Religulous movie poster


Standup come­dian and occa­sional b-movie star Bill Maher remade him­self into a satir­i­cal polit­i­cal pun­dit on the cable TV shows Polit­i­cally Incor­rect and Real Time. He most famously spoke truth to power when he defied the con­ven­tional wis­dom after 9/11 and cor­rectly stated that one thing the per­pe­tra­tors were not were cow­ards. Not sur­pris­ingly, he was swiftly fired by Com­edy Cen­tral. Had he stopped there, his arguable legacy would have been to blaze the trail for the likes of Jon Stew­art and Stephen Col­bert to crossover from the gut­ter of com­edy to main­stream polit­i­cal pun­ditry. Maher’s peer Al Franken went even fur­ther, from heck­ler to actual polit­i­cal participant.

But Maher was not con­tent to stop there. His lat­est incar­na­tion is, for bet­ter or worse, the pop­u­lar face of a grow­ing move­ment against orga­nized reli­gion. Unlike the ratio­nal sci­en­tist Richard Dawkins (mostly ratio­nal, that is; his recent state­ments against children’s fan­tasy lit­er­a­ture like Harry Pot­ter reveal him to be at best a killjoy and at worst a cen­sor) and the even more stri­dent Christo­pher Hitchens, Maher uses com­edy and out­right mock­ery to advance the cause of athe­ism in the some­times dis­turbingly theo­cratic Amer­i­can soci­ety. This Dork Reporter is on his side, but isn’t sure Maher and his movie Religu­lous is really what athe­ists need to com­bat the encroach­ment of church upon state. As Michael Moore is to lib­er­als, so too may Maher be to athe­ists every­where: is he really the best spokesperson?

Bill Maher in ReligulousA Jew and a talk show host walk into a bar… oh, you’ve heard this one?

Religu­lous teams Maher with direc­tor Larry Charles, also respon­si­ble for the high-concept low art Borat: Cul­tural Learn­ings of Amer­ica for Make Ben­e­fit Glo­ri­ous Nation of Kaza­khstan (2006) and Brüno (2009). While Borat and Bruno fall on the faux­men­tary end of the con­tin­uüm, Religu­lous skirts with being an actual doc­u­men­tary but stops short of pre­ten­sions to impar­tial­ity. Maher and Charles talk their way into enemy ter­ri­tory like the Holy Land Expe­ri­ence theme park in Orlando, the Cre­ation Museum in Ken­tucky (a tem­ple to the denial of basic sci­ence that would be hilar­i­ous were it not such an astound­ing cel­e­bra­tion of will­ful igno­rance), and the Truck­ers’ Chapel in Raleigh. Maher and Charles may have used sub­terfuge to gain access, but the fin­ished film is open about their decep­tion. The film­mak­ers openly brag over such stunts by proudly includ­ing footage of the Holy Land Experience’s pub­li­cist freak­ing out at the pres­ence of a bunch of god­less lib­er­als armed with a cam­era. All of this atti­tude is actu­ally not nec­es­sary; the film is at its best when Maher allows his inter­vie­wees to sim­ply talk their way into deep graves (which most of these intol­er­ant igno­ra­muses do with great gusto).

My biggest issue with the movie is its use of satir­i­cal edi­to­r­ial jux­ta­po­si­tion that on at least one occa­sion is out­right racist. I agree it’s fun to snicker at clips of cheesy old bib­li­cal movies, easy to mock the nau­se­at­ingly con­fused “for­mer homo­sex­ual” Pas­tor John Wescott of Exchange Min­istries with snip­pets of gay porn, and chuckle at the bald scam being run by José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a Puerto Rican claim­ing to be the direct descen­dent of Jesus Christ. But Maher refers to African Amer­i­can preacher Pas­tor Jere­miah Cum­mings’ gold jew­elry as “bling” and inter­cuts footage of a com­i­cally stereo­typ­i­cal pimp. Wescott is obvi­ously in deep denial, and Cum­mings and Miranda are despi­ca­ble crooks out for noth­ing but their own profit, but such cheap­shots are uncalled for.

Bill Maher in ReligulousAnd on the third day, Jesus went to Orlando

In the midst of all this fer­vent mad­ness, it’s some­what sur­pris­ing that the Catholic Church and even the Vat­i­can itself come across as the most enlight­ened. Maher is kicked out of the Vat­i­can proper, but meets with the supremely sane and ratio­nal Father George Coyne, head of the Vat­i­can obser­va­tory. Coyne is one man of the cloth, at least, that does not deny sci­ence or cel­e­brate igno­rance. Maher also strikes inter­view gold with the hilar­i­ously out­spo­ken for­mer Vat­i­can scholar Father Regi­nald Foster.

The plot thick­ens! Maher does not actu­ally self-identify as an athe­ist. As he told The Onion’s A.V. Club,

I’m not an athe­ist. There’s a really big dif­fer­ence between an athe­ist and some­one who just doesn’t believe in reli­gion. Reli­gion to me is a bureau­cracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an athe­ist, no. I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a sin­gle par­ent who writes books.

Whether Maher posi­tions him­self as an athe­ist or merely a cru­sader against oppres­sive orga­nized reli­gion, he takes a kind of glee­ful pride in it. Smug athe­ists can be just as insuf­fer­able as holier-than-thou the­ists. Even before becom­ing a self-appointed voice against reli­gion, Maher had become some­what infa­mous for louche behav­ior (dat­ing and some­times mar­ry­ing strip­pers, fre­quent­ing the Play­boy Man­sion, etc.). His out­spo­ken opin­ions and tabloid-ready behav­ior prob­a­bly don’t help the­ists take him seri­ously. I imag­ine most fun­da­men­tal­ists pic­ture athe­ists as being like Maher: proud, con­de­scend­ing, and shirk­ing of the respon­si­bil­ity of religious-derived morals (in other words, not hav­ing hell to moti­vate them to not sin). What I think believ­ers need to under­stand is many peo­ple arrive at athe­ism only after pro­tracted peri­ods of dif­fi­cult soul search­ing, and aren’t nec­es­sar­ily smug about it.

Religu­lous may be preach­ing to the con­verted, but it can’t ever hurt to keep the pres­sure on those that would oppress and exploit oth­ers by claim­ing to have the ear of God.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.