Ponder this: Christians and Muslims embrace two competing, ancient fairy tales that both end with the glorious destruction of the world, except for exclusive alternate endings for believers. And the people who currently have the greatest power to destroy the world are Christians and Muslims, whether by nuclear bomb or environmental neglect. Therefore, prophecy is destined to fulfill itself, unless people come to their senses and recognize religion for the poison it is.
Offended? Terrified? Whether you're a Sunday School regular or a godless intellectual, you're certain to find Bill Maher
's anti-religion polemic Religulous to be a provocative, brilliant, infuriating documentary. It's one part Bowling for Columbine, one part An Inconvenient Truth
, built upon a base of sneering mockery. Article continues below
Directed by Larry Charles
, who previously rocked multiplexes with Borat
, this shockumentary features Maher traversing the world's holy sites and meeting its believers. But Maher seeks not to learn anything, but rather to dispute the foundations of human faith.
For those familiar with Maher's stand-up and television career, his incredulousness about our devotion to religious belief and ritual will come as little surprise. All religions are, after all, creations of man, and subject to the same corruption and failures as other human institutions.
To make his point, Maher spends much of the movie challenging believers. He asks Christian pastors and laypeople why they believe myths that don't appear in the Bible, like the virgin birth, or ignore tenets that do, like Christ's admonishments of the rich. He outs the far less ancient belief systems of Mormonism ("God lives on another planet, and when you and spouse die you get a planet of your own!") and Scientology ("Xenu put all the aliens in volcanoes and blew them up with H-bombs!"), and asks if they're really any weirder than the ones we know ("God impregnated a virgin with a son who was really also God Himself, and sent him on a suicide mission so he could fly back into space!").
He also studies the big business of religion, from schlocky "sell-evangelists" hocking DVDs, to an Orlando Christian theme park complete with a daily Passion reenactment and gift shop, to the notorious Creation Museum in Kentucky, to the palatial environs of the Vatican, to a lab for electronics designed to exploit Jewish Sabbath loopholes.
And Maher fearlessly takes on the violence of Islam, at his own risk. You may recall that newspaper cartoon of Mohammed that resulted in the murder of 50 people around the world. Theo Van Gogh was shot and stabbed for producing a 10-minute movie about the oppression of Muslim women. Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding after writing The Satanic Verses. Yet every Muslim Maher meets demonstrates pure denial that something might be unjust about Islam.
Charles's direction is brisk and clever, peppered with funny clips and audio tricks. While an "ex-gay" pastor tries to convince Maher that nobody's really gay, the theme to Brokeback Mountain tinkles in the background. It's subtle. It's hilarious.
As documentarians, however, don't expect much from Maher and Charles. This movie focuses on the charlatans who exploit religion to accumulate wealth and power. Those who claim that faith actually helped them improve their lives are unfairly dismissed and mocked, even as Maher admits he prayed to God to help himself quit smoking.
"Religion must die for mankind to live," Maher declares near the end, in case he hadn't already made his conclusion obvious. He means for Religulous to be a call to arms for the non-religious -- America's largest unrepresented minority. Polls consistently show that of all minorities, Americans consider atheists the least palatable and trustworthy. Movies like this might not help grow their ranks, but perhaps it will help them realize they're not alone.