Photograph by Jerome Prebois
TALKING POINTS: Bill Maher argues religion with some true believers.
Bill Maher explores the relationship between God and man, if any, in 'Religulous'
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
TO TAKE DOWN an institution, you don't get mad, you get funny. Dan Quayle once groused about the immorality of Murphy Brown, but today nobody remembers the content of his argument, only the fact that his actions made him look like an idiot. In taking on nothing less than all the world's religions for his new comedy documentary Religulous, Bill Maher understands this fine line, but in his comedic zeal, he sometimes forgets and steps wrong. Maher was raised half-Catholic and half-Jewish, with a father who took him to Sunday church and a mother who stayed home. As a standup comic in the 1980s, Maher took little pokes and pot shots at religion here and there, but now he has unveiled his anti-religious nuclear missile. His mission is nothing less than saving the world. Accompanied by director Larry Charles, who made Borat a household name, Maher begins with a handful of burly Christians who meet and preach out of the back of a Mack truck. He's armed with biblical research and rebuttals to the expected responses. One man storms out. Maher recovers, using humor and his likeable self to escape unscathed.
Next up, he interviews a televangelist and a man who claims to "convert" homosexuals to heterosexuals, but it quickly becomes apparent that while these targets claim to have God on their side, Charles and Maher have Final Cut Pro on theirs, and the interviews are edited to make the interviewees look ridiculous. Maher also punctuates his interviews with various stock footage and clips from old movies, meant to hammer home a joke. Admittedly, these are the movie's funniest moments, but its smartest are Maher's very basic, simple questions that throw each and every one of the interviews subjects off-guard. He wants to understand the concept of faith, or believing in something—especially such outlandish tales of virgin births, angels, resurrections, etc.—without proof. Why is that good? No one has an answer. But at the same time, no one changes their stance.
"I'm preaching doubt," he adds. And indeed, while the movie comes up with all kinds of little tidbits and factoids, they simply raise more questions. Apparently, 16 percent of the American public claim themselves as agnostic or atheist, which is a much larger percentage than many of the powerful lobbies that can influence legislation. The founding fathers (Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, et al.) are quoted, sneering at organized religion in no uncertain terms, a school of thought that flies in the face of American politics as we know it today.
By the movie's final third, Maher has moved on to Mormons and Muslims and even Jesus himself (an actor at a theme park), but doesn't get very much further; he seems to have run out of patience and jokes by this time. Eventually, his real point comes: all religions prophesize the end of the world. The irony, according to Maher, is that all these religions are trying to destroy one another in the name of their gods, and that—because of religion, rather than despite it—the end of the world might just actually come about. That's an interesting, if horrifying point, but by this time Maher is no longer trying to entertain. He's become Dan Quayle, pointing an angry finger at Murphy Brown. And no one wants to listen to that.
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