The message of Religulous is apparent up front, although for some reason director Larry Charles and writer Bill Maher choose to wait until the end of the film to explicitly state it: religion is a divisive, nonsensical, and damaging force around the world, and if we are to continue to coexist and progress as a species more of us are going to have to come to view all religions as the antiquated hogwash that they are. That I happen to completely agree with them only means I was looking forward to seeing this film, sought it out while it’s in limited release, and will hope that many others see it and—just maybe—are swayed a bit by it. That said, I attempted to view it objectively (as I do all films), and found it to be well made, but not without its problems.
The movie is split about half-and-half between Maher delivering monologues on the subject matter, and Maher conducting interviews with various religious people of various faiths and backgrounds. The balance is pretty decent, although the monologues are shot in a somewhat awkward manner, mostly in the back seat of a car as Maher travels around the world seeking out subjects for his interviews, with him speaking into the back of the driver’s head rather than looking into the camera. At times we see him standing at various religious sites, from Jerusalem to the Vatican to Salt Lake City, and again he’s speaking to somebody beside the camera more than he is directly to his audience. The technique, I suppose, is meant to be flashy or maybe even artistic; instead I feel it detracts from the content of what’s being said, and in a movie like this where any deviance from the message’s primary thrust will be misconstrued as a fault in the argument being presented, I think this is a major sin to commit.
Primarily, though, this is a comedy, and it delivers laughs in spades. The irony of ironies is that for the majority of its audience the laughs will be at the expense of every religion but their own: it’s those other people who’ve got it all wrong, with their kooky beliefs and ridiculous traditions. But of course the joke is on them the most: those who think their point of view is the most rational are also the most adept at serving as living examples of the depth of its irrationality. Maher is an expert at setting up his interview subjects to make fools of themselves, and he is happy to allow them to do so. “I’m just asking questions,” he says early on. The dissent to his argument will surely be, in part, a claim that he is only showing fringe elements of each religion, the bad apples in an otherwise virtuous group. It will quickly become apparent, of course, that this is not the case: Maher spends as much time with religious leaders as he does with the most common followers, and they all exhibit the same hilarious lack of reason in their attempts to justify their unjustifiable beliefs.
If anything, I actually think that Bill Maher goes too easy on the majority of his subjects (a complaint I occasionally have with his HBO Show, as well). “My thing is doubt,” he repeatedly points out. To me this is just an attempt to get his subjects to meet him halfway: they’re not going to admit that what they believe is wrong, but maybe they’ll admit that it’s open to a little more scrutiny than they’ve been giving it. Maher plays the part of the skeptic, but his stated purpose is only to make the point that nobody knows the answers, so maybe none of them should adapt such a certain stance. I think it would be more effective—not to mention even funnier—if he were to uninhibit his point of view, and allow himself to say, “I absolutely know that what you are saying is completely untrue” rather than, “well, we can’t be certain, can we?”
As a comedic survey of the current state of religion around the globe, this is a well made documentary told from the perspective of a skeptical interviewer. As an educational tool, it does a surprisingly good job (I was pretty surprised at how many gasps there were from the audience I was in when atheistic quotes from our founding fathers were presented, as they were lines that I personally was very familiar with, but the shocked response indicates that this must’ve been the first exposure many of these people had to such quotes). As an argument against religion, it presents many examples supporting its cause, but as the interview subjects repeatedly show, you can’t convince people to not hold to their beliefs when they do so without reason in the first place. Rather than getting frustrated by this, however, Maher is always able to laugh and to share his laughter with his audience, and in this he succeeds immensely.