He doesn’t go and find a gay priest and ask him how hard it was to come out in a faith that doesn’t uniformly support his lifestyle. He doesn’t go after Fred Phelps or anyone from his church. He finds some poor dope and mocks him.
Maher’s thesis isn’t about trying to encourage doubt. It’s that all religions are fundamentally wrong and idiotic. He presents it with this air of pomposity. Even when someone makes a point, he snorts and chuckles. Maher knows he’s preaching to the choir, and he loves every minute of it. The message of the movie is that he’s essentially nudge nudge, wink winking everyone in the audience. Boy aren’t we so much better than these rubes? Aren’t they so foolish? But he’s not giving us food for thought. He’s not making anyone think. He’s doing exactly what he accuses mainstream religion of doing: regurgitating ideas for a bunch of sheep who nod and bleat and clap. He’s standing on his pulpit shouting, “Religion’s a bunch of bullshit! People who have faith are retards! Can I get an Amen? Well, fuck you and your AMEN! I’m better than you!” I thought the whole glory of being intellectually superior to stupid people is that you don’t have to rub their face in it.
Maher would have been better off calling the movie Maher-velous, because that seems to be the overriding message of the film. I’m Bill Maher, and I’m so much fucking smarter than them, right? Maher’s in every frame of the film, and he will not let you once forget he’s the leader of this flock. If you like your arrogant smarmy opinions served up to you with a side of smug self-assuredness, this is your film. And let’s face it if you’re reading Pajiba, cocksure-smug-proselytizing is your daily bread and fucking butter.
Which is not to say it’s an unentertaining film. As I said, it’s fucking hilarious. Larry Charles directed Borat, which is essentially the same movie, only it doesn’t pretend to be rote fact and it contains about 65 percent less sweaty man ass. The editing is a thing of unparalleled beauty and often has better comic timing than Maher. Subtitles and captions will pop up, skewering the interview subject, pointing out inconsistencies and scoring more points than any of Maher’s raised eyebrows or rolled eyes. Snippets of old school religious epics and televangelism are interspersed with the different conversations. While Maher gets in the occasional zinger, it’s the editing that’s the real comedian.
The most disappointing part of the movie is that Maher’s better than this. I expected more than just listing the tenets of Scientology and Mormonism and laughing about them. For fuck’s sake, “South Park’s” already done it better than anyone can ever hope to do. The problem with the movie is the same problem with Bill Maher’s television shows. While the format is engrossing and the conversations can be intriguing, they never get anywhere. It’s mostly just half-informed people spouting seven or eight facts they’ve memorized at the loudest volume they can without actually creating a genuine debate. Even then, the short format show is framed with Bill Maher’s monologues. We don’t even get an hour of interesting conversation, just 15 minutes sandwiched between Maher repeating arguments we’ve heard, only couched to get a chuckle.
If Maher had actually set out to ask questions and legitimately get answers, this would have been an amazing film. It probably wouldn’t have been a comedy, but it would have gotten a better message across. When we finally reach his self-serving and ill-informed agenda at the end of the film, his message is not of doubt. He spends the last ten minutes marching around Megiddo (the proposed site of Armageddon) in a suit that makes him look like the maitre’d in Hell. He demands atheists and those with doubt stand up and fight back. Essentially, he’s calling out for a wave of fundamentalist agnosticism, which is astoundingly dumber than anything else put forth in the movie. He expects rallying cries of “I REALLY don’t know if there’s a God!” He even goes so far as to make the point if he, Bill Maher, doesn’t know if there’s a God than there is no fucking way YOU do, because he’s fifty times smarter than you. He means YOU the audience watching the movie, not the fundamentalist zealots. And he STILL got rousing applause at the conclusion.
Any fundamentalist, no matter what religion, tends to come off as an asshole. If you refuse to accept other people’s beliefs, if you plug up your ears and don’t listen, you’re going to come across as foolish. Even if the justification for this is “La-la-la-It’s-Not-In-The-Bible” or calling out someone for believing a book of stories, you look like a jerk. Something that’s been brought up in many texts, and most effectively in Christopher Moore’s Lamb, is the theory that Jesus spent the lost years of his life studying other religions. Jesus supposedly traveled to the Far East and learned Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The book does not say he became any of these religions. It’s that he went to the different faiths, found stuff that interested him, and worked it into his own beliefs. That’s what religion should be. It’s like a vacation buffet in an exotic city. You go around and try everything, and throw away the stuff that’s distasteful to you. The hard part is there is no name for whatever you come up with. People are conditioned to ally ourselves with a tribe. To point out all the individual beliefs could get someone ostracized, or stoned, or hammered to a big T. It’s so much easier to just join a team, no matter what they represent. It’s why we have a two party system in America.
Maher is right when he says religion is dangerous. It’s dangerous because bad people are allowed to speak in its name and act as the spokesperson. The problem with Maher is that he’s just as guilty. He’s preaching the same message, in the same close-minded way, and being just as big a prick. Granted, he doesn’t have a nuclear arsenal at his disposal, and he isn’t advocating genocide or concentration camps for homosexuals (which they already have, it’s called The Bravo Network). People aren’t going to change someone’s mind by being hateful and mocking them. There’s nothing wrong with believing in God, or Mohammed, or The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or a blue-tinted cephalopod with one giant anime eye. The problem is when we let other people speak for us, and don’t stand up to them when we disagree. There’s nothing wrong with believing in something so strongly you’re willing to die for your cause. It’s when people start killing other people who disagree with them that problems occur. But why am I telling you this? You already know that. You don’t need me or Bill Maher to tell you that. The people who do need to know that aren’t going to watch this movie or read this website or stop preaching hate. There will always be assholes in the world, friends. It’s up to us to learn how to fight them without becoming one ourselves. That’s makes us just as bad. And we’re better than that. Cause I heard about it from people who read it in a book sometime once.
Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.Jesus Is Just Alright With Me
Film Reviews | October 7, 2008 | Comments ()