TV Comedian Bill Maher hits the big screen October 3rd with a funny but unflinching expose on the nuttiness of religion.

Review by John C. Snider © 2008

For over fifteen years Bill Maher has been at the forefront of comedic social commentary, and has attracted intelligent, well-informed TV viewers to his unique brand of roundtable chat, in which he brings together journalists, politicians and random celebs to talk about the issues of the day.  Never known to pull his punches, Maher is a persistent advocate for rational discourse and an unrepentant mocker of conformity and corruption.  Indeed, Maher’s frank remarks about 9/11 led to advertiser-driven ABC’s cancellation of his talkshow Politically Incorrect in 2002, from which he quickly recovered by launching Real Time with Bill Maher on the subscriber-driven HBO.

Although Religulous [directed by Larry Charles (Borat) and distributed by Lionsgate] sounds like something our current Commander-in-Chief might have blurted out, it’s actually a portmanteau of “religious” and “ridiculous”.  And that’s exactly what this documentary does: expose the dangerous and potentially lethal consequences of putting the uncompromising certitude of faith over reason and introspective doubt.

Maher has long been a critic of religion, and here he travels the world to expose some of its worst and most laughable representatives.  Since Maher would never be allowed within a thousand miles of any widely-known religious leaders (e.g., the Pope, or the president of the Mormon Church), he settles mostly for the radical fringe.  During the course of two hours, Maher talks to truckstop Christians, an ex-Jew for Jesus, an anti-Zionist rabbi, a Dutchman who advocates spiritual pot-smoking, gay Muslim activists, a supposed descendant of Christ, and a guy who plays Jesus at a Holy Land theme park in Florida. 

The less marginal figures he interviews include Senator Mark Pryor (an Arkansas Democrat and creationist), geneticist Francis Collins, Answers-in-Genesis founder Ken Ham (who built the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky), George Coyne (former director of the Vatican Observatory), and researcher Andrew Newberg (who is pioneering “neurotheology”, a field which studies the neurological underpinnings of spiritual belief).  Maher also gets a guided tour of the Dome of the Rock, kicked out of the Vatican, and escorted off the lawn of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.  It’s too bad Maher didn’t have the opportunity to corner some of the heavier hitters, including President Bush (who is nonetheless featured in a few cringe-inducing clips), or engage in more detailed and thoughtful discussions with thinkers like John Shelby Spong, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Atkinson, or (while we’re dreaming) acerbic gadfly Christopher “God Is Not Great” Hitchens.

As it is, the film’s overall impression is of Maher flitting about, talking to (and making fun of) various whack jobs, and generally pointing out the hopelessly entrenched and fragmented religious beliefs that infest the world even in the 21st century.  But make no mistake: despite its flaws, Religulous is an unrelentingly funny movie that lends itself to repeated viewing.  After all the laughs, Maher ends on a down note, visiting the prophesied site of Armageddon and issuing a sobering warning about the dangers of mixing Bronze Age superstitions with the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons.  B+

Religulous Official Website

This review was written for the October 2008 issue of INSITE ATLANTA magazine. 

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