Election withdrawal: Bill Maher’s “Religulous” a funny break?

When Republicans look at Bill Maher, they see Lucifer. Democrats see a comic genius. We saw Religulous to escape election withdrawal

bill-maher.jpgBY TERJE FOKSTUEN — As funny as he is, Bill Maher is a cerebral type who lives in his head — at the expense of his heart. He’s missing enough in the soul-department that I almost felt sorry for him as I watched Religulous, his big-screen collaboration with former Seinfeld-writer Larry Charles (now a guerrilla-cinema director, who made his name with Borat).

I say the above with “kid love”, which is Bill’s refrain after punchlines during his stand-up routine on his Friday night HBO series, Real Time With Bill Maher. Yes, I am a fan.

But Bill’s first feature film left me cold. Religulous (rhymes with “ridiculous”)purports to explore the role of religion and faith in the modern world with a sense of humor. Instead, the mockumentary is a largely anti-religious, political screed that delivers some very funny lines and set-pieces by picking on extremists. (The movie’s promo site is called DisbeliefNet.)

As I sat in the darkened theater waiting for the movie to begin, I said a quick “Hail Mary” that the Queen of Heaven (that’s “Catholic,” for the Virgin Mary) grants me the wisdom to see the film for what it truly is and not mindlessly condemn it for what it isn’t (like an honest inquiry into faith or the effect of faith on people’s lives).

Rather it is an hour and a half of Bill Maher, who was raised by a Catholic father and Jewish mother, cracking wise about the kooky things that some people believe. Maher makes some illuminating points about the influence of faith and science being different ways of explaining the world. But faith can, and does, encompass reason — a point that Maher doesn’t address in any detail.

Maher gets his easiest laughs by cherry-picking characters and exhibits from Evangelical Christianity, with not-quite equal time for Judaism, Mormonism, Islam and Scientology. Each is judged as being profoundly silly, if not actively-malevolent stuff.

He interviews Francis Collins, the former Director of the Human Genome project and an Evangelical Christian but Dr. Collins is left on the cutting room floor before he can begin anything resembling a measured response to Maher’s provocative questions.

A little more time and space are given to Father George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican observatory. Father Coyne makes the point that Pope John Paul the Second said that Darwinian evolution was more than a theory. But that single comment is left hanging alone without company or commentary.

Instead we explore a Museum of Creationism in Kentucky, where exhibits show dinosaurs and humans living side by side some five thousand years ago. Further stops including a counseling center where gay individuals can go to become heterosexuals, and a Bible theme park in Florida with daily passion plays. At each of these enterprises Maher stops and interviews the staff.

A man who plays the role of Jesus in a Biblical theme park says he is recognized on the streets when he goes out, and also explains that the Christian triune God (the notion that the Almighty is a triple-threat composed of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) is like water: It can be liquid, ice or steam. It’s a funny metaphor but as Maher joyfully points out leaves you totally clueless about the nature of the Triune God.

The film begins and ends with Maher atop a pile of rocks in Omeggia, a place in Israel where the Book of Revelations instructs that the end of the world will begin. It also underscores the film’s premise: religious faith is dangerous. It is a slippery slope to hell on earth because it provides a believer with certainty of the rightness of his or her acts and certainty programs people to do bad and stupid things. This is a familiar hypothesis but it is not one that is supported by this movie “arguments”.

Religulous is an amusing trip, and Maher is good company for most of it. But he has all the subtlety of a flame thrower, and exhibits the same type of evangelical zeal for atheism that he mocks in evangelical Christians. Bill has left little space in his psyche for what mystics call presence, grace or the simple awareness that there’s a lot more to being than ‘thinking’.

So I don’t know if the “Queen of Heaven” granted me particular insight into Religulous. In fact, I am inclined to doubt it. But difficulty and doubt do not invalidate faith. They are part of the package for most believers. An insight that seems to have bypassed the filmmakers.

Terje Fokstuen is a writer in Berkeley, CA who holds a graduate degree and studied religion.

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2 Responses to “Election withdrawal: Bill Maher’s “Religulous” a funny break?”

  1. I agree. Bill Maher is narrow-minded and reductionist when it comes to matters of the soul, the mysteries of life — and metaphysics, in general.

    When it comes to politics, though, he’s appropriately and comically reductionist. He should stick to politics. And when it comes to spirituality, he might try a new practice: silence and listening :)

  2. i would love to see this movie and hopefully will soon. i recently saw an interview with maher and one of the crucial points he made was that athetists are discriminated against in the US (and no doubt in canada). in this i feel that he’s correct. can you imagine obama standing up and saying that he didn’t believe in an entity known as god? he wouldn’t have had a chance. also…i think we’ll be waiting a long while before the first jewish person is elected as president.