Thursday, November 05, 2009

Religulous (2008)

You know the traditional prohibition against discussing politics and religion in polite company? The wisdom of that rule is demonstrated by the movie “Religulous,” a movie so polarizing it makes “Fahrenheit 9/11” look like a nature documentary. I’m not sure what the original purpose of this documentary by Bill Maher was, but the finished product is pretty much a one-man screed against all religion, everywhere.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some fun to be had here, even if some of it is mean-spirited. Basically, Maher interviews a series of religious people of different faiths, asking them the pointed, full-frontal questions that the rest of us have long wanted to ask them. “How can you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?” “How can you believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old?” “How can you claim to espouse love while preaching hatred of gays?” He doesn’t just go after Christians. Muslims get their fair share, including an interview with a radical Islamic English rapper who is terrorism‘s answer to gangsta rap. Maher asks him, “How can you expect people to tolerate your lyrics when you and other Muslims can’t be tolerant of someone like Salman Rushdie?” Scientologists and Mormons get some attention as well. Even though most religious people will find something to hate in this film, they will find a lot to love as well, since Maher makes fun of all the other religions, too. There is genuine vicarious pleasure in seeing these questions posed so bluntly, but many of Maher’s interviewees simply aren’t up to the intellectual task of defending their beliefs. Most (not all) of them are in positions of religious leadership, so I really shouldn’t feel sorry for them, but still, the effect is sometimes like watching bunnies get stomped. Maher concludes with a no-holds-barred manifesto in which he openly declares that religion is the source of great evil and that mankind will not progress or survive unless we put aside this relic of our superstitious past.

Even as I often cringed at the blunt, heavy-handed interviews, I had to admire, just a little, the sheer balls of this popular entertainer coming out and saying, without mincing words, that he thinks religion is crap, and that mankind would be better off without it. The thing is, Maher’s message lacks maturity. He has chutzpah and is often funny, but at the end of the day, he has something of the feel of a newly agnostic college sophomore. It is childish to lay so much blame at the feet of faith. From what I can tell, humans managed to slaughter and enslave each other before the advent of modern religions. Granted, it is easy to lose sight of that when what we see of religion is mostly protesters screaming obscenities at gay people, intellectual midgets trying to dumb down science texts, and suicide bombers murdering children. At the end of the day, though, I think that these are failings of human nature, and that religion is sometimes just a convenient outlet for our darker side. Just as much evil has been done in the name of a charismatic leader (Hitler) or a political ideal (Communism) as has been done in the name of God.

I am torn as to whether or not to recommend “Religulous” for mass viewing. It’s a no-brainer that the skeptics out there will enjoy this. I truly think that the film could be thought-provoking for religious folks as well, but you need to go into it knowing that if you are a member of any fundamentalist creed, this film will say things that disrespect what you believe in. If you cannot tolerate that, then stay away. While the movie may not be for everyone, I think the final message of “Religulous” is something everyone needs to hear: “The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.”

4 stars out of 5

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