Monday, October 6, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

You know niche marketing has come of age when even we atheists get some representation, mostly in the form of books and YouTube videos from the likes of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. And now comes our first official feature, Bill Maher’s Religulous.

About time, too. After all, as Maher points out in Religulous, about 16 percent of Americans don’t believe in God. That’s “a huge minority,” he says, “much bigger than Jews, black, NRA members – lots of minorities that have lobbies and get everything they want, or are at least in the game.”

Yet atheists and agnostics have no representation in Congress, politics are often skewed to the interests of religious extremists, and nonbelievers tend to maintain a don’t-ask-don’t-tell stance, fearful of being branded as amoral, un-American, or worse.

In theory, it’s great to have some spokesmen of our own out there, taking on the hypocrisy and intolerance that are often part of organized religion. But hypocrisy and intolerance aren’t just part of organized religion. They’re part of human nature, and they pop up just as much in the anti-religious arguments of professional nonbelievers like Maher as they do in the fundamentalist sermons those guys like to quote. And, even for a member of the choir he’s preaching to, that can make Maher’s message of tolerance and open-mindedness ring pretty hollow.

Maher’s movie is a loosely structured diatribe that skips around, both geographically and thematically, as he visits religious hot spots like Jerusalem, where he mostly talks about Christianity; Amsterdam, where he briefly investigates the fanatical brand of Islam that resulted in the death of Theo van Gogh; and Washington, D.C., where he talks to Senator Mark Pryor, one of several creationists in Congress.

Maher also makes side trips to parts of the American heartland – and to other religions, like Scientology and Mormonism, which he calls the “really crazy stuff.” Wherever he goes, his central questions remain the same: “Why is faith good?” and “How can smart people believe in the talking snake and people that are 900 years old and that kind of thing?”

Director Larry Charles, a longtime producer of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, also directed Borat. This movie uses a similar approach to that one, combining man-on the-street interviews that often come off as ambushes, even when they’ve been pre-arranged.

Maher establishes a good rapport with the people he interviews, and he really listens to them, as he always listens to the guests on his TV shows. He gives people their due if they make a point he appreciates – and cuts them off to keep the conversation focused if he thinks they’re talking nonsense.

But that respectful attention is sometimes undercut by snarky captions that pop up to comment on what people are saying, or by his own sneering after-the-fact commentary, which he makes to an unseen filmmaker as they travel between interviews. What’s more, a lot of his interviewees come off more like straight men, saying hardly anything at all as Maher riffs on a topic.

Charles and his editors keep the pace lively and the tone light, delivering a couple of belly laughs and a lot of smirks. They make good use of clips of characters like Mel Brooks’ Indian chief in Blazing Saddles, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana from Scarface, and Maher himself in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, whose snippets of dialogue function as wry asides. But they lean too much on montages featuring easy targets like Osama bin Laden, TV evangelists speaking in tongues, and football coaches praying for victory.

Every so often, Maher raises a truly thought-provoking question and hammers the answer home with humor, like when he asks whether we’ve maintained any other Bronze Age beliefs other than our religious ones, then tosses out a few others that are laughably absurd. He tosses out some tasty tidbits, like the fact that Thomas Jefferson called Christianity “the most perverted system that ever shone on man.” And he takes us to some interesting places, like a museum of creationism that shows animatronic dinosaurs coexisting with people and the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, where the crucifixion is played out as a tourist attraction.

But on the whole, Religulous is too glib to be thought-provoking and too doctrinaire to be consistently entertaining.

Maher claims to be “selling doubt,” yet he’s just as certain of his own point of view as any of the religious people he talks to. What’s more, he can be rudely disrespectful, drawing comparisons between pastors and pimps and equating religion with “f---ing kids and burning people alive.” And he ends with apocalyptic talk and imagery that he hasn’t earned, suddenly claiming that religion may lead us into a world-annihilating war. That’s a case that could be made, but he hasn’t made it, so his mushroom cloud feels like a cheap scare tactic.

Does anyone really believe there would be no homophobia, misogyny, or war if there were no religion? Haven’t people found plenty of other reasons to demonize “others”? And why bother trying to prove how irrational religious beliefs can be? To believers, logic is beside the point: That’s why they call it faith.

For an atheist used to being marginalized by a hyper-religious culture, Maher’s certitude is as dangerously seductive as that talking snake that he’s so obsessed with. In the end, his movie left me with just one question: Is it any better for an atheist to be intolerant of religious people than the other way around?

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