Bill Maher doesn’t like fiction. He presents himself as a no-bullshit libertarian rationalist: hey, buddy, if your god says I can’t smoke weed or jack off, then fuck your god. This is pretty much the point of Religulous, with a side order of dread about the major religions’ apocalypsist fantasies. Maher is saying, “Whoa, these wackos want us all to die in an inferno so their book will be right, and someday one of them will make it so.”
In Religulous, Bill Maher — perhaps as relentlessly literalist as many of the believers he interviews — gets stuck on whimsical details like talking snakes and a man living inside a big fish. How could anyone believe this shit actually happened? Maher wonders. He’s sort of missing the point, but then so are a lot of the believers. Maher doesn’t seem to take into account the power of storytelling and metaphor. These books — the Bible, the Koran — were written to keep people in the tribe. Anything outside the tribe, anything that didn’t lead to more tribe members (say, homosexuality), was forbidden because the tribe would then be smaller, weaker, and vulnerable to other tribes. And there are always other tribes.
Now, you could argue — rightly, I think — that any mode of thought that doesn’t move forward with the times is doomed to irrelevance at best and homicidal insanity at worst. But Religulous doesn’t really get into that. Maher talks to a few relatively rational Christians or Muslims who seem more realistic in their beliefs, less blindly hostile to questioning. But the dumb-asses make for juicier material, or at least easier targets. Anyone who believes in something larger than what we’ve got here is dismissed as a rube. What’s disappointing is that Maher picks on the same few talking points — Christians believe in talking snakes! Islam is an inherently violent religion! — and never really deviates from them or listens much. He’s as rigid as the truck-stop Bible-thumpers he debates in a church the size of a broom closet.
I like the idea of Maher taking on religion, but all he really does is take it on; he doesn’t win. Ultimately, the movie is an impotent howl into the wind. On some level it’s a call for non-believers to “come out of the closet” and make themselves heard, especially in the realm of politics. But this, like so much else, gets lost in the snark. Maher touches briefly on a lot of things that would’ve deserved their own film, and in some cases have gotten their own films. It’s simply too big a subject to allow Maher to do much more, particularly in this reductive format, than to smirk in the back pew and make armpit fart noises.
Granted, some of the armpit farts are funny. Maher is quick and witty, and comedy is not fair. Religulous doesn’t pretend to be a “documentary” — it’s essentially a prolonged remote segment of Real Time with Bill Maher. (“New Rule: Your god is not special.”) By the end, though, Maher has become as histrionic a doomsayer — resorting to punctuating his rant with mushroom clouds — as any of the nutters in Hyde Park or on late-night televangelism. The laughter dies, and Maher is backlit by the sun as he inveighs against religion at the holy site of Meggido itself. It’s an embarrassing denouement, one that the Maher of the film’s earlier scenes would’ve chortled at (“Get the fuck off the high horse, you self-righteous asshead,” he might’ve said).
Religion spurs a lot of people to violence and stupidity. It also comforts a lot of people, brings them peace they can’t find anywhere else. The problem with religion isn’t religion, it’s people. Make the people smarter, and they’ll be smarter about religion. They may leave it behind, or they may apply what works for them and disregard what doesn’t, or they may stop proselytizing and realize that we’ve come a long way since tribes in the desert. In this film, Bill Maher doesn’t try to make religious people smarter. He’s content to tell them how dumb they are.