Early in his documentary Religulous, Bill Maher talks about how he used to go to Catholic Mass with his father and sister. He tells us that his mom didn't attend because she was Jewish. And we see a picture of Bill, about age 7, all dressed up in his Sunday best ... with a toy revolver hanging from his waist.
"I wouldn't take off my gun," Maher explains.
Cute little Billy Maher may be all grown up now, but the rascally tyke hasn't changed much. Onscreen, he goes back to church (and synagogue and mosque and temple) with his verbal guns a-blazin', firing his wit and sarcasm at anything that dares move. What's that you say? You believe in Jesus? BLAM! The virgin birth? BLAM! Miraculous signs and wonders? BLAM! Maher lines up the faithful and rat-a-tat-tats them with zeal—atheism's own Charles Bronson, spoiling for a fight.
What Maher may not know is that he's still firing off the equivalent of his plastic pistol. Sure, there's some smoke, there's some noise. But long after he's shoved the thing back in its holster, the religious ideals and spiritual concepts he's aiming at—the ones that hold up to biblical truth, at least—are left standing with nary a mark on 'em.
A Comedy Routine—Only Longer
Bill Maher, stand-up comedian, onetime host of Politically Incorrect and, now, titular figurehead of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, has never made a secret of his distaste for religion. The foibles of the faithful have been a staple of his routine for nearly 30 years.
"If you don't know the answer, just say, 'I don't know,'" Maher told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Don't make up stories and make people believe them, and then work backwards in everything in life from the dumb little story you made up, you know?"
Denying he's a hard-core atheist, Maher calls himself a guy peddling a wee bit of doubt. But in Religulous it's functionally impossible to differentiate his views from those of today's celebrity atheists: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others. All argue that faith isn't just silly, it's downright dangerous—the cause of much of the planet's pain and suffering. Maher suggests that religion could, in fact, bring about the end of the world—a point he stresses by superimposing verses from the Quran and the Bible on images of destruction, war and a nuclear cloud.
Not very subtle, but reasonably effective if you're searching for new reasons to hate God.
As a stand-up routine with pictures, Religulous dishes what fans dig as it cleverly showcases Maher's intimidating wit and withering sarcasm. A few examples: When one Christian believer talks about how miraculous it was when he prayed for rain and the rains actually came, Maher jovially belittles the experience, saying the fellow's bar for the miraculous is set pretty low. "If it rained frogs, you might've had a point," Maher tells him. When a U.S. senator from Arkansas trips over his words, Maher lounges while the CG guy plasters misspellings of the mispronunciations across the screen. And when prosperity televangelist Jeremiah Cummings tells Maher about the time he instructed a lustful young man to "turn [that passion] to God and see what happens," the interview suddenly cuts to footage of a fiery car explosion.
"I was so gratified to finally go to a screening with people last night and hear how big the laughs are," Maher reportedly said once the film started its cycle of early showings. "Because we set out to make a comedy. I always said, my primary motivation was I'm a comedian, and this is comedy gold. When you're talking about a man living to 900 years old, and drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old god, and that Creation Museum where they put a saddle on the dinosaur because people rode dinosaurs. It's just a pile of comedy that was waiting for someone to exploit."
Also in tune with the modern stand-up routine is the film's negative-content quotient. Maher smokes marijuana with a devotee of weed in the Netherlands. There are f-words and s-words. Maher calls Jesus "nuts" and dismisses biblical writers as having "f---ed up." God's name gets tangled up with "d--n." Obscene gestures are made. Vulgar jokes target everything from the virgin birth and the Holy Ghost's indwelling to masturbation, pedophilia and homosexual sex. Nudity includes a shot of a bare-breasted actress playing a nun.
After using a clip of former National Association of Evangelicals head Ted Haggard to mock Christians' supposedly chaste principles, Maher chooses to pass along a scene from a gay-themed porno film. (It ends a scant second before full-frontal nudity.)
Like Shootin' Fish in a Barrel
If you kick this film off the nightclub stage and into the forum of intelligent debate, though, Religulous isn't all that effective—especially not for folks who have given their faith serious thought.
Maher's main target in Religulous is, of course, organized religion. He spends the majority of his time dealing with Christianity, then tackles in shotgun fashion, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Scientology and a few fringe "faiths." Does he talk with prominent, thoughtful religious leaders? A few, yes. But for the most part, no. Instead of Dallas Theological Seminary, for instance, he prefers going to The Holy Land Experience (a theme park in Orlando, Fla.) and interviewing an actor who plays Jesus. He crashes a trucker's roadside chapel and grills its handful of members. He interviews an Islamic rapper, a Jews for Jesus store owner, an anti-Zionist rabbi, a self-proclaimed incarnation of Jesus Christ from Puerto Rico and his own mother.
These encounters are then used to illustrate what Maher would say is faith's inescapable irrationality. We see several clips of protesters from Westboro Baptist Church—an misanthropic activist group that proclaims, "God hates fags" (and soldiers and politicians and, incidentally, Focus on the Family)—with the suggestion that Westboro might somehow represent mainstream Christian thought.
If a filmmaker used similar techniques to tape a documentary of Maher's life, they would restrict interviews to Maher's third-grade teacher, a Real Time key grip and an unhinged Maher stalker.
It Takes Faith to Refuse to Believe
Religulous is Maher's barrel. And he only wanted fish that would fit and would be easy to shoot. But who, exactly, are all those dead fish supposed to influence? No group larger than Maher's existing fan base. It's certainly not folks on the religious fence. The doc is too snarky to be an effective agent of conversion. A good rule of advertising is to not insult your intended customers. Which is why you rarely see ads that say things like, "What, you've never tasted eggplant? What are you, stupid or something?"
This is essentially what Maher does—lambasting religion, its institutions and its adherents at every turn. And by doing so, Maher comes off as clever but nasty. His subjects, by contrast, seem flustered but kind. And this, perhaps, gets us to the crux of Religulous' most blatant hypocrisy: Its smug certainty.
Maher presents himself as a doubter. "Doubt is humble," he says, and argues that that's the real problem with religion: It doesn't provide room for doubt. Faith, he says, makes "a virtue of not thinking." He sometimes tells interviewees that he simply doesn't know the truth about God or faith or the afterlife. But in the same breath he's certain that religion is mankind's greatest threat.
"The plain fact is religion must die for humankind to live," he intones.
Putting aside the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, Mother Teresa and all the obvious counterarguments to Maher's theological, factual and moral assertions, it's pretty easy to see the irony here. Maher, the doubter, is convinced beyond the shadow of any doubt that organized religion is evil. Meanwhile, when he does manage to find someone who is truly one of Christ's faithful, he or she often openly mulls questions and doubt.
Who among us has not read sections of the Bible and grappled with its meaning? Who among us has not faced hard questions about our faith? In a fallen world full of pain and contradiction, doubt is a natural—I think sometimes healthy—part of belief. The Bible is a difficult book, and I'd argue it's purposefully difficult: God wants us to engage with the messy realities of life.
Luke 10:27 tells us to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind." (Emphasis mine.) Christians should never make a virtue of not thinking. Nor, historically speaking, have we. Many of history's greatest thinkers have indisputably been Christians, and their faith was central to their search for truth.
Maher and most of the faithful he lampoons ask many of the same questions. The difference is this: Maher thinks he's found all of the answers and has carved them for us in cinematic stone. He's shaped the foundation of a soulless, dogmatic doctrine—rigid in form and unforgiving in outlook.
The faithful? We're still listening.