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?
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 continuum, 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.
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.