Turning ordinary people into punch lines

October 16, 2008

Scott Johnson reviews Religulous, starring comedian Bill Maher, who revels in his contempt for working-class people.

THE BEST documentary films seek out fascinating subjects unfamiliar to the audience whose stories allow us to take a fresh look at the world. Comedian Bill Maher, star of the film Religulous, certainly seems to think he has found such a subject--himself.

In fact, the entire film plays like a stand-up comedy act where the people he is interviewing are just as often the punch lines as Maher's condescending comments. The result is a film that does little to illuminate religion in modern life and politics, and is often downright reactionary.

The fundamental problem with Religulous is that Maher's focus is on interviewing religious people in order to expose how stupid they are--especially compared to such a clever interviewer as himself--while he never attempts to take a deeper look at the social circumstances behind religious ideas and institutions.

At least three of his interviewees express exasperation on camera that they felt ambushed by his film and didn't realize that his line of questioning would be so harsh toward their beliefs. In the meantime, Maher throws out a series of pre-rehearsed zingers to ridicule his unsuspecting subjects.

Bill Maher during the filming of Religulous
Bill Maher during the filming of Religulous

Presumably, Maher, an opponent of George W. Bush and the Iraq war, sees himself as an anti-religious Michael Moore. But while Moore has his own brand of smugness, he is much better at finding interesting subjects who can speak for themselves. Moore also has respect for working-class people and avoids ridiculing their opinions when they are working through their contradictions.

There is a world of difference between Moore's ambush of gun-nut Charlton Heston--who certainly had a little idea of what he was getting himself into when he agreed to be interviewed for Bowling for Columbine--and Maher's accosting of Christian truck drivers in their makeshift chapel. That is, while Moore attempts to show the stupidity of the powers-that-be, Maher is focused on showing the stupidity of the little guy.

MAHER IS not only condescending, he is also a hypocrite. Even though he is an agnostic who is opposed to institutional religion, he is also a Zionist. This may be one of the reasons why he doesn't investigate the political views of evangelical Christians more closely, as they would agree with him on the need to defend Israel, and focuses on ridiculing their theology instead.

Review: Movies

Religulous, a documentary by Larry Charles, starring Bill Maher.

Furthermore, Maher never questions the lunatic fantasies of Orthodox Jewish Zionists in Israel and their often violent, racist and theocratic attitudes. Instead, he interviews a Jewish rabbi wearing a Palestinian flag pin who is an anti-Zionist--as though he is the crazy one!

The film dishonestly edits one of his responses to make him appear dismissive of the Holocaust and plays up his associations with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Though the rabbi refuses to be caricatured, his views aren't investigated much further, as Maher storms out of the interview after he is himself exasperated. Apparently, Maher was even less prepared for this interview than the Christian truckers he ambushed earlier.

This line of thinking is brought to its logical conclusion toward the end of the film with a discussion of Islam. While most religions are made to appear merely stupid, Islam is presented as inherently violent and dangerous, in particular by a representative of the World Court at The Hague, who explicitly says, "Islam is a violent religion."

In discussing criticisms of religions versus violent responses in defense of them, Maher asserts, "The people who do the killing usually wind up on the Muslim side," conveniently forgetting all of the Muslims who have found themselves victims of U.S. and Israeli policies. And when a Muslim woman he tells this to insists that not all Muslims are violent, the film cuts to Maher telling the camera that he thinks Muslims only say this sort of thing in public but in private they know there is something wrong with their religion.

He goes on to question Muslims about violent passages in the Koran and even refers to it as an imperialist religion that at one point ruled a large part of the world! Even more shocking, in a discussion of the "Islamic threat" to Israel, the film points out that there are 1 billion Muslims in the world but only 14 million Jews. One might be forgiven for concluding, after hearing Maher, that the Holocaust was perpetrated by the Islamic Middle East and not the "enlightened" Christian West.

If "religulous" ideas are an irrational belief in improvable supernatural phenomena, then Bill Maher's views should be identified as "a-religulous"--irrationally opposed to religion, Islam in particular. Had he taken a moment to investigate his own prejudices, he might realize that he is spouting the same sort of offensive nonsense about Islam as Jewish Zionists and evangelical Christians.

Instead, Maher makes the same mistake as the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens--by demonizing the "enemy religion," he makes the reactionary forces among the dominant religion all that much stronger.

Several documentaries have been released in recent years with an interesting take on religion, including Hell House, Devil's Playground and Jesus Camp. All of these take a critical look at religion in the lives of young people but also allow the subjects to speak for themselves.

This does not keep the filmmakers from clearly criticizing what we are seeing, but in the end we get a much more nuanced and interesting picture of the people behind the ideas. We are allowed to sympathize with the individuals in the movies but we are also given an honest look at both the attraction and the torment behind religious beliefs.

Religulous does none of these things. Ultimately, it is a vanity project by a comedian who provides a shallow commentary that is more condescending than funny and more effective at justifying the status quo than challenging it.

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