Friday, October 03, 2008

Bill Maher Is Getting Religulous In New Movie...

Believers, Skeptics And A Pool Of Sitting Ducks

There is no arguing with faith. As the comedian and outspoken nonbeliever Bill Maher travels the world, interviewing Christians, Jews and Muslims in the facetiously funny documentary “Religulous,” you begin to wonder if there might be two subspecies of humans.

The skeptical minority to which Mr. Maher belongs constitutes 16 percent of the American population, he says, citing a survey. For many of them, including Mr. Maher, the tenets of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (Eastern and African religions are ignored) are dangerous fairy tales and myths that have incited barbarous purges and holy wars that are still being fought. A talking snake? A man who lived inside a fish? These are two of Mr. Maher’s favorite biblical images offered up for ridicule.

The majority of Americans, however, embrace some form of blind faith. But because that faith by its very nature requires a leap into irrationality, it is almost impossible to explain or to defend in rational terms.

Mr. Maher has already established his position as an agnostic in his HBO comedy series, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” A recent clash on the program with his frequent guest the blogger and author Andrew Sullivan, who is a Roman Catholic, illustrated how believers and those who doubt might as well be from different planets. They can argue with each other in fairly reasonable voices about politics, but not about faith.

“Religulous” is directed by Larry Charles, whose credits include “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” and many episodes of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And the movie has the same loose, on-the-road structure as “Borat.” Much of Mr. Maher’s film is extremely funny in a similarly irreverent, offhanded way. Some true believers — at least those who have a sense of humor about their faith — may even be amused. But most will not.

In a small journalistic coup Mr. Maher interviews a Roman Catholic priest in front of the Vatican, who laughingly agrees with him that the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church are nonsense that are not to be taken literally. Mr. Maher, unfortunately, doesn’t press him on why he wears priestly vestments and presumes to exert religious authority.

Although theologians and scientists are interviewed in the film, they are fleeting presences in a documentary that doesn’t pretend to be a serious cultural or scientific exploration of the roots of faith. Because Mr. Maher adopts the attitude of an inquiring reporter instead of a pundit, his contempt for organized religion isn’t as pointed in the movie as it is in his television monologues.

His strategy is to coax most of those subjects who are true believers to appear foolish as they offer stumbling, inarticulate responses to his friendly interrogations. The majority of his subjects are easy targets. One such sitting duck is José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a nattily dressed Miami preacher who declares that he is the second coming of Christ and claims that his Growing in Grace ministry has 100,000 followers. Like the fulminating televangelists whose ministries the film glosses over, he comes across as a greedy, self-satisfied charlatan with a fondness for gold.

When Mr. Maher asks Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat and fervent evangelical Christian, why faith is good, he stumbles for an answer. Returning later to Senator Pryor, Mr. Maher suggests that many evangelicals look forward to the end of the world, when it is prophesied that Jesus will return. The senator doesn’t dispute him.

John Westcott, a former homosexual who is now married and the director of Exchange Ministries in Winter Park, Fla., an organization whose mission is to reorient sexuality, can only smile when Mr. Maher reminds him that Jesus never addressed the subject of homosexuality. At a Christian theme park where the passion of Christ is re-enacted in a tacky musical pageant, the actor playing Jesus compares the Holy Trinity to the three states of water: liquid, ice and vapor.

When “Religulous” turns from evangelical Christianity to Judaism and Islam, its tone becomes uncertain and its rhythm choppy. An attitude of glib condescension is inadequate to address clashing religions that have turned the Middle East into an ideological cauldron. Jihadism and Orthodox Judaism are red-hot topics that Mr. Maher addresses too sketchily to convey the same authority he brings to Christianity.

Ultimately, “Religulous” turns into a thunderous warning about the future, complete with apocalyptic images of stampeding armies and mushroom clouds issued by Mr. Maher, standing in the ruins of Megiddo, the Israeli site from which the Book of Revelation says Armageddon will originate. Secular humanists, agnostics and atheists should rise up and make themselves heard, he declares. Instead of faith, he emphasizes, we should consider doubt.

“Religulous” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes humor that many will consider blasphemous.


Directed by Larry Charles; director of photography, Anthony Hardwick; edited by Jeff Groth, Christian Kinnard and Jeffrey M. Werner; produced by Jonah Smith, Palmer West and Bill Maher; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.

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