The project managing hands of Larry Charles (director of “Borat”) and the unapologetically facetious Bill Maher come together for a personal statement of sorts in “Religulous.” Beginning and ending in Megiddo, Israel (the location for the final end-of-days showdown), the film is a thesis on doubt, a declaration for uncertainty. Bill Maher’s opening remarks present his primary concern, which is that “religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.” Concentrating on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the main topics covered consist of evidence vs. Faith, violence and corruption, intolerance, separation of church and state (vis a vis our founding fathers), creationism vs. evolution, and the apocalypse.
Bill Maher raises these questions and shares his views with an assortment of people across a wide range of destinations, including his mother and sister, the Truckers Chapel (in Raleigh, North Carolina), Exchange Ministries (in Winter Park, FL), the Jefferson Memorial, Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, the Creation Museum (in Petersburg, KY), Father George Coyne (formerly of the Vatican Observatory), the Dutch Parliament, and the Dome of the Rock (in Israel) among other people and places.
The comedy in “Religulous” results from the juxtaposing of visual and verbal humor that punctuate certain rhetorical points combined with the editing of shot-reverse-shots such that a few of the interviewees appear tongue-tied, as if they have just realized how unconvincing or illogical their statements sound. Eruptive laughter occurs frequently at the expense of the interviewee. An especially hilarious moment happens when Maher jokingly alerts Reverend Ferre van Beveren of the Cannabis Ministry in Amsterdam, Netherlands that Beveren’s hair is on fire. Is it mean? Gratuitously prankish? On the surface, sure, but it serves to remind the viewer that Maher is very well aware of his own presence and purpose.
The notion of biased vs. unbiased does not apply in a discussion of this film. Some might find fault with its approach (mixing cynicism, sarcasm, and serious topics), but the film’s method is entirely appropriate since “Religulous” incorporates historical factoids but is neither a book report nor an encyclopedia entry on institutionalized religion. Moreover, Bill Maher isn’t necessarily advocating atheism. He is, however, “preaching the gospel of ‘I don’t know,'” imploring believers to ask themselves what, why, and how they believe. On the one hand, blind faith is dangerous because it can lead to intolerance and violence. On the other hand, believing in any divine being because one would rather be safe than sorry — just in case there really is a God and thus an afterlife — is no better because it’s less sincere.
“Religulous” occupies one hundred and one minutes of viewing time. When it draws to a close, chances are that you’ll want to see more of the interview footage that didn’t make it into the final cut — and not just for a broader perspective. You’ll want more for that extra bit of clarity. The film explicitly indicates that Bill Maher is wary of religion because it can lead, does lead, and has led to behaviors and attitudes that are anything but compassionate. It’s implied that he would probably be less suspicious of religion if holy texts abandoned uncivilized “Bronze Age beliefs” and were revised to accommodate 21st century culture, epistemology, and geo-politics. Furthermore, Maher would, in all likelihood, be fine with religion when it does not infringe upon another person’s mental and physical well-being.