Maher’s documentary skewers religious fanatics

By Alex Avakian

‘Religulous’ features sharp social critic Bill Maher. It’s directed by Larry Charles, of… ‘Religulous’ features sharp social critic Bill Maher. It’s directed by Larry Charles, of ‘Borat.’ And it’s all about religion. It goes without saying, then, that this is a documentary that tends to ask some hard and thoughtful questions most religion addicts just’ don’t want to hear. Spanning a multitude of political and religious issues, Maher seeks out the true vendettas of Christian televangelists, a rabbi who attends a Holocaust denial convention in Iran, Muslim gay bar owners and a follower of the marijuana-themed religion Cantheism. And it just keeps going from there. Maher begins his anti-religious crusade in Israel’s fabled Megiddo, the historic place where the prophesized Armageddon will unfold. Maher theorizes that in an era of ever-impending nuclear disaster, religion is a sloppy tool of man used to validate individual political agendas, ultimately threatening the well-being of humanity. As Maher puts it, ‘When Revelations was written, only God had the power to destroy the world.’ The film’s title reveals Maher’s stance on the subject ‘mdash; ‘Religulous’ is a play on ‘ridiculous.’ But despite his stance, Maher gives his interviewees a fighting chance. Unlike other projects, Maher is not walking up to random people and catching them off guard. Almost all of the interview segments are arranged meetings, where Maher begins politely but will stray into comedic, underhanded religious mocking if the scenario calls for it. And it often does. Toward the beginning of the film, Maher presents a bar graph showing that 16 percent of Americans identify themselves as being non-religious. He points out that there are countless other, smaller minority groups, such as blacks and NRA members, that regularly contend for their own political agendas with results in their favor. Despite the film’s jestful arrangement, Maher clearly is targeting this 16 percent, asking them to’ speak out against the religious zealots of America. Most of the documentary is based on Maher’s conversations with various religious and political figures. The interview segments often employ the use of comic cutaway gags, using vintage film footage to convey Maher’s points to the audience. In one scene, a guest of Maher’s is explaining how 10-year-old boys can be ordained priests in certain Christian sects. Maher replies, ‘How do you think that makes Jesus feel?’ The movie provides Technicolor movie footage of four Romans slapping Jesus in the face as a response. Throughout the film, snippets like these are used as responses to many statements made by the guests, giving Maher a chance to show what he was thinking during the interviews, as well as reflect the comedian’s dominant, less serious side. While Maher does not put words in anyone’s mouth, he often sets them up for verbal failure. In his defense, however, Maher sometimes puts no effort into defeating the debaters, watching them pilot themselves straight into the ground while chasing their own logic. In one scene, Maher interviews Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., on the subject of evolution. Maher bluntly asks, ‘It couldn’t have possibly been Adam and Eve 5,000 years ago with a talking snake in a garden, could it?’ ‘Well, it could have been,’ says Pryor. ‘It worries me that people are running my country who think, who believe in a talking snake,’ replies Maher. ‘Well you don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate,’ says Pryor with a hearty, giddy laugh. An awkward pause ensues while the depths of Pryor’s comment sinks in. The smile quickly melts from his face as he realizes what he just said. The movie ends on a very serious note, however. Maher returns to Megiddo and gives the film’s climactic speech about the danger of religious nuts who have the power to send entire countries to war. The tirade is cut into by scenes of apocalyptic catastrophe flashing before your eyes as Maher explains the seriousness of the religious-political agenda. Maher encourages the unreligious to take a stand against those who follow blind faith, because with crisis around every corner these days, it’s time to ‘grow up or die.’