Bill Maher's documentary "Religulous" asks a very simple question of all religions, and I agree with both the necessity in asking this question and discussing the answer: If you apply any lick of logic to age old religious beliefs, do they stand up to the modern standards of common sense? The answer that Maher, and I, have come to, is a big fat NO. Not only do these beliefs largely falter under any kind of logical scrutiny, but they often also come off as ridiculous -- or, actually, religulous. Unfortunately, much like the atheistic studies of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins or the books of neuroscientist Sam Harris, I disagree with the method that Maher uses to explore his initial question. That being said, it is a bit unfair to compare Mr. Maher with Mr. Dawkins or Mr. Harris. He is more appropriately likened to Michael Moore or Dennis Miller, both unfunny putzes who give a bad name to documentary filmmaking and politically savvy humor.
I was initially skeptical of the film (a mindset I'm sure Mr. Maher would have no problem with), but, much to my surprise, "Religulous" is consistently funny. In fact, at practically every chance the film goes for gag over dogma, and this is a very good choice. If you are looking for a an in-depth, unbiased look at evangelism in America, look elsewhere. I highly recommend "Jesus Camp," perhaps the most objective documentary I have ever seen. If you have an interest in religion and the way it interacts with modern culture, there are some good bits to spark further research.
Bill Maher's greatest strength -- and I give him much credit for this -- is his uncertainty. The interviews are not one-sided, anti-religious inflammatory attacks. When talking to his subjects, Maher rarely does anything but ask questions or crack jokes. The certainty of atheism, he says, mirrors the very certainty of the religions he is prodding, so he avoids it. He is more than willing to admit that he does not know what will happen after death, and a big chunk of the film's humor comes from this staunch certainty held by many religious followers and leaders. Jesus is real. The Bible must be followed literally. The Koran is the true word of God. Joseph Smith has the answers. Xenu is the commander of the Galactic Confederacy. All ridiculous, all questioned and / or laughed at. With this humor, though, comes problems.
There are two fundamental contradictions that debase any greater point that Maher is making. The first is that the movie doesn't really play fairly. Maher is all about straight questions, straight answers, logic, and the real material world. In order to get laughs, though, Maher often superimposes funny subtitles onto the screen during interviews, or edits in a funny look, or juxtaposes some comments with various silly (or depressing) images. For example, a Muslim man recieves a text message during an interview, and funny subtitles are typed up on the screen: "d-e-a-t-h 2 B-i-l-l M-a-h-e-r." Maher goes to great lengths to get laughs beyond the actual interviews, and uses post-production to instate a particular world view on events or dialogues that may not have that connotation without his tampering. Is this superimposition not just like playing God? Is the result of edited juxtapositions not dogmatic?
The second contradiction comes during the film's closing remarks, during which Maher literally preaches to the screen that if we do not change our God-loving ways, the world will come to an end. Images of atom bombs fill the screen. Sound familiar? Stuff like this ensures that the film will do little more than solidify the beliefs of religious audience members, and leave Maher to preach largely to his own choir.
It is difficult to say whether Maher talked to the right people, or if he came to the right conclusion. The film is not as wildly funny as director Larry Charles's less direct, but more effective film "Borat," nor is it as level headed or smart as "This Week in God" on The Daily Show. If anything, the film's release is an interesting counterpoint to the Christian-themed film "Fireproof," also currently in theaters, based solely on the fact that "Religulous" will certainly be misconstrued as a film that rails against the morals and goodness promoted in many religions. On the contrary, the film's thesis seems to be that we can find these morals and hope within us, without all of the supernatural aspects that tend to cause more bigotry, war, and harm than any religion would care to, or ever will, admit. It is safe to say that Maher would much prefer Thomas Jefferson's "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," to a King David Bible, a bit more introspection on the part of the religiously moderate, and a bit more pressure applied to monolithic beliefs. It is a good thing to have these arguments in the public sphere. From here one can only hope that they grow more sophisticated.