It’s probably not possible for me to review this film without offending people. Religion remains the most personal and hot button issue in our society. I am someone who has no religious affiliation and so my comments about this film may offend those who are religious. However, if you are religious that means you think I’m going to burn in hell for all eternity so let’s call it even.
The goal of RELIGULOUS is simple. BIll Maher wants to prove how silly religion is by pointing out the hypocrisies and impossible elements of their holy scriptures. To take the bible literally, according to Maher, is not only foolish but dangerous and detrimental to our society. I agree with him. Comedy that takes aim at religion isn’t exactly groundbreaking material though it is rare. There’s no doubt that Maher was influenced by the master:
There is no doubt that critics of the film will point out how much good comes from religion. They would be correct. There are many wonderful lessons within different religions that help provide a moral compass for people who need one. Maher would counter, correctly, that morality exists outside of religion. You can be a moral and just person without having any religious ties. Round and round we go.
Does Maher play fair? Yes and no. The best moments of RELIGULOUS are when Maher is polite to his subject and his subject displays an intelligence about their religion that Maher doesn’t expect. When Maher is interviewing someone who he finds to be REALLY ridiculous, he will put subtitles on the screen, splice in film clips and employ other nasty little tricks. It’s oftentimes funny, but simultaneously disrespectful. Maher swings by a truck stop chapel and interviews a congregation no bigger than 8 people and finds them to be very good natured and polite. Maher’s questioning of their beliefs causes one man to get offended and walk out. Should Maher be condemned for offending the man for his beliefs? Or should the man be condemned for not questioning the religion he puts his blind faith in? Another stop finds Maher interviewing a former homosexual who is now married to a woman and runs a church that “rehabilitates” homosexuals. According to the man, there is no such thing as homosexuality, only straight people who are sinning. I find this view to be horribly offensive and can’t help but wonder if this man could get away with something like this if not for his religion.
Maher’s focus lies on the absurd elements of the Bible and other texts. Can people seriously believe in a talking snake? That a man lived inside a whale? That god made a woman out of a rib? The people he questions say “yes”. Do they really believe it or do they HAVE to believe it in order for their religion to be true after all? This is the main point Maher is going for. By pushing these people about their beliefs and asking questions, he reveals the desperation to cling to their belief and their willingness to swallow the impossible.
Why care at all what somebody believes anyway? Everyone has the right to believe whatever they want. The problem Maher and other secularists have is the injection of religion into politics and actual decision making that has an impact on our country and our world. An atheist or an openly agnostic person simply cannot get elected to office. Barack Obama doesn’t sit in an extremist church for 20 years if he doesn’t need the religious constituency behind him. John McCain pandered for John Hagee’s endorsement a few months ago. Hagee believes that Hitler was performing God’s will with the Holocaust. There is a video circulating online of Sarah Palin being anointed by a witch-doctor. Literally. A man who hunts witches. Why would George Bush go out of his way to recommend a constitutional amendment to ban homosexuals from ever marrying? What does Sarah Palin believe is behind the war in Iraq?
Why? Why must God be central to anything political? Here we have deeply religious politicians fighting a war against deeply religious terrorists and it’s impossible to escape the thought that if religion didn’t exist it may be possible to avoid all this death and destruction. Does a man become a suicide bomber if he’s not so sure that he has 72 virgins waiting for him when his bomb goes off? When I finish this review will it contain more questions than regular sentences?
Another problem Maher has is the Christian belief in the end times. The time when Jesus will return, life as we know it will end, and all the people who believe in him will be saved. Maher argues that it would seem difficult for a politician to be concerned with issues such as climate change or pollution when they think the end times are coming anyway. This remark is probably aimed at Palin, who reportedly stated that she believes in the End Times and that they will happen in her lifetime.
The finale of the film features Maher standing in the ruins of Meggido, the site the New Testament claims will be the setting for Jesus’ return, and delivering a incendiary cautionary tale about the harm religion causes. The speech, delivered ironically like a fiery sermon, is a call to arms for atheists and agnostics to stand up and let their voices be heard for if religion is no destroyed then we risk the end of the world as we know it. Can we move on and evolve as a people if we don’t shed these divisive traditions?
Ok I’ve set the record for question marks in a movie review. Despite all these heavy issues I’ve been discussing, the film is primarily a comedy, and it’s a very funny one. Director Larry Charles (Borat, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) finds the perfect tone for Maher’s comedy which can often be condescending and off putting. For the most part I found Maher to be respectful and merely inquisitive. The film clips interspersed with the interviews are hysterical and keep the film at a nice pace. This material can often be uncomfortable but Charles and Maher deliver enough comedy to keep the viewer entertained. For the most part, Maher preaches to the choir. I don’t know how much enjoyment a true believer could get from watching a person dissect and ridicule their faith, but one of the best questions Maher asks that never gets answered is: why is faith a good thing?
There I go with the question marks again.