Religulous Documentary Essays

One issue one could have with Religulous is that it doesn't seem reasonable to believe that the religious literalists who are the targets of the film will see it, realize the futility and archaic silliness of their beliefs and change. But, really, if you consider the way Bill Maher speaks to his interviewees, the way he comments as director Larry Charles interviews him during the film's road trip, and Maher's overall embitterment towards religion evidenced clearly in his stand-up act and on his show Real Time With Bill Maher, you will see that this film is not made to change minds but to reassure those who already understand that lack of necessity and the danger of futility and bigotry in religion that they are not alone and that there are hit movies like this that defend the viewpoints they are reticent to voice themselves.

At a recent book signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers here in Cincinnati, I spoke with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who recently found Christianity through his dilemma with throat cancer. (Yes, that Joe Eszterhas.) He claims to find it nearly impossible to sell his new script about St. Paul to Hollywood, professing that it's because there is a bias against Christianity in the studio system. Maher feels otherwise. His admitted intention behind making this comic documentary is because religious epics that have poured out of Hollywood since the dawn of cinema have endeared audiences to religions that, especially in their organized forms, preach and imply startling aversions to scientific and historical facts, take advantage of certain texts as means of racism, sexism and homophobia and other such things.

I am just now getting around to writing about Religulous, which I saw weeks before the Joe Eszterhas book signing, but I can't help but wonder about the differing viewpoints of a hilarious, righteously cynical Libertarian with whom I consistently agree and one of the highest-paid screenwriters who has worked for nearly half a century in the very system that he claims to oppose his newfound beliefs. Really, the truly surprising breadth of this film's release and commercial success (though I do know a few people in St. Louis who, last time we spoke, claimed it had yet to show there) should affirm Eszterhas's viewpoint, but actually seeing Maher's film is a different story.

This admittedly and purposely biased documentary is about Bill Maher's view of religion. As I find that he usually is, he's very smart, shrewd and funny, and I found the film pleasurable, even if from time to time he's a little unkind to his interviewees, who come off as objects of ridicule. He goes to holy places in Italy, Israel, Great Britain, Florida, Missouri and Utah, and talks with fanatics of the religions he confronts there.

A good confirmation of what I said earlier about opponents of Maher's views not being affected at all by this film is that he interrupts, talks over, spots subtitles and inserts movie and TV clips. The film's preaching to the converted and alienating of the non-converted is not a misstep by Maher and director Charles, but rather the intention. We relish his misconduct. The people he interviews are shockingly patient and tolerant, even most, not all, of the truckers in a makeshift truck stop chapel. You are dreading the point where one assaults Maher, but nobody does, although one trucker balls a fist and says, "You got a problem." Later in the film, there is an interesting moment where Maher walks out on a rabbi who favorably attend a Holocaust denial conference in Iran.

Persistently, Maher's altercations regard logical inconsistencies of holy books. Did Jonah really live for three days in the belly of a whale? No, of course not! It was a large fish! There are people who believe it. Is the End of Days nigh? A rather decent U.S. senator thinks so. Will the Rapture arise in our lifetimes? Common accord. Mormons believe Missouri will be the place to be, to which Maher quips with impeccable timing, "Branson, I hope." Maher visits the Creation Museum, to which I've been, thus I can corroborate the diorama of human children playing at the feet of dinosaurs. He didn't even penetrate the surface of what I saw there.

His two most logical guests, ironically, are Vatican priests, who with pleasure write off large parts of widely perceived Catholic beliefs, including the existence of Hell. One of these priests dies laughing as he mentions various beliefs that I was taught at Nativity Elementary. The other remarks that Jesus is polled sixth person to which Italians pray in crisis. The Hispanic pastor who believes he is the second coming of Christ will be disappointed.

Maher also has ominous questions Muslims about whether or not the Koran orders the death of infidels, leading to a frightening climax where he ties organized religion to a premature nuclear apocalypse, leaving us with the feeling that religion must be overshadowed for us to survive.

Religion is harmful to progress. Faith is the benefit of not thinking. Doubt is respectful. The Republicans I know personally all hate Bill Maher. No surprise there, but my point is this: There is little to zero chance that they, who tend to believe what this film ridicules, will see this film, and every chance that those of us, like me, who already love him, will rush to see this because essentially, it turns out to be a rallying of secularists who should be more alarmed and more active than they are. Maher's persona and his approach to the material are totally in sync with the midpoint of your any given agnostic intellectual young person, like me for instance.

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