Review: Religulous (2008)

Note: This article was originally published in Technician on October 7, 2008.


Religulous dares to laugh at the sacred

If there’s one topic it’s often not okay to question and joke about, it’s religion. Evidently Bill Maher didn’t get the memo. The talk show host is the writer and star of Religulous, a documentary that follows him on his quest to “ask questions” and preach the gospel of “I don’t know.” It’s a film that even the devoutly religious should be able to enjoy, if only for the sheer amount of laughs, though it’s lacking as a serious examination of the issue of faith.

Maher, raised Catholic, spends most of the film poking fun of Christianity and Islam, with a few smaller religions like Scientology and Mormonism thrown in for good measure. His journey takes him everywhere from a Truckers Chapel here in Raleigh to the Vatican itself.

The film shines when raising questions. Why don’t Christians accept evolution? Are we really a “Christian” nation? Is Islam a religion of peace or war? Is it right to be certain about the end of the world and the afterlife? Doesn’t much of Christianity contradict the teachings of Jesus?

Rather than interview any credible theologians or religious scholars, though, Maher makes sure to mainly interview average religious conservatives and visit “kitschy” religious places, like the Holy Land amusement park in Florida.

Though this usually makes for some good comedy when his subjects can’t adequately defend their faith, it’s hardly fair, and one wonders if he didn’t interview more moderate scholars because he knew they could provide good answers. Indeed, one interview with a Vatican astronomer reveals not all religious people to be fundamentalists who hate science and take the Bible literally. Unfortunately, rather than exploring this further, Maher only lets him speak on the subject of evolution, and then moves on to other, easier targets. And this is where Religulous’ main flaw begins to rear its head.

While Maher, for most of the film, manages to find good comedy while pointing out the absurdity of some religious beliefs, he rarely puts himself in situations where he might be surprised or not immediately have the upper hand in conversation. 

This would be fine, if that was all he set out to do. Unfortunately, in the last five minutes, the film takes a sudden turn to the serious, and implies that not only is religion ridiculous, but it could very well cause the destruction of mankind. 

Moderates explicitly get lumped in with extremists (Maher calls them “enablers”), and suddenly the audience isn’t laughing at religion, it’s terrified. It’s a blatant use of scare tactics taken straight from a Sam Harris book, and it’s a conclusion that seems to contradict what has come before it.

If you’re going to say that all religions are evil, shouldn’t you at least bother to interview someone who isn’t an average Joe on the subject? Not to mention the telling absence of Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism from the film.

Religulous is an entertaining film. Director Larry Charles (Borat) uses sharp editing and Maher is witty enough that hardly a minute goes by without a good laugh. As a Christian, I found his questions to be ones worth asking, and won’t deny that there are some beliefs that deserve to be made fun of.

The problem only arises when Maher’s attitude suddenly goes from “I don’t know” to “I do know,” and his message of doubt is undermined by arrogant generalizations. Everyone, especially college students, should see this film for the comedy and for the questions as it has the potential to inspire discussion of issues that we often shy away from. Just don’t expect  serious answers – you’ll have to do that on your own.