And Maher said, let there be light

Equally hilarious, offensive and provocative, Religulous raises questions about humankind’s oldest and most storied institution

Bill Maher at St. Peter’s Basilica in Religulous, a comic documentary intent on fostering discussion by targetting JC and company.
Bill Maher at St. Peter’s Basilica in Religulous, a comic documentary intent on fostering discussion by targetting JC and company.
Credit: 
Supplied
Bill Maher at the Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Bill Maher at the Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Credit: 
Supplied

What do fire and brimstone, the whore of Babylon, and a bunch of horsemen have in common with comedian Bill Maher’s shock-umentary Religulous? Other than being mildly entertaining in certain contexts, all of the above hold some startling and unpleasant revelations that many will take as gospel.

In this flick, Maher sets out across the globe, with a particular interest in the southern United States, on a mission to poke fun at organized religion that seems more like an attempt to evangelize the populace into atheists. Under the guise of humour, Maher instead parades around like the smug “chosen people” he actually seeks to ridicule, a heavy dose of irony indeed.

Granted, organized religion is the perfect comedic platform with all of its inconsistencies and those who take it all too literally. From Jonah surviving intact inside a whale—sorry, large fish—to a man walking on water, to talking snakes and a woman-turned-salt-pillar, the Judeo-Christian mythos is difficult to defend without Goliath-sized leaps and bounds of faith. Maher holds each of these beliefs up to the light with mixed results. His interview with John Westcott is particularly revelatory. As a self-proclaimed straight man who dealt with personal issues of homosexuality in the past, Westcott now directs an absurd and invasive ministry that attempts to “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuals.

The interview ends, however, with some jocular flirtation and sexual banter between the two men, in which Westcott happily engages. After his ridiculous proclamations that nobody is born gay and that homosexuality is a sin, Westcott blesses Maher with a long-sustained sexually-tense hug and cracks multiple erection jokes, thus exemplifying the incongruities in his own religious beliefs and practice and, as we’re led to believe, Christianity as a whole.

Another bizarre phenomenon is laid bare in Maher’s exposé on the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida. While turning a profit on people’s religious beliefs and existential insecurities has been a practice of organized religion and humanity in general for time immemorial, the folks who run this joint take the profession of vending in the temple to a whole higher level. On its website, The Holy Land Experience seeks to recreate what the management team calls the most important era of mankind with the help of musical theatre and flashy productions to which I’m sure the ancient Israelites had unrestricted access.

Maher even gets to chat with the park’s resident JC himself who is apparently routinely recognized in restaurants for his factually unverifiable yet ostensibly accurate daily performance of the original Christ’s passion and crucifixion. Jesus—in the way only a twenty-something with convictions can do—earnestly speaks to Maher of the wonders of Christianity, without the permission of the park’s PR manager. I guess even the Messiah needs a press briefing these days. Aside from these two notably hilarious incidents, the bulk of Religulous is spent mean-spiritedly jeering at the beliefs held by ordinary, albeit zealous and not particularly astute, people. While I don’t profess to adhere to or defend any of their views, I can’t find value in ridiculing or belittling individuals simply because they can’t rationally defend their beliefs.

It’s all too easy for a rational atheist to sit up in an ivory tower and congratulate him or herself on truly seeing the light of reason while others toil foolishly in the name of religion. It’s this type of nose-thumbing that perpetuates the oft-hackneyed depictions of so-called Bible thumpers and does not contribute to a deeper understanding of religious expression or social harmony. It serves only to increase intolerance and prejudice.

The film takes an even more worrisome turn at the end when Maher states, with straight face, that people who hold religious beliefs of any sort should not be allowed to hold office or perform government functions because if they can’t see the fundamentally irrational nature of religion, who’s to say that they won’t be fundamentally irrational in office. Here, Maher’s disdain quickly becomes a fanatical rampage aiming to curb the liberties of various social groups in order to concentrate power in the hands of the few, self-proclaimed elite. Bigotry aside, it seems a little incongruous for Maher to embark upon yet another religious crusade, in the name of atheism, in order to preach against religious crusading.

The film is funny because Maher points out inconsistencies with some sneaky editing and specifically targeting people—like the congregation at the highway truckers’ chapel—who would typically be susceptible to his caustic digs and leading questions. But when the last laugh’s been had, and the lamb has broken the last seal, you come away from the movie feeling coerced into reinforcing another form of intolerance.

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