Movie Review: Religulous

Bill Maher, the always provocative comedian-cum-commentator, has a new movie out called Religulous, a round-the-world documentary on the irrationality of religion and those who believe in it.

I saw it last night. There were many laugh out loud moments and some truly frightening scenes of religious extremists off the deep end. Occasionally the movie was sad more than anything, such as the scene of John Westcott who was once gay but has “cured himself” and now, in the name of the Lord, helps other gay men rid themselves of homosexuality via Exchange Ministries. The irony is the guy still looks so obviously gay — haircut, voice, etc. Or the man who told Maher he believes in miracles and as evidence relayed a story of how one day he prayed it would rain and 10 minutes later — wait for it — it started raining! Unbelievable!

While I’m sympathetic to Maher’s basic points I have one stylistic complaint and one philosophical complaint. Stylistically, he repeatedly interrupted his interviewees and brought to the conversations a clear agenda for the answers he was looking for. Philosophically, he treated all believers the same — bozos through and through. The movie opens with Maher visiting a “trucker church” — a very small trailer in the middle of nowhere America where truckers gather together and pray. Maher, the smooth talking, blazer-wearing, L.A. comedian berates the overweight, blearly-eyed, not well educated truckers for their lack of skepticism about their faith. Huh? Why not let them be religious in peace?

Here’s the thing: Maher is convinced religion on the whole does more bad than good in the world. I entertain the notion that in the end religion does more good than bad. Take the truckers with whom he opens the film. Sure, I’m concerned about the slippery slope argument (if you’re willing to suspend rational faculties in this area, what else might you be irrational about?) but on the whole I bet these truckers derive a certain comfort and security from their weekly prayer sessions.

Later on, Maher interviews a senator and prominent God-believing scientist with these folks I do share his concern about how they’re letting religious doctrine influence their thinking. I’m totally fine with a trucker talking admiringly about God. I do get concerned when President Bush says God’s will informs his foreign policy, or when a CEO cites God as reason for doing something.

At the end Maher insists that if you’re atheist and quiet about it, speak up! To wit, his prime audience: passive atheists. Hard core believers won’t watch a movie like this, hard core atheists will love it but they were already sold. It’s the light weight non-believers who just might be moved.

One last point. Religulous suffers from the limits of the medium (film). It’s very hard to explore a topic like religion in any kind of depth and near impossible to resist the kind of emotional cheap shots that video and music and animation allow. Just like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is a perhaps entertaining but shallow way to understand the lead up to the Iraq war, Religulous is a rather shallow way to explore the atheist argument.

Bottom Line: As entertainment and comedy, Religious is well worth it. If you want an atheist treatise on religion, there are many books which explore the topic better.

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