Review: Religulous (2008)


Just to start I’d like to say that yes, I am an atheist, and my views of RELIGULOUS, an admittedly fairly one-sided satirical documentary will reflect my religious outlook. It’s a divisive film, and there’s no reason why you’d get much out of it if faith is a particularly important part of your life.

Religulous follows comedian and TV personality Bill Maher and director Larry Charles (BORAT, BRÜNO) as they travel the world talking to people about their varying extent of religious faith, and try to understand how and why they believe what they believe through a series of frank interviews.

Bill Maher is an engaging and funny guide who isn’t the least bit afraid to ask the difficult questions. The most astounding thing about the interviews with believers, perhaps the main thing that makes the film worthwhile, is how quickly it is revealed that none of them really want to talk about their faith. Practically nobody wants to answer a question that even hints at an aspect of their religion being wrong, not even if a view might have (understandably and inevitably) become outdated because it comes from a book that is thousands of years old, and seemingly no-one even wants to acknowledge, or attempt to understand how others have their doubts. We need people like Maher and Larry Charles  to ask a question so often posed to organised religions and is never answered (perhaps because it can’t be) – why?

As a presenter, Maher has an interesting perspective. He’s not a lifelong atheist, in fact he grew up in a house of two faiths (Catholicism from his father, Judaism from his mother) and has only been overwhelmed by doubts in recent years. He’s a comedian, and of course comes up with some zingers to put down the people he’s talking to (if he can’t get it into the interview himself, then they flash up in subtitles) but he’s not out to cause offense, unless the person he’s interviewing really infuriates him. He seems genuinely interested, and wants to understand people with faith, and get a good debate going with a range of people. He’s not outright rude unless he has to be, for instance if an interviewee doesn’t allow him to present a counter-argument, and has clearly done his reading, particularly hilariously providing direct biblical quotes to back up his argument, and often to prove the ignorance of a particularly blustery believer.

The interviewees are to an extent cherry-picked, and perhaps those more open to reasonable discussion were excised for lack of entertainment value. For instance, in addition to creationists, a “cured” ex-gay and a rabbi that wants Israel wiped off the map, Maher interviews a man who is convinced (and has persuaded a terrifying amount of others) that he is the literal second coming of Christ. Maher is bemused, and almost seems sorry for the guy, who is otherwise charming. Deranged, but charming.

But you do get to know a few interesting cases, some fascinating oxymorons (a Vatican astronomer, gay Muslim activists) who help colour the debate. In terms of his technique for interviewing the radicals, Maher tends to let them talk, and dig themselves into a hole, allowing Larry Charles to drop in a choice piece of evidence in post-production that proves to what extent the interviewee has just outright lied to us the viewer.

Maher perhaps takes the debate cruelly far when he directly compares having a religion with a mental illness, and the expert he ropes in here looks particularly uncomfortable at this suggestion (though he does have a stab at theorising on those lines for the camera) and he shows a little ignorance himself at suggesting (perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek) to some young, gay Muslims that they don’t have many options when the Quran outlaws a particular type of intercourse.

The debate does change its tone, becoming much more cautious when the question of free speech and religion rears its head. Someone perhaps advised Maher and Charles to tread lightly when engaging Muslims in his debate, and the subject is arguably still too raw around the world to lay into followers of Islam to the same extent as he does Christians and the Jewish. An interesting point is still raised at this point that Muslims seem especially reluctant to be interviewed about their faith by “outsiders”, and that could be the subject for an entire film by itself, if anyone was brave enough to take it on.

There is, unavoidably, a central problem with Maher and Charles’ debate. Maher engages with believers in his own personal, atheist, secular, interrogative way, but faith is, by its very nature, unexplainable, and never can be. Science and religion parted ways forever following the Enlightenment, and it is useless, and without much purpose, to try and force them together again. Though Maher really earnestly wants to get an answer from his interviewees that will satisfy him, a devout believer will never be able to provide such an response to a non-believer.

When Maher finally brings the argument to a close, suggesting religious leaders with power over the hearts and minds of billions are dangerous, responsible for a lot of what is wrong with the world (cue a timely appearance by George W. Bush from the archives), the apocalyptic music that plays over the top of the sequence is wholly unnecessary. Not only is it not needed, the over-the-top nature of it (whether satirical or not) will only bolster the argument that this isn’t a valid, “real” documentary, which is a shame, because it certainly kicks off an interesting debate to be had.

I also don’t understand why Maher and Charles only interviewed followers of Christianity, Islam and Judaism either, and especially why they chose to talk to someone from a Dutch cannabis church before a Sikh or a Hindu. Bringing in someone from a monotheistic religion might have shone a new, fascinating light, or at the very least make Maher break down in tears of despair.

Religulous, if you’re of similar frame of mind to Bill Maher, is almost guaranteed to entertain you. The final verdict of Maher and director Larry Charles’ tongue-in-cheek thesis on religion isn’t particularly helpful, and is likely to antagonise far more than encourage a progressive discussion, but as a comedy, as a piece of entertainment, it delivers, and it does make you think. SSP


About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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