Monday, August 16, 2010

"Religulous": Easy Pickins

Movie Review: "Religulous"
Written by Bill Maher
Directed by Larry Charles
Released in 2008

Ever since AT&T tricked us into buying their premium TV package we've been getting all the HBO channels, and one of the best things on HBO is Real Time with Bill Maher. A few things about Maher's show I find very enjoyable: 1. he makes fun of conservatives; 2. he makes fun of religion; and 3. he does it all while dropping the occasional "f" bomb, which relieves my occasionally boiling psyche like nothing else.

Maher also wrote and produced the 2008 documentary film, Religulous. (See the 2-minute trailer.) The title of the film, cleverly, is derived from a combination of the words "religion" and "ridiculous", a word scheme known as a portmanteau. Religulous (See the full movie; 1 hr. 41 min.) is right up this irreverent comedian's alley. Maher tries to sit down and talk seriously about many of the teachings of the world's great religions with a number of their sycophants, but he can't keep himself from descending into sarcastic sniping and pot shot humor; after all it's who he is and what he does. He's so good at it in fact, more often than not those he interviews are made to look like idiots. Of course most of Maher's audience believes these interviewees to be total idiots to begin with, so it works out just fine. What makes these defenders of faith appear so pathetic is their dead pan seriousness in the face of Maher's dead pan humor, each incredulously bug-eyed as to the other's seemingly incomprehensible point of view.

From one encounter to the next, we are left snickering at the religulous and their preposterous utterances. When US Sen. Mark Pryor is asked to point out some of the benefits of religion, he notes that long ago primitive cultures were constantly at war. Yes, he really makes the blunder of suggesting that religion and modernism have made a positive impact on this front, and right on cue the producers fill the screen with scenes of Sen. Pryor's progress: bombs, missiles, tanks and warships—in all their modern, resplendent and exploding glory. Then there's the rotund, religious artifact salesperson who gives us as proof that miracles exist the story of the time he needed some water, so he got a glass, stuck his hand out the window and noted that it started to rain. A rather pathetic miracle. Now if it had rained frogs, as Maher suggests, he might have had a point.

Maher spends a lot of time taking aim at easy targets: the virgin birth of Mary, the resurrection of Jesus, Jonah surviving inside that whale, the earth being 6,000 years old, humans coexisting with dinosaurs, etc., etc., etc. He's not exactly looking for defenders of St. Thomas Aquinas and his five proofs for the existence of God so he can engage in high-brow philosophical debates. That would require real work. Instead, he has devised a product that needs no instruction manual and virtually sells itself: a religious bullshit detector in the form of an easy-to-open, watch-it-right-on-your-computer, two-beverage movie. It's not exactly Avatar 3-D, but for some of us it's a thrill nonetheless.

Religulous may not be the greatest movie as documentaries go, but it is smart and funny; it shifts, overlaps, and interjects scenes to great effect; and it moves right along. It also capitalizes in a very timely way on the growing acceptance of atheism, enhancing its cachet along the way. Much of the criticism aimed at religion in the movie is simplistic but effective. And for all its lack of nuance, Religulous nonetheless drives home the point that religions teach some pretty weird things, and put into positions of authority and representation some fairly unsophisticated people.

Religulous may be preaching to the proverbial choir, but to its credit there's at least a little something being offered up as food for thought: Is religion a benign contrivance that stands up to the normative powers of reason, or is it intellectually nescient and ultimately nihilistic, and as such, does it represent a grave threat to our very survival? In Religulous Bill Maher tells us where he stands, and has the cojones to ask us where we stand.

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