Starring: Bill Maher
“Of course [you don't believe in Santa Claus], that’s ridiculous, it’s one man flying all over the world, dropping presents out of chimneys, that’s ridiculous. But one man hearing everybody murmur to him at the same time… that I get.” (Bill Maher, Religulous)
Bill Maher is no stranger to controversy, but in Religilous he tries to take it to the next level by discussing, criticising and mocking every religion he can think of, usually to the faces of those deeply involved with said religions.
For the record, I’m a part-time Catholic. I was raised Catholic, went to a Catholic school, used to go to chapel on a weekly basis and consider myself Catholic. That said, I’m not the greatest Catholic in the world. I don’t go to chapel anymore and I pick and choose which of the Bible’s rules I live my life by because society has changed a lot since then – if slavery was okay 100 years ago and it isn’t now, what’s to say the stuff we were being taught 2000 years ago is still valid?
So while I still consider myself a Catholic, I’m by no means as ardent a follower of Christ as some others are – I generally live my life by some of its teachings (all the “be good to each other” stuff, basically) and that’s that. I’m perfectly cool with those who are more devout Catholics than me though, or those who are Jewish, Muslim, Mormon or what have you. Bill Maher isn’t.
Religilous sees Maher travelling around the world, meeting with various high-ranking religious types and generally criticising their faith, asking them awkward questions and butting in every time they try to answer so he can make a wry comment to make them feel awkward. It’s the documentary equivalent of going to your friend’s house for dinner and telling their whole family their living room smells like dead people.
I’m all for a debate about religion and the famously non-believing Maher does raise a lot of good questions and discussion points, but he undermines this by using unfair techniques to help enforce his own point. As well as his aforementioned continuous interruptions while his interviewees try to answer his questions he’s also shown making fun of them in his car after the interview is over, and he often deliberately interviews the most extreme divisions of each religion in order to make them look as bad as possible. For example, he won’t just interview an evangelist, he’ll interview a seemingly corrupt one known for asking his parishioners for large donations.
I generally like Bill Maher, or at least what I’ve seen of him – as he’s an American commentator he doesn’t get much coverage here in the UK– but while Religulous admittedly never promises to be an objective discussion on religion the fact it’s so one-sided is ultimately a bit disappointing. He’s since admitted he fooled his interviewees into taking part in the film by telling them it was called A Spiritual Journey and was going to be pro-religion.
It’s just so frustrating to watch at times. The only time Maher meets his match – an anti-Zionist Rabbi who continues to give long answers and doesn’t let Maher interrupt, saying “please let me finish” every time he tries to – Maher himself storms out of the interview. And when he starts to approach the subject of the Muslim faith, the apparently fearless Maher suddenly starts pussy-footing around it and is far less critical.
Religulous is a film made for atheists, and it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. I personally have no problem with atheism, but what I don’t like is atheists who aren’t simply happy to not have a faith, but take time to criticise everyone else’s faith because they’re “wrong”. Is Religulous funny? Yes, it is. Is it worth watching? Yes, if only because it encourages a lot of thought and Maher does make some genuinely interesting points at times. But is it a fair and respectful documentary about modern faith? Not in the slightest.