Is there a tougher topic on the planet to approach than religion? It’s one of those things that can instantly offend or gratify, not to mention a topic where people seem set in their ways. Bill Maher is likely one of two things to you: 1) an intelligent thinker who utilizes common sense as his approach to seemingly complex problems, or 2) an egotistical, elitist a-hole who just likes stirring the pot. Religulous will almost certainly not change your opinion of Maher, but the film is exceedingly well-made, intriguing, and awkwardly hilarious.
Maher expresses his views on religion from the outset. He was raised Catholic, even though one of his parents is Jewish and the other Catholic. Like many of us, he was made to attend Sunday school in his youth against his will. The older he got, the more he distanced himself from organized religion. Never does he claim to have the answers, nor does he believe anyone has the answers. What he’s more interested in is how seemingly level-headed people can base their lives around stories that, when read literally, seem far-fetched, to say the least. He sees religion as the primary cause of death and destruction in this world, and his journeys in Religulous undeniably take him to some of the most dangerous parts of the world.
Most of the film consists of Maher speaking with people of various religious beliefs, interjected with clips of other films to demonstrate his points. The director, Larry Charles, keeps things moving at a country-hopping pace. Maher runs into resistance nearly everywhere he goes, whether it is a church “trailer” for truckers or sacred grounds in the Middle East. The interviews aren’t purposefully confrontational, but instead feature a curious Maher asking ordinary people why they believe what they believe. More obscure sights, such as an amusement park of sorts that defies every shred of scientific evidence regarding the existence of Jesus Christ and dinosaurs, provide perfect comic relief and ample opportunity for Maher’s dry comedic delivery.
Maher himself maintains his level-headedness throughout. He is a well-intentioned guy, even if he constantly says what none of us would. His statistics regarding the number of self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics are on display often, and he seems to know he’s facing an uphill battle in challenging the religious beliefs of people who have been set in their ways their whole lives. The film’s final ten minutes are unexpectedly powerful, as Maher narrates over a montage of horrific events carried out in the name of God.
Odds are that you knew by title alone whether you’re going to see this movie or not. The easily offended don’t dare watch it, but those with an open mind and the same type of curiosity as Maher will find plenty to indulge in here. There are talking points galore to take away, which is the purpose of most documentaries. It will help even more if you enjoy Maher’s brand of humor. Religulous is a fearless documentary and one of the best of the genre this year.
Studio: Lions Gate Films
Length: 101 Minutes
Rating: R for some language and sexual material.
Theatrical Release: October 1, 2008 (Limited) / October 3, 2008 (Wide)
Directed by: Larry Charles
Written by: Bill Maher
Cast: Bill Maher, Steve Burg, Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda, Andrew Newberg