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"Religulous" Disappoints

by Chris Knipp
Thursday, 6 November 2008
We forgive you, Bill Maher, for you know not what you do.
Presented in Larry ("Borat") Charles' slapdash ADD-edited film, Bill Maher's critique of religion ruins its many valid points by choosing easy targets and continually adopting a manner so arrogant, condescending and preening it makes you sympathize with his victims.

The film follows Maher around in quick hiccups of brain-damaged editing from the real Holy Land to televangelists, hucksters, quacks, a truckers' chapel, Holy Land and anti-evolution theme parks, and rude interviews with offbeat Jews. There's little discernible logic to this jerky progress, except that at the end a visually loud and bombastic sequence seems to suggest that apocalypse is now, and is what fundamentalists want. Sadly, this is largely true, but should be the subject of another, not-at-all-funny film.

Maher is the heir of the nightclub comic provocateurs of the 60's, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, with the late George Carlin as his mentor and intermediary. These are humorists whose focus is intellectual and whose targets are the conventional assumptions of mainstream American society. Maher has a difference, in that he comes from a Catholic father and Jewish mother and was raised as a Catholic till he was in his mid-teens, when his father lost interest. He therefore begins with Christianity and pokes fun at such irrational assumptions as the virgin birth.

Maher, who's unquestionably quick-witted and smart, seeks here to critique some of the major tenets of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as well as some of the most reprehensible aspects of these religions' institutional behaviors. His method is more relentless than systematic. The contents of "Religulous" are parceled out in sound-bites. Even when the film follows Maher's dialogue with, say, the truckers in their chapel, hardly a sentence is allowed to go by without cutting to Maher commenting further while driving along in a car. One thing that is not permitted is for an argument to play out or a speaker to finish his point. Since Maher's agnostic approach to religion is all about argumentation, the dislocated style sets a poor example.

Though Maher purports to be selling doubt, he never questions his own smug rationalism.

At one point Maher teases a man who has his own religion, worshiping cannabis, playing on his paranoia while they smoke a joint together. The friend I watched the film with suggested that the filmmakers themselves had smoked too much dope. In fact the trajectory of this movie reveals zero attention span, and though Maher purports to be selling doubt, he never questions his own smug rationalism.

There are only a few intelligent or convincing or arguably sane persons engaged in conversation with the smirking, self-satisfied Maher. One of these is the Holy Land theme park Jesus, who, rather surprisingly, is very quick on his feet in defending and illustrating a religion of love and a holy spirit that is as omnipresent as the wind. There are two ex-Mormons who cooperate in listing the beliefs of their former church, and say nothing foolish. Still another is Rev. Reginald Foster, said to be the Pope's unofficial Latinist. Interviewed outside St. Peter's in Rome, he readily agrees that hell and heaven and the virgin birth, December 25 as Jesus' birthday, are all things that are outdated or unknown; he doesn't get a chance to explain how he still nonetheless remains a firmly ensconced part of the Vatican.

Dr. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, has said that he was filmed in a lengthy discussion with Maher in which he made the case that "acceptance of evolution is entirely consistent with belief in God," but we only get to see Collins for a few minutes being interrupted by Maher.

Other expert spokesmen are similarly misrepresented. The Rev. George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican observatory, gets talked to in order to rebut assertions made by Ken Ham, a proponent of Intelligent Design and curator of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Coyne gets left saying a line about how "the Bible is not a book of science," but his argument about how evolution can be interpreted as not contradicting a belief in God as a creator is cut out. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a research neurologist who's done a study on brain activity associated with religion, is cut in walking through Grand Central Station and talking with Maher, but Maher's attitude that religious thought is some kind of nuttiness isn't Newberg's, though from the movie you wouldn't know that.

Clearly Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have perpetrated atrocities and some of the ideas they have taught their flocks are patently absurd as well. But these major monotheistic religions are too central to human culture to be simply dismissed as a form of crackpot thinking or oppression. What about St. Augustine, the gnostics, the Sistine Chapel, the beautiful English of the King James Bible and the Arabic of the Qur'an? Perhaps Bernini's columns aren't exemplars of Christian humility, but they're magnificent architecture. Muslims come in as believers in absurd claptrap or terrorists. Visually, Muslim prayer is even made fun of by being run at high speed. Even a serious adolescent wouldn't be long satisfied by the level of criticism here. And though some peculiar sects come in for mention—Maher recites Scientology concepts dressed as a nut case at London's Hyde Park Corner—Buddhism, Hinduism, or other major world religions are not even mentioned.

If you're going to take on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in a single film, you need to show a little more class than this.

Though Bill Maher substitutes shouting down and interrupting for polite debating, Larry Charles is to blame for the film's trashy look, its visible mike booms and grainy video, its preponderance of clips from bad "Greatest Story Ever Told" flicks, it's brain-damaged cutting and lack of logical structure. I am not one of the many fans of Charles' tasteless "Borat." Notably, that is another film whose subjects protested they were crudely misrepresented. This time, Charles is cutting up arguments that involve central aspects of human culture. It's fine to poke fun at religion. I'm all for it. But if you're going to take on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in a single film, you need to show a little more class than this.

©Chris Knipp 2008. Chris Knipp writes from San Francisco.

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This story was published on November 7, 2008.