Comedians, at their best, point out the folly of our own lives, using humor to pry open our minds so that we can question our assumptions, beliefs, sacred rituals and mundane behaviors. George Carlin (may Pesci rest his soul) did this masterfully, crafting canonical criticisms of the sacred and the profane.
In his newly released film Religulous, comedian Bill Maher and director Larry Charles attempt to do to religious fundamentalism what Michael Moore did in exposing the irrational fear that leads us to embrace guns, surrender essential civil liberties, and march toward a poorly conceived war. Unfortunately, Maher does not muster an appropriate level of cinematic demagoguery, and the effort falls flat, succeeding neither as comedy nor as insightful commentary.
Maher attacks the low-hanging fruit of on the tree of willful ignorance, focusing too much attention on the bronze-age ethos of biblical literalism, theme park piety and the lunatic fringe of religion. In doing so, his approach is little more sophisticated than would be expected of an adolescent who has newly discovered the cognitive dissonance required for a belief in the literal truth of the Bible. Nowhere does this rise to the level of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, nor does it make as compelling a case as Sam Harris’ The End of Faith that religious adherents and their apologists pose a grave threat to the future of our civilization.
Maher argues against the arrogant certitude of religion, and embraces skepticism, but does so only superficially, never quite probing deeply enough into the contradictions and errors in the Bible or challenging liberal members of the clergy on the rationale for their entire religion once stripped of the nonsensical mythology. He sabotages his own argument, too, when acknowledging the psychological salve that is the faith of last resort practiced in foxholes and prison cells.
Had the film highlighted the juxtaposition between liberal (or even humanistic) and fundamentalist versions of those same religions, he could have made a strong case against blind faith without the need to ridicule religious identification itself. And it is that blind faith, rather than religious adherence per se, that is the true enemy of reason. While he does call for non-believers to emerge from their closets in defense of reason over faith, he failed to make a compelling case for this, showing religion as merely silly rather than inherently dangerous. Thus, when he finally asserts that religion must die if mankind is to survive, and urges the audience to “grow up, or die,” these admonitions seem like a non sequitir, the conclusion of a largely unsupported thesis.
Writing about this film in Salon Andrew O’Hehir wrote:
…to the extent that “Religulous” is meant to bemoan the auto-lobotomized mandatory Christianity of American public life (I’d include such honorary Christians as Joe Lieberman), and to encourage atheists, agnostics and other doubters to come out of the closet and claim their share of the debate, it’s performing a genuine social mitzvah.
True enough. And, granted, Maher’s intent was to play the farce of fundamentalism for comic effect, and there were laughs to be had. As a member of the secular choir, I enjoyed his romping sermon; but, I learned nothing new, and doubt anybody not already questioning their faith would be swayed by this movie. While this film doesn’t address the nuanced and more sophisticated religious beliefs held by many ostensibly religious Americans, it does cast a spotlight on the ridiculous beliefs held by a significant minority of registered voters, and for that it is to be applauded.