Are you one of the unfortunate souls who missed out on seeing Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous during its limited theatrical run in late 2008?Â That’s too bad: Maher’s religion-is-dangerous exposÃ© became the seventh highest grossing documentary of all time, bringing in over $13M in 11 weeks (it kicked the snot out of Ben Stein’s not-so-thinly-veiled creationist propaganda piece Expelled, earning nearly twice what Expelled made in half the time and in half the theaters).
At a time when America (the Republican thrashing at the ballot box last November notwithstanding) hugs religion closer than ever, Maher isn’t afraid to shout “Stop kidding yourselves!” at the top of his lungs, putting his career and reputation at risk.Â (Remember that Maher’s talk show Politically Incorrect was dropped from ABC in 2002 after he mocked President Bush for calling the 9-11 terrorist “cowards.”Â Ironically, Maher was merely agreeing with guest Dinesh D’Souza, a religiously conservative pundit who got off scot-free.)
To make his point, Maher travels around the world, visiting Israel, the Vatican, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and various locales with the United States, talking to Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people whose religious beliefs resist short description (like the Dutchman who advocates pot-smoking for spiritual purposes).Â Failing to land appointments with anyone with global influence (like, say, the Pope), Maher settles for everyday folks (like the middle-class tourists at a Holy Land theme park in Florida), a British Muslim whose rap music advocates jihad, a Puerto Rican evangelist who claims to be the Second Coming of Christ, a rabbi who thinks the Jews haven’t suffered enough, and (my personal favorite) a Catholic priest who resides in the Vatican but openly scoffs at core church doctrines like Hell and the Virgin Birth.
For all the misanthropic bluster of his television commentaries, in Religulous Maher comes across as a genuine people-person.Â He laughs and chats easily with folks from all walks of life, and seems authentically interested in hearing what they have to say (the lone exception is the anti-Zionist rabbi, from whom Maher ultimately walks away in disgust).Â But hard questions come along with the laughter.Â Maher fearlessly asks believers how they can reconcile the “fairy tales” of the Bible with their common sense, and shoots back when asked “What if you’re wrong?” with “Well, what if you’re wrong?”
The Religulous DVD (released by Lionsgate on February 17th with a suggested retail price of $29.95) has some nice special features: an optional audio commentary track with Bill Maher and director Larry Charles; some deleted scenes; and a collection of the various monologues Maher recorded at locations around the world.
Frankly, this DVD will appeal almost exclusively to those who already share Maher’s skeptical views.Â It’ll probably piss of those with deep religious beliefs, either because they perceive the film as an attack against their religion (which, let’s be honest, it is), or because they’re offended that Maher lumps the mainstream faiths together with the fringers and the “crazies” (which is also true, but still fair game).
Maher pulls no punches intellectually while drawing upon three decades of experience as a stand-up comedian to deliver a movie that’s as funny as it is thought-provoking.Â Maher beings and ends at Megiddo (a site in Israel that, according to the Book of Revelation, will see the final battle between God and Satan), delivering a sobering monologue about the risks of combining Bronze Age superstition with the annihilative (if that’s not a word, it should be) power of 21st century technology.Â He also urges rationalists to speak out, to challenge those whose views aren’t grounded in facts.Â In Maher’s view, the fate of the world is–quite literally–at stake.Â And he’s probably right.
Religulous is available at Amazon.com.