Lowdown: A comedian’s look at the ridiculousness of religion.
As an true blue atheist I have had mixed feelings about watching Religulous, comedian Bill Maher’s documentary on religion. On one hand, Maher is a fellow atheist and I should have expected to agree with most of what he’s going to say in the film; on the other there is the question of whether comedy is the right channel to navigate the idea of religion through. Maher’s own character didn’t help when he expressed some antagonism towards vaccinations, lining himself up with loonies from the creationists’ side. Release dates did not do Religulous much good, either: although it has been a 2008 release in the USA it took a long while for it to reach Aussie screens and then a while longer to materialize as a DVD (cue in the movie studios rolling their eyes to the sky as they unashamedly complain about piracy). Now that I finally sat to watch Religulous all those deliberations are behind me, with the main remaining question being whether Religulous is a worthy documentary.
Religulous uses Maher as the commentator/narrator who raises questions regarding the validity of religion in the 21st century universe and then takes him on a journey to places and people where these questions are discussed. Most of those places/people Maher goes to are religious (as opposed to atheist/agnostic), so most of the time Maher is in a very confronting position where you wonder how close he is to being on the receiving end of some violence as he goes about pointing at the thorns up religion’s ass to people that prefer to either ignore them or refer to them as roses. Amongst others, Maher goes inside a truckers’ church, Ken Ham creationist’s museum, various evangelical churches/shows, the Vatican, Israel, and Amsterdam – where he discusses Islam and its violent nature in particular.
As I expected, I have no problems whatsoever with the issues Maher raises to all the people he meets. Evidence is firmly on his side, and he does ask very valid questions (unlike the answers one often gets from religious people trying to justify their beliefs, which are usually vague and always beyond verification). The problem is in the style: it is obvious that those Maher interviews are not fully aware of what his intention really is, and therefore they are not well prepared for the occasion. It is also obvious some crafty editing took place to make Maher look cool while his interviewees often look dumb. Granted, some of them are ignorant, as in the case of the truck driver invoking the Shroud of Turin as evidence for Jesus’ claim to messiah status (adding it contains female DNA to the list of ridicule). The question is, is that the level of debate we expect to see from a quality documentary with a claim to make it clear to us that religion is not only ridiculous but also dangerous? Claims of this severity require us to take action if we agree with them, but can we really be expected to take action because we watched a a manipulative comedy?
I therefore prefer the more serious approach to converting those that follow religion into rational thinking, as expressed by the likes of Richard Dawkins in his superb The God Delusion. Dawkins digests his subject matter to the full, invoking arguments for both sides until the religious side is exposed for its lack of substance; Maher never gives religion a chance to adequately speak for itself.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I have enjoyed Religulous: it is a highly entertaining comedy, funny throughout and often generating big time laughs. It is, however, not much more than a stand up comedy show that takes place at a variety of places and involves a supporting cast. I laughed a lot, but I suspect the religious amonst us would mostly consider the film as mockery to their deeply held beliefs; I do not see them seeing the light through Religulous. Then again, I could be wrong: while I seek rationalism, maybe others will realize how big the mistake called religion is through ridicule? Whatever the case is, I have no problem with Maher openly mocking religion; no idea should be exempt from criticism, and by openly butchering the supposedly sacred religious cow Maher does great service to society as a whole.
Best scene: I have found the scene in which Maher’s mother tells him the reason why his family stopped going to church to be the most touching one in the film and also the most effective, probably because there was no comedy involved and probably because Maher never attempts to ridicule the mother he obviously respects. In case you’re curious, the reason why the Mahers stopped going to church many decades ago was to do with their use of contraceptives and the Catholic Church’s attitude on the matter. The fact Catholicism is still barking up the contraceptive tree only shows how Religulous religion still is.
Technical assessment: This is no DVD to look at for technical reasons. The film was obviously shot in low budget without much in the way of adequate lighting, and the DVD shows. Same for the sound, which is only mildly rescued by the occasional song.
Overall: As an investigative examination of religion, the way a proper skeptic should consider any theory, Religulous fails. But as stand up comedy this is top notch: both funny and controversial at 3.5 out of 5 stars.