Saturday, February 21, 2009

Religulous: Grade C

Religulous (2008)
Bill Maher. Director Larry Charles.

Comedian Maher travels the world, supposedly trying to understand how seemingly rational people can believe the incredible stories told them by religion, especially in Christianity. It’s a lot of fun to have Biblical stories reframed by him, such as hearing the Garden of Eden scene described as two naked people and a talking snake.

His wit is sharp but he aims it at easy targets, making him seem mean-spirited. He visits a roadside chapel for truckers and informs them that none of the apostles were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life. They don’t believe him and some take offense. These are enormous, simple-minded guys in flannel shirts, uneducated, sincere, and well meaning. Maher’s intellectual challenges to their beliefs is all about him, not them.

He also interviews preachers, priests, ex-Mormons, and one scientist. Interviews are intercut with ironic news, movie, and commercial scenes, such as GW Bush explaining what God wants him to do. At the end of the film Maher goes pedantic and gives an unnecessary speech that reveals his lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the documentary.

Maher has some genuinely funny one-liners here and I love his style of humor, but the whole project seems juvenile. Of course religion is ridiculous; that much is clear to the most casual observer. Why not ask why it persists then; what psychological and social functions does it serve? A much better documentary on the absurdity of religion is Richard Dawkins’ Root of All Evil, although it is dead serious, only unintentionally funny. But perhaps Maher’s intended audience is children and young adolescents. For that group, this movie might be enlightening.

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