“See, that’s religion; ego masquerading as humility.” – Bill Maher
Outspoken and unbeatable, Bill Maher started his career with stand-up, moved on to HBO specials and political panel shows – the current incarnation of which is Real Time with Bill Maher – and in 2008 he turned his attention to documentary with Religulous. Working alongside director Larry Charles – best known for his work on the controversial Borat and Bruno movies – the duo attempt to dissect the world of religion in its many ugly forms. It’s a topic which features heavily in his comedy routines (in both stand-up and talk-shows) and one which he certainly isn’t afraid from shying away from. In fact, he actively seeks it out. And since Maher is always upfront in his honest and hysterical views, he’s the perfect candidate to lead us on such a merry adventure.
What makes him just so suited is his genius gift of being able to appear completely open-minded whilst simultaneously cynical. Unflappable and passionate; sceptical but sympathetic; hysterical yet serious; Maher’s real message is to carry on the prophetic word of George Carlin in exposing deep-rooted societal issues and injustices through lots of laughter. Despite revelling quite gleefully in the absurdity of it all, there’s method in his madness. By exploring the ludicrousness of beliefs – no more-so than in the texts themselves and the attempted defences of such scripture – he uncovers the problems associated with unwavering devotion and unquestionable faith.
He does this via a series of interviews with an eclectic bunch of characters, coupled with a playful interactivity of text and other visual effects that add to the humour. The focus of this footage is on Christianity for the most part, although he also takes a look at the likes of Judaism and Islam plus the trendy, modern duo of Scientology and Mormonism. One of his more memorable interviews is with a don’t-call-me-homosexual “ex-gay” male, now married to a lesbian, and comes across as… well, I don’t want to get sued. Maher though, true to form, doesn’t hold back with his views. And he still gets a hug for his troubles.
This guy and others are quite clearly included because of their potential to be on-screen comedy gold, which they duly deliver. That’s not to say that they’re fake or staged. They’re moronic, naive and/or ignorant, but it would be a crime no less than treason to remove such footage from the final cut. And the film is littered with these people! From the man who believes he performed a miracle by making it rain, to the supposed 2nd-coming of Jesus, and on to the Holy Land Experience itself (don’t ask), Maher and Charles were no doubt laughing all the way to the bank (quite literally: the film made a healthy $13M from a cost of $2.5M). Take the senator who gives an account of his beliefs which is half-hilarious, half-startling: as he freely admits, you don’t have to be an intelligent guy to be one of the most powerful in America. And what better way to demonstrate his point than with babbling incoherency and a lack of command over the English language?
But to be fair to Maher (and Charles), not all of the subjects are such easy targets. Neither are they simply there to serve only the comedic side of the coin. There are two interviews that go hand-in-hand here: the first is a scientist who believes in God, and the second is a Vatican priest who seems somewhat sceptical of it all. The former is a rare beast indeed, as the documentary points out that 93% of scientists in the American National Academy of Sciences are either atheist or agnostic. And the latter – an honest, open-minded, unoffended believer – is rarer still. The only negative to report with these two in particular is that they aren’t afforded enough time; we’re always left wanting more, but this is because of the ground that needs to be covered. Maher’s nothing but ambitious in his attempt to take on such a vast and tricky topic in a hundred minutes.
Indeed, underneath it all is a very serious subject and one which Maher clearly feels strongly about. He doesn’t hold back at all here, including Islam which he appears to find inherently aggressive and oppressive. Although in fairness, you could probably substitute any other religion in for “Islam” in that sentence and it would remain valid. Maher touches upon the myth over the compatibility of religion and nationalism (“God and country!”) by displaying a few choice quotes from the Founding Fathers, though his on-screen audience won’t listen. Let’s hope that the views at home can hear him clearly.
In reality it’s a hysterical look at a hysterical subject and Maher goes at it with full force. Many would call this scattergun and others would call it a coordinated and one-sided approach: either way it’s seen as an unfair attack, but the opportunity is always there for riposte. Unfortunately for his challengers, they don’t have one. If you want a similar look at devotion to religious scripture in doc form then For the Bible Tells Me So is a more serious (but less informative) alternative. With Maher, it’s all about exposing arrogance and fear through the follies of faith.
Kick back and relax, because once you hear “Jesus dressed very well!” as a defence, you just know that you’re onto a winner.