Starring: Bill Maher, Steve Burg, Andrew Newberg. Rated R.
Religulous may not
win many converts, but it poses an age-old question in simple, teasing terms:
What if the fundamental tenets of Christianity, Judaism and Islam amount to
nothing more than artful fiction? It’s a question those of great faith might be
loath to consider, but it’s hard to fault comedian and professed agnostic Bill
Maher for asking.
For those familiar with Real Time, Maher’s late-night HBO
talk show, his pointed
attacks on organized religion (and the Catholic church in particular) are
nothing new. Despite his own upbringing – he was born to a Jewish mother but
raised Catholic – Maher has often expressed bewilderment with guests who cling
to their faith. Could any true adult, much less a purported intellectual,
really believe that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale? Maher
Maher takes his show on the road with Religulous, venturing into
Red State territory to chat up a
roadside congregation in Raleigh, N.C., where one true believer takes a less
than Christian view of the comedian’s questions. From there, he and Borat
director Larry Charles visit the Holy Land theme
park in Orlando, Fla., to interrogate Jesus Himself, and then head south to
Miami, where the leader of the Growing in Grace ministry explains calmly and in
no uncertain terms that he (or should that be He?) is the Messiah reincarnate.
While Maher has irked defenders of the faith worldwide
with his caustic commentary on Real Time,
Religulous finds him in kinder,
gentler mode, posing innocent-seeming questions and standing by with a friendly
smile as his subjects contradict themselves or worse. Asked to explain how
elected officials can dispute the theory of evolution and still claim
themselves competent to lead, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas responds that it
doesn’t take a high I.Q. to make it in Washington.
Maher doesn’t claim his approach is fair and balanced, or
at least he shouldn’t – he spends most of his energy poking holes in Christian
doctrine. It takes him roughly 10 minutes to dispatch Mormonism and the Church
of Scientology – all the time he needs, really – before turning his attention
to Muslim fundamentalist violence abroad and an anti-Zionist rabbi in upstate
New York who seems to condone future attacks on Israel. (Hinduism and Buddhism
escape his scrutiny altogether.)
If Maher’s deconstructions of Judaism and Islam seem less
thorough than his guns-blazing assault on Christianity, well, they are.
Regardless, his Michael Moore-style ambushes, though staged with less panache
than the master’s, are clever and often laugh-out-loud funny, even if his
targets tend to be kooks and dimwits rather than serious theologians. That
Maher ends with a fire-and-brimstone speech about religion leading, ironically,
to the end of days seems a bit heavy-handed – but give Religulous credit for
urging a measure of doubt in an age of
false and belligerent certainty.