Category: documentary / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 49 of 100
Early in ‘Religulous’, Bill Maher visits a trucker’s chapel.
Yeah, you read that correctly: a trucker’s chapel. It’s a converted (pardon the pun) tautliner trailer at a truck stop in North Carolina. Surrounded by a bunch of beefy, baseball-cap sporting individuals, Maher asks a rational and legitimate question about the content of the Bible and the interpretations that have been placed upon it by successive generations of believers. One man, a self-confessed former Satanist, responds with an answer based on faith not evidence, while another – in the kind of drawling hick voice that puts you in mind of ‘Deliverance’ – shoots back, “Ah don’ know what your documentary’s about, but Ah don’ like where you’re goin’ with this. You start disputin’ mah God, then we got us a problem.”
It’s an authentically tense moment, the more so for being slightly ridiculous. It’s as if the Plainview/Sunday antagonism of ‘There Will Be Blood’ suddenly got mixed up with a rough cut of ‘Convoy’. The hick dude walks out, proclaiming that he wants nothing to do with the film. Maher holds up his hands in placatory fashion and states, “I’m just asking questions.”
And, for the first third of the documentary, this is the case. True, he throws in a few one-liners, drops in clips from old movies and TV shows to point up the delusional and sometimes frighteningly demented statements of his interview subjects, and his position on the subject is made clear from the outset (“I’m selling doubt,” he says, viewing it as a healthy alternative to blind unquestioning faith); but, for the first half hour or so, he simply asks questions and it’s the answers he gets that leave you shaking your head that such irrationality can still be so prevalent in today’s society.
Had he proceeded in like manner, ‘Religulous’ could have been the hammerblow Maher and director Larry Charles (director of the shit-stirring Sacha Baron Cohen vehicles ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’) evidently wanted it to be. Unfortunately, Maher’s interview technique becomes more interruptive, sarcastic and point-scoring the longer the film goes on. Sometimes his jibes are wincingly on target, such as in his interview with Jerry Cummings (former member of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), a man who wears a $2,000 suit, lizard skin shoes and a shitload of bling and crows that he doesn’t draw a salary from his ministry. Challenged on his sartorial budget, Cummings replies that he knows a Muslim tailor (a member of Cummings’ erstwhile faith) who gives him a special deal. “So,” Maher recaps, “you’re a Christian who used to be a Muslim and when you get your clothes you buy them like a Jew.” It’s an audacious line, one that shocks you into silence even as you want to laugh your ass off; the kind of line that’s reminiscent of ‘Family Guy’ at its best.
Elsewhere, though, Maher’s jibes are just cheap and unfunny, particularly where his subjects seem unprepared or ill-at-ease in front of the camera. A scene in which Maher interviews two gay Muslim activists is excruciating. Although he initially congratulates them on their fearlessness in being true to themselves when being gay and Muslim pretty much guarantees one a place on the fundamentalist shit-list, the duo’s diffidence in contributing to the interview makes for dead air which Maher fills up by ad-libbing. The resulting scene detracts from their bravery and raises questions about what Maher and Charles are trying to do with ‘Religulous’.
Their motives are first questioned by our trucker friend. He’s not the only contributor who voices uncertainty as to “what your documentary’s about”. It’s never acknowledged in the film, but Charles lined up the interviewees under the pretence that they were appearing in a film called ‘A Spiritual Journey’. Maher’s involvement was not mentioned until he turned up to interview them. For a documentary that seeks to paint the Christian gospels as little more than fairy stories appropriated from much earlier theisms, Charles’s approach comes off as something of an intellectual own-goal.
Which brings us to what pisses me off the most about ‘Religulous’. I ought to like it. I ought to be fully supportive of Maher and Charles’s message. I am an atheist. I believe that, alongside politics, religion has proved a blight on the history of the human race and that it shows no signs of being any less of a threat to global stability, harmony and intellectual and aesthetic development in the future.
This is the monologue Maher comes out with at the end of the film. It’s long, about 500 words, but it’s worth quoting in full.
“The irony of religion is that because of its power to divert man to destructive courses, the world could actually come to an end. The plain fact is: religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having in key decisions made by religious people. By irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken. George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he didn't learn a lot about it. Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, ‘I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!’ Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas. And anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong. This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a horrible price. If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife, for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let's remember what the real problem was. We learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That's it. Grow up or die.”
For me, there’s one sentence in there that says it all: “If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest.” Every orthodox (ie. mainstream) religion has as its figurehead a cruel, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic god. That, in a nutshell, is why I could never embrace religion. I may be wrong, but I’d rather die wrong than live as a bigot.
There is nothing that Maher says in the course of the film that I disagree with. But the way he presents it (and the fault here may lie more with his director) is fundamentally flawed. After thousands of years of bloodshed in the name of God (or appropriate variant), after the witch hunts and the Inquisition and the ugly face of sectarian violence that is still prevalent in virtually any news report on any given day, it’s probably disingenuous to criticize ‘Religulous’ for not giving religion a fair hearing. But the stacked deck that Maher and Charles deal the viewer – and it has to be said that this is a film so one-sided and steeped in polemic it makes your average Michael Moore production come across as politically neutral and utterly objective in comparison – reveals a bias pronounced enough to justify any accusations of foul play. It comes ironically close to making martyrs of those whose concept of martyrdom the filmmakers are most worried about.