“Religulous”-Freethought Flick of the Year

“Religulous,” a documentary featuring irreverent comic Bill Maher, is the long-anticipated and welcome latest offering in a series of hardhitting skeptical perspectives by authors and celebrities.

Maher, the iconoclastic host of HBO’s “Real Time” and former host of “Politically Incorrect,” reveals that his “mixed” family (Mom was Jewish, Dad was Catholic) shook off Catholicism when he was in his teens. Yet he was still a mild believer into his forties. The mostly comical film follows Maher on his doubter’s quest to try to understand and dialog with believers. He enters a bizarre trucker’s church in Georgia and asks the pious occupants a lot of questions they can’t answer. He gets kicked out of the Vatican, gets warned off the Mormon lawn in Temple Square, and impersonates a Hyde Park ranter by factually relating the absurd tenets of Scientology to a booing crowd.

The pièce de résistance of the movie is his office tête-à-tête with Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Confounded by Maher’s insistance that a senator in 2008 can’t possibly believe in talking snakes, Pryor infamously replied: “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.”

Maher’s interview with the “formerly gay” head of a religious ministry who is married to a “former lesbian” and works to de-gay homosexuals is a bit wicked, but rather touching. Maher has a long and hilarious conversation with a clueless “Jesus,” a believer who gruesomely reenacts the crucifixion for audience entertainment at a religious theme park in Orlando.

There is some inevitable blue language in this era of R-rated standup comedy, but nothing much worse than you’d hear on the Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert shows. Although still a baby freethinker, Maher knows his bible and doesn’t let his subjects off the hook. Mostly he deftly crafts the questions in a way to let the subjects trip themselves up. Maher is nothing if not ascerbic, but there is a humanity and conspiratorial tone to his searching questions that apparently guarded him from getting punched in the nose.

It’s totally refreshing to hear a public figure react normally–with incredulity and derision–to the tired old superstitions parroted without thought by so many gullible believers. “Ridiculous!” as Maher mutters frequently.

The director, Larry Charles (of “Seinfeld” and “Borat” fame), favors the Michael Moore style of documentary that inserts lots of silly religious clips and images into the film to provoke a laugh. The film ends perhaps a little abruptly, with a powerful warning on the danger of religion–given the apocalyptic visions of the leading world religions. Friends and family who saw the film seemed to agree that we wished Maher had inserted a little more of his own views to make way for that conclusion. Perhaps Maher is the consummate performer and wants to leave viewers wanting more.

But no believer is going to exit the theater without feeling that serious doubts have been raised about some of their most cherished beliefs. Freethinkers will chuckle and applaud for 1 hour and 41 minutes. Don’t miss “Religulous!” If it’s successful it will pave the way for more such films. And enjoy Maher’s many virtuoso interviews about religion right now in the mass media.–Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation