Religion + ridiculous = preachy doc

By Joel Cummings

It seems like a match made in heaven. Social satirist and comedian Bill Maher teams with Larry Charles, director of 2006’s hugely successful Borat, for a relentless, globe-trotting tirade against established religion in their new documentary Religulous (ostensibly a mixture of the words “religion” and “ridiculous”). The result is, as one would expect, side-splittingly hilarious. However, filmgoers looking for a deeper exploration of religion, theology and culture will be sadly disappointed.

Anyone familiar with Bill Maher’s books and stand-up knows that nothing is sacred when it comes to his irreverent humour and poignant social commentary. Anyone familiar with Borat knows that Larry Charles is skilled at making any reasonably intelligent person come off as about as smart as a jar of peanuts. Together, they travel the globe searching for answers about God and religion. Along the way they find every sort of religious stereotype and caricature one would expect from this kind of film.

Among the poor souls lampooned by Maher’s lightning fast wit and Charles’ quick editing are a congregation of truckers in Raleigh, North Carolina, an ex-gay pastor who heads Exchange Ministries– a group that “cures” homosexuality– the director of a creationist museum in Kentucky and a Puerto Rican man running a church in Florida who believes he is the reincarnation of Jesus. Maher’s hilarious interviews are interlaced with innumerable clips of old religious films, cartoons and promotional videos. Some of the funniest moments in the film come from Charles’ clever use of subtitles to mock the interviewee or slip in the occasional joke. The most memorable example occurs when a Muslim imam answers a text message during an interview with Maher and the subtitle reads “death 2 bill. Lol.”

Don’t get me wrong, this movie is really, really funny, but throughout the film, one question nags: is this really a documentary? The documentary is a dying art. It takes a special kind of filmmaker to explore an issue with careful artistry and objectivity, as seen in the works of Errol Morris or Frederich Wiseman, but unfortunately Michael Moore set a new standard for the mainstream documentary. It doesn’t necessarily have to be objective, academic or even true, so long as it’s entertaining and sufficiently confirms the filmmaker’s opinion. The documentary isn’t supposed to prove any point, it’s just supposed to present the facts, show us a slice of life and let the viewers decide for themselves what it means to them.

There is no question as to what Maher’s opinion of religion is, if one couldn’t tell from the trailers, posters (a monkey in a pope hat) or his past material, he goes and states it within the first few minutes of the film, “I think religion is detrimental to the development of the human race.” Sure, he has a lot of tough questions, but the problem is he doesn’t get any good answers. He tears religion to pieces and has a lot of fun along the way, but he doesn’t ask the deeper questions of why we believe in God or what it means to be a spiritual person.

Despite it’s tacked on “stop religion now before it kills us all!” ending, this movie ultimately has nothing to teach us and it isn’t going to convince any believers. The film offers no thoughtful discussion, just a lot of jokes. For this reason one can’t help but feel that Maher is simply just preaching to the choir.

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