Bill Maher is someone I have a touch and go opinion of. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is, and when he’s on any subject regarding sex or women, he’s a complete ass who can’t hide his sexism. But he’s always been a stalwart and hilarious critic of religion, and I was stoked to see him tackle it in “Religulous“. And in most ways, he did a much better job than I could have ever anticipated. He avoids engaging in his trite sexist sexual joshing. The jokes hit hard and there’s a ton of huge laughs. (The Holy Spirit enema thing might be the hugest laugh I’ve had at a movie in awhile, though to be fair, it’s not Maher’s joke.) His many years as a talk show host have made him an astute interviewer, it turns out. Since the point of the movie is to expose religion as a fraud, and not so much attack believers (like most thoughtful anti-religious people, Maher tends to view believers as victims of their own ideologies at worst, well-meaning but misguided people at best), it was critical that the person interviewing the believers be able to drill them hard about their beliefs without insulting or aggravating them. Maher is perfect for the job. He has a pose of innocuous curiosity with most of his interview subjects, and doesn’t really need to beat them over the head to show what they believe is ridiculous. He just needs to ask the taboo questions, and he does. Over and over again, believers strongly state a belief only to have Maher’s patient, skeptical questions get them confused.
The most effective scene has to be where Maher gets a long interview with the jovial fellow who plays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience. Maher carefully explains to the man that the elements of the Jesus myth—the virgin birth, the death/rebirth, the baptism by a man who is beheaded, rising a friend from the dead, the disciples—were around the Mediterranean for centuries before Jesus supposedly lived, in Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek mythology. Most of the other Christians Maher presents this information to simply don’t process it. It’s actually pretty amazing, as if you’re watching the information literally go in one ear and out the other. But this guy hears it, and you can tell that it shakes him. Unfortunately for people that are sensitive to that sort of thing, watching someone doubt their faith is actually pretty fucking funny. So, I recommend the movie for that.
Now for the big fat problem with it that made me furious—”Religulous” uses racist tropes to make some of its points. And never once was it anything but an offensive distraction, and it actually hurt the movie’s thesis. (Which is, “Religion is bad and has to go.”) To list them:
1) When speaking to a black preacher who is a complete charlatan, the movie intersperses blaxploitation footage of overdressed pimp characters. There was no need for this. It would have been sufficient for Maher to point to the man’s expensive suits and jewelry and contrast it with the meager possessions of most of his parishioners who give him money.
2) They pull the same stunt when speaking to a Hispanic man who passes himself off as Jesus Christ, only this time the footage is of Al Pacino in “Scarface”. The “funny accent” joke was both offensive and weak. C’mon! The guy thinks he’s the Second Coming embodied. That’s a whole lot funnier than his accent.
3) When he’s interviewing some gay Muslims in Amsterdam, he doesn’t give them a chance to explain how they hold these identities at once and there’s clearly some edits to make it seem like they had reactions they didn’t to certain questions. Since he lets pretty much everyone else explain themselves and hang themselves with their own words, this was really unfair to these guys. I suspect, but have no evidence either way, that what the interview revealed was that these guys just aren’t that devout, but along the lines of Sunday Catholics who use birth control. (For instance, they were also drinking beer.) If so, they should have been given air time. It would be good for an American audience to see that Muslims engage their religion in the same diverse ways that Christians do.
4) During the segments on Islam, the movie engages tropes involving terrorism and the fatwa against Rushdie, which would have been fine if they’d given time to people to explain that just as most Christians are not violent, neither are most Muslims. The filmmakers do show that Christians are violent and hide their violence behind their religious faith—there’s lots of shots of George Bush using Jesus as an excuse to kill people—but it’s not equal time. Plus, the movie shows Muslims both in official capacities justifying violence with Islam and ordinary people doing so. You only see Christian leaders advocating violence. There was a perfect opportunity here to balance out the picture by talking some about Christian terrorists who assault women’s clinics and gay people, and who were behind the anthrax attacks. Without this balance, it stops being an anti-religion movie and seems to be specifically anti-Islam, especially in our hyper-racist environment. Making an argument against religion itself is best done with a strong “pox on ALL your houses” stance.
Islam could have been attacked in the same way Christianity was, and the better segments are when Maher does this, drilling into believers about what fantastical stuff they do believe and why they reject scientific explanations for their beliefs. Part of the problem no doubt was the the filmmakers are just more familiar with Christianity’s ridiculous and fantastic beliefs and had well-practiced objections. But that’s no excuse for falling back on problematic tropes. What they needed to do was more research. There’s plenty of former Muslim atheists out there who probably could run down a list of Islam-specific objections they could have worked with. Teasing out what people actually believe so that you can show how ridiculous it is was what was working in the best parts of this movie. And that’s what Maher should have stuck more to in this instance.