I am a hardcore, unrepentant, flip-the-bird-to-the-heavens atheist. No agnostic wussiness here—I’d happily stake my life (and am risking my eternal soul, many would argue) upon my firm conviction that there is no God, at least by any definition of that word that isn’t ludicrously fuzzy. That isn’t necessarily any of your business, of course, but I’m telling you anyway because I want you to understand that you’d be hard-pressed to find a film critic more potentially sympathetic to Religulous, the new documentary in which Bill Maher roams the globe poking nonstop fun at the inherent absurdity, as he sees it, of all religious faith. I am among the converted to whom he is preaching, and I wanted to slap him upside the head.
Directed by Larry Charles of Seinfeld and Borat fame, Religulous—the title is a portmanteau of “religious” and “ridiculous”—closely follows the Michael Moore template, only with even more emphasis on cheap ridicule at the expense of coherent argumentation. Bopping around from the Vatican to the Temple Mount to a “trucker’s chapel” in Raleigh, North Carolina, Maher never truly engages with any of his interview subjects. He’s just looking for amusing sound bites. Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor screws up a word (saying “indigously” rather than “inherently”; somehow “indigenous” crept into his brain) and gets a mocking subtitle for his trouble. Other believers are met with open scorn—either from Maher himself, who’s particularly keen on asking folks whether they really buy the whole talking-snake thing, or via hokey smash cuts to “funny” stock footage. Scientology may be a scam, but surely there’s a better way to get that across than with a random, utterly context-free shot of Tom Cruise laughing hysterically.
Buried deep within all this derision are a handful of salient points. Maher ticks off the numerous ways in which the Christ story resembles that of the ancient Egyptian god Horus, and achieves a good balance between comedy and inquiry when he speaks with a Jewish man who invents devices that circumvent biblical prohibitions against performing certain tasks on the Sabbath—which is essentially treating God’s law as if it were a legal contract festooned with potential loopholes. Mostly, though, Religulous just makes atheists and agnostics look like condescending assholes. We really don’t appreciate it. Can I get an amen?