Monday, October 13, 2008
Holy War: Religulous
And on the eighth day, God said: “Pull my finger.” That isn’t a joke from Bill Maher’s Religulous, but it might as well be. Helmed by Larry Charles, the director of Borat, and starring Maher, Religulous is a documentary in the Michael Moore style in which religion is in the crosshairs and condescending jokes are the ammunition. Maher, standing front and center, takes us on an offbeat tour of several major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, etc), a few minor ones (a marijuana-using sect in Amsterdam) and those in between (Scientology). Maher interviews people at the Vatican, near the ruins of Megiddo, at a religious theme park in Florida and at other places across the globe. No matter which religion is being discussed or who it’s being discussed with, the conversation remains the same. Though Maher’s explicit arguments change on a case by case basis, the implicit theme goes something like this: “If you believe that, I’ve got some land near Chernobyl to sell you.”
The point of Religulous, Maher says, is to create a case for doubt. Maher notes, seemingly sincerely, that he just doesn’t know whether any of the world’s religions have it right or if there is a God at all. Thus he doesn’t subscribe to any religion, but he is careful to point out that he isn’t an atheist. To absolutely not believe in God would, in Maher’s view, cause him to commit the very sin of certainty that confounds him about believers. The trouble is, for a guy turned off by a made-up mind, Maher is so devout in his doubt that it might actually take a talking snake or a few days living inside the belly of a fish for him to see the light. After all, this is a man who calls religion “detrimental to the progress of humanity.” You’d have an easier time building an ark than finding doubt in that statement.
But if you think Maher’s imperfections as a listener render Religulous unworthy of your attention, think again. Maher himself doesn’t always play fair (his ideological battles in this film often pit him, a heavyweight debater, against novice lightweights), but as a whole his documentary gives voice to a shockingly silent though significant minority. According to a statistic cited by Maher, 16 percent of Americans are admitted non-believers. But while Bill O’Reilly throws regular fits about a mounting “attack on Christianity” taking place in the U.S., the fact remains that remarks disparaging any religion other than Islamic extremism are considered taboo. That’s unfortunate. If you believe that society is improved by a free market of ideas, Maher’s anti-God bullhorning isn’t just acceptable, it’s long overdue.
Of course, Religulous won’t be embraced by everyone. Many will be offended, by Maher’s smugness if nothing else. But is Religulous truly offensive? If you find yourself leaning toward yes, you might ask yourself why. All Maher does with this film is repeatedly call attention to the curiosities, let’s call them, of many religious faiths. Shouldn’t something as significant as a belief in God be able to stand up to such cross-examination? Why is it that something so profound all too often goes unchallenged? There are a few instances in Religulous when people walk out on Maher rather than stand up to his questioning. “I didn’t know you were making that kind of film,” they say. Translation: “I’m here to agree with you, but don’t you dare raise doubts.” Seems to me that though we tell ourselves we don’t discuss religion in public because faith is a private matter, perhaps the real reason we avoid the subject is because it keeps us from being asked questions for which we don’t have answers.
In case it matters, full disclosure: From as early as I can remember until I left home for college, I went to church every Sunday. I even went to a Catholic high school, though that was more for the benefits of a private school education than any desire (parental or personal) for religious influence. Looking back over my life, I can think of numerous positive encounters with representatives of the Church and not a single negative one. But I am no longer a practicing Catholic. The sticking point, if there was just one, came down to the Church’s cowardly, just-barely-tolerant treatment of homosexuals (revealed through a number of equal-rights measures going through my home state of Oregon in the early 90s). I failed to see how the Catholic Church’s stance was remotely in line with the spirit of Jesus Christ’s teachings, and that quashed any desire for affiliation. As of today, I haven’t altogether eliminated the idea of God, but I can’t say I believe in Him. I love the idea of an afterlife, but I’ve seen no evidence of one firsthand, and so I don’t believe in that either. I hope I’m wrong on both counts.
In the meantime, yes, I find it either arrogant or naïve to think that any of us has a clue who God is or what His intentions are. Maher doesn’t need to sell doubt to me. I already have it. On that note, if Religulous is meant to be a vehicle to spark a non-belief movement, I’m not sure it succeeds. The movie is peppered with observations that should give any thinking believer a pause, but these erudite points are lost amidst others that are flimsy and sophomoric. Time and again, Maher genuflects to comedy before honest conversation, and in doing so he is likely to repulse the very people he hopes to convert. In Maher’s ideal scenario, the gag-filled antics of Religulous make it the meat surrounding the bitter pill that is Maher’s truth. But, more likely, the dog in this scenario is Maher. He spends so much of Religulous wearing a grin of self-congratulations that he might as well be licking himself.
To be fair: America probably isn’t ready for the PowerPoint lecture in favor of doubt, ala Al Gore’s global warming wake-up call An Inconvenient Truth. Perhaps this was the only approach available to Maher if he hoped to reach a mainstream audience. But by that design, Religulous isn’t as funny as it should be or even all that bold. There are a few terrific gags (a Brokeback Mountain music cue, for one), but most of them are cheap or predictable. As it turns out, Maher’s smartest joke, borrowed from an old stand-up routine, doubles as his most cogent argument for doubt: First he lists some of the beliefs of Scientology, and then, after those get a laugh, he compares them to some of the beliefs of Christianity. The point? Most religions seem so wacky to outsiders that it’s hard to believe insiders have taken an honest look at themselves. It’s a gotcha moment for the audience, and it’s hard to avoid the trap.
At my Catholic high school I came in contact with various religious figures who encouraged me to challenge my faith. I doubt that most are so fortunate. Religulous attempts to take the fight to those who think their religion is above scrutiny. Believers shouldn’t ignore Maher or dismiss him as a bigot. They should welcome the challenge. Because if you have true faith, what is there to fear? Regardless, so as long as “In God We Trust” is printed on our currency and Presidents take their oath on the Bible and school kids pledge allegiance to the flag “under God” (terminology added in the 1950s, remember), religion doesn’t get a free pass. My personal wish would be for all those who rushed to see The Passion to put forth equal effort to see Religulous. It’s only fair. Besides, in the end Maher and Believers share a fundamental view: If Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any of the world’s religions are accurately advancing The Word of The God, well, it’s nothing short of a miracle.