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written by Sam Greenspan

Bill Maher’s documentary goes after organized religion — but it falls short of accomplishing that goal in several key ways.

I saw the movie Religulous last night. I was very excited about this. I find the phenomenon of organized religion to, arguably, be the most fascinating subject there is… so I had to go see a balls out, funny, guerrilla-style documentary deconstructing it.

Sadly… the result was pretty damn disappointing. Here are my 11 thoughts on Religulous

1 | The number one problem with this movie became evident to me less than five minutes in: I don’t like Bill Maher.

I’ve always found him far too smug, self-satisfied and obnoxious to really enjoy his comedy.

And make no mistake: Religulous is a documentary about the problems with organized religion… but that’s sharing top billing with Bill Maher.

This movie is about Bill Maher’s opinions on religion, Bill Maher’s interviews about religion, Bill Maher’s jokes about religion and Bill Maher’s globetrotting adventure in dissecting religion.
I found this alternatingly irritating, distracting and, ultimately, an overwhelming force diluting the statements the documentary could have made.

The last of which I think could even be a problem for someone who, unlike me, a Bill Maher fan who wanted to watch a funny and thought-provoking movie.

2 | Is it Borat or Fahrenheit 9/11?

Along that line, I felt the movie couldn’t decide if it was Borat (i.e. letting people hang themselves with their ignorance) or if it was Fahrenheit 9/11 (i.e. hanging people by picking and choosing sound- and video-bites that make them look as dumb as possible).

During the interviews, Bill Maher followed the instincts that any human being (playing himself, not a character like Borat) has: Be friendly and try to connect with the person you’re talking to. He comes across somewhat confrontational, but mostly, he makes his interviewees feel like he’s their buddy, giving them a platform to present the validity of their beliefs.

The post-production had a completely different plan. From editing that made it look like Maher was giving people dumbfounded looks after dumb statements… to flashing subtitles and notes on the screen that blatantly mock and belittle the interviewees… to a nonstop barrage of old TV and movie clips that discredit and devalue what people are saying… these are all techniques that were employed to make the interviewees look like idiots.

(In stark contrast, the movie Jesus Camp did a spectacular job of just letting people talk. It was so even-handed that when I saw it in the theater a few years back, half of the people there were intellectual, question everything types and the other half were evangelical Asian Christians who held a prayer circle outside the theater before the movie. And both sides left the theater thinking their feelings on religion got proper treatment.)

At no point do we EVER see Maher say anything dumb. We never see him without a rebuttal. We see him dropping hilarious one-liners and cut away before we see the reaction.

The only point where he’s even a tiny bit vulnerable is when he’s interviewing the guy who plays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Maher asks how a monotheistic religion can have a holy trinity and, without missing a beat, “Jesus” responds that it’s like how water can take the form of liquid, ice and steam. That’s literally the only time in the entire movie we don’t see Maher instantly refute a point made by a person of faith.

And this doesn’t sit quite right with me because it really gives the whole movie an underlying tone of vanity and, even worse, deception. We see EXACTLY what Maher wanted us to see, and only that. And that’s fine, because it’s his movie… but it’s not honest to me… and, therefore, not authentic as a documentary or intelligent debate.

3 | The rabbi

There’s a moment in the film that was very interesting to me, and not at ALL for the reason that Maher or [director] Larry Charles think it’s interesting. Maher is interviewing a rabbi, who’s an anti-Zionist and attended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s the-Holocaust-is-a-myth conference a few years back. (And was filmed hugging Ahmadinejad afterward.)

The rabbi is trying to justify his anti-Israel position. Maher keeps trying to interrupt him to ask questions mid-stream and over and over and over the rabbi gets angry and says “Let me finish.”

It’s edited and presented like the rabbi’s being a dick, and, to some extent he is. (And I say that regarding his behavior in the interview, not because he’s a Holocaust revisionist, anti-Israel rabbi.)

But what I saw in this interview was the problem with most of the interviews in the film: It’s Bill Maher interrupting people (who are way less prepared for this specific debate than he is) to try to trap them into falling down an irrefutable logic gap regarding their religious beliefs.

It’s one thing to do this to clergy members and religious professionals (his deconstruction of Jeremiah Cummings, a former professional singer turned pastor, is a highlight)… but he does this to completely unprepared “normal” people too. Truckers at a trucker church. Visitors at the Holy Land Experience. Two guys at a Muslim gay bar in Amsterdam.

And it’s just an effort to justify the part of his thesis that says faith equals ignorance. Rather than truly listen, start a dialogue and present what people think, there’s a lot of interrupting and a lot of trapping. Almost to a gratuitous level.

4 | Soft on Judaism

As both a Jew and one of my aforementioned question everything types, I was curious going in to see what Maher would show during his Judaism-focused part of the movie.

And, as weird as this sounds, I was almost disappointed that, in my opinion, the Jewish people seemed to get handled with kid gloves.

Yes, the anti-Zionist rabbi I mentioned above is about as bad as a representative for the Jewish people as you could find. Maher also visits a research center in Israel where they construct devices that allow people to, basically, cheat the rules of the Sabbath (a way to dial a phone without pressing a button, a motorized wheelchair that runs on air and not electricity, etc.)

But… that’s about it. And I don’t think that’s fair. Because when you venture into the extreme fringes of any religion, you find the zealotry, xenophobia, mania, discrimination, sexism, radicalism and hate that give religion the bad name Maher is trying to expose.

Christianity gets that in this movie, hard. Islam gets it harder. And while I’d like to think that, in general, Judaism has less of a reputation for widespread and fanatical imposition of beliefs that the extremists in those two religions do… it’s not immune.

And while Judaism is exponentially smaller than those two religions, if you’re trying to predict what Holy War is going to bring about the destruction of this planet, tragically, Israel’s going to be an epicenter and the Jews are probably going to factor in.

By fairly casually glossing over the Jews, I think it’s another step toward people easily being able to dismiss the movie. (Which is bad, because, though I haven’t made it that clear above, I absolutely agree with Maher that shaping political policy and bigotry around a centuries-old book written by humans, is something that must be questioned.)

But… instead, the movie can be written off as: “Oh, well, it’s just a Jewish director and half-Jewish star showing the bad side of our religion without really showing the bad side of theirs.” Follow that up with six to 10 anti-Semitic slurs… and now I feel uncomfortable.

5 | The most disciplined and bold thing that Maher does in the movie: His handling of Scientology.

Scientology is inherently mockable. Everyone mocks it.

But rather than going after the low-hanging fruit, Maher only briefly dances onto Scientology, to make an extremely valid point: It’s not any more ridiculous than mainstream religions. It’s just newer.

I thought that, in the context of the movie, drawing that quick conclusion and moving on was very well done. The movie was at its best when it was going after major religions… specifically the ones whose tenants are frequently quoted and/or invoked by the people steering the policies of the largest countries on this planet.

Rather than mocking Scientology, Maher makes a far stronger, smarter point by showing it’s not all that different than the religions we know and follow.

6 | The smaller religions

Following up the previous point, I thought the spots where the movie lagged the most were the times when Maher went after minor religions.

His interview with a Dutch guy who founded a religion based around pot smoking was the most useless and pointless of the film. Even his conversation with a guy who has 100,000 followers that believe he’s the second coming of Jesus Christ didn’t contribute to advancing the movie.

Maher’s overarching point is that man has nukes and man has religion, and, sooner rather than later, we’re going to use column A to destroy the world because of column B.

Fifty people who are part of a pot smoking Dutch religion aren’t the ones with those nukes and they aren’t the ones who are going to be on the receiving end of them. So spending time on their religion, in the context of this movie, amounted to little more than filler.

7 | Do it live

I felt Maher suffered from the same problem I have with most of Michael Moore’s documentaries: Just when I feel like he’s close to making a great, profound point, the interview ends and he steps off the gas.

It happened most blatantly here when Maher was interviewing a guy who says he converted from homosexuality to heterosexuality, and now helps other Christian men “beat” their homosexuality.

At one point in the interview, Maher brings up an excellent point: All of the anti-homosexuality Biblical rhetoric that people quote is Old Testament, and Jesus never once even hints that he has any problem with homosexuality.

And here’s where you want to see Maher use his berating interview style to trap the guy. Take some cold, hard scripture to present Jesus’s opinion (or, more importantly, lack thereof) on this… throw in some science to prove the idiocy of the concept of gay conversions… and top it off by bringing up the hypocrisy of “cafeteria Christianity” — picking and choosing which parts of the Bible you adhere to (something that I touched on considerably in my list of 11 things the Bible bans but you do anyway).

But while he does a good job on the first part of that strategy, he barely touches the second part (infusing science)… and never even tries the third part.

If you’re going to go after people because you think their beliefs are ignorant, fraudulent and dangerous, don’t stop halfway and rely on post-production to make them look stupid. Trap them in the room. You have the chance to do some editing, they don’t. So it’s a much, much, much more powerful move to checkmate them in the moment. Why stop short?

8 | Christianity and religions of the past

A part of the movie I found very interesting was the comparison between the story of Jesus and the stories of other, much older religions (most notably the Egyptian story of Horus).

Maher does this not to illustrate that, when boiled down, religions are all really quite similar… he does it more to try to prove that the New Testament was written by regular old men. (Men who’d read other religion’s texts, and men whose words are still treated by many as unbreakable laws today.)

This surprised me, because I think the first part of that (pointing out that all religions are similar) would be a better way for Maher to get at his point that killing, bombing and hating in the name of your religion is the ultimate form of ignorance.

Using the Horus story to try to trap people into admitting the Bible isn’t the direct word of God seems like a more short-sighted, “gotcha!” effort… and a far weaker means to getting to Maher’s ultimate point.

9 | Many times throughout the movie, you see Larry Charles.

And he has a giant ZZ Top/Hasidic Jew beard. I am shocked — SHOCKED — that no one ever stormed out of an interview because they perceived that the documentary was really a way for these Jews to deride their religion.

If that had happened on camera, there’s a 100 percent chance it would’ve made the movie. So how did it not happen? It blows the mind.

10 | The end of the movie came as a big surprise to me.

After almost two hours of jokes, quick movie clips (even including Blazing Saddles and Superbad in context) and a rambling world tour designed to show the folly of organized religion, suddenly, Maher is in full-on lecture mode.

The soundtrack flips to some kind of orchestral apocalyptic fanfare. The video clips flip to mushroom clouds and suicide bombings. And Maher’s tone switches from asking the reformed gay guy if he has a hard-on to abruptly calling for a completely end to organized religion, before it’s the reason for the end of the world.

Whoa, man. It’s like we’re at a buffet, and we’re adding delicious prime rib, sushi, pastas and muffins to our plate… and then, at the very last station, instead of dessert, there’s a guy who punches you in the face.

I found the tonal change of the last five minutes more than jarring… I felt like they really left people shaking their heads like “What the hell just happened?” The fairly large crowd at the theater, which had been laughing throughout the movie, was stunned into silence.

And I don’t think that’s the reaction Maher and Charles and the team were going for. But making that strong and enormous of a call-to-action at the end of a rompy movie like this just didn’t jive right. And, to me, was more confusing and off-putting than thought-provoking.

11 | Which takes me to my final point. And that is: I don’t think Maher gets it.

At the end of this movie, he calls for an end to religion. He says that even those of us who just dabble (Christmas Christians, High Holiday Jews, etc.) are being extremely selfish, because even our minor contribution of support, advocacy and belief in these religions is setting them up to be the cause of the end of the world.

And I just can’t agree with that. Because it’s completely ignoring any good side of religion and focusing only on the zealots, the fringe… the religious lunatics.

Is organized religion flawed? Absolutely. The mere fact that people use religion as their justification for anything other than helping and supporting their fellow human beings is a bastardization. The second you use religion as a justification for hate, for discrimination, for oppression and, on the most extreme level, for murder and war, you have failed at your religion and you have failed religion as an entity.

And far too often today, people let their religious “faith” lead them to the worst types of evil we see in the world. It leads some to demonstrate outside of a gay man’s funeral with a sign that says “God hates fags.” It leads some to exploit people for money, taking donations from people looking for answers and skimming some to buy cars and homes and clothes and jewelry. It leads some to leave their children vulnerable to disease (like cervical cancer, because an HPV vaccination means you’re acknowledging to your teenager that there’s something out there besides abstinence). It leads some to teach their children that it’s the divine wish to murder another entire group of people just because they’re different.

And that is, indisputably, bad religion. Because it’s not religion. It’s the worst side of man coming out, with religion serving as its fraudulent justification.

But does religion need to be completely eliminated? Absolutely not. Because I believe that for every dangerous radical, there’s a person whose faith is genuinely driving them to lead a better life. To bring their family together. To reach out and help people who are less fortunate. To try to heal the world, rather than destroy it.

The answer isn’t to eradicate religion, but to make people remember what religion is all about and what it’s supposed to be all about.

If the entire Judeo-Christian ethos can be boiled down to “Love thy neighbor”, how does “God hates fags” exactly fit in? If the Koran makes it clear that killing one innocent human being is as bad as killing all of mankind, then how does flying a plane into a building and murdering thousands of innocent people fit in?

The answer is: They don’t. The hate that’s become a byproduct of zealotry is entirely man-made — man’s self-serving, xenophobic, power-tripping, bigoted mangled interpretations of scripture that, over the centuries, weak minded people have foolishly bought in to.

What I wanted to see Religulous do was shine the light on that. Remind people what religion is supposed to be. Give people something legitimate to think about and to question. Bring them back to the core values of their faith.

It does not. It just calls for an end to organize religion which is (1) impossible, (2) implausible, and, therefore, (3) idiotic. And by making an impossible, implausible, idiotic point, no point is made at all. We aren’t forced to look inside and question ourselves because there’s nothing in Maher’s proposed solution to make us do so.

And that’s ultimately why the movie was such a major disappointment to me. Because Bill Maher got to step up to the plate, in a position to make a potentially major impact on thousands, if not millions, of people… and he swung and missed. By being too radical, too zealous and too xenophobic himself.

I give Religulous a three out of 11.

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