The other day I attended a screening of Religulous, the film where American comedian Bill Maher takes a look at some of the world’s religions. As you can probably guess, the film doesn’t really aim for a balanced approach but is interested in the far ends of the spectrum of belief. In particular, it seems to focus on Abrahamic religions and conflict concerning the Holy Land or groups which are prominent in the USA such as Scientology. I suppose this mainly reflects the audience it is targeting and the groups they will be familiar with. Despite Maher’s confrontational style of humour it turns out that the motivation for the film comes from his own curiosity and questions about religion. So how does it hold up?
The film is quite funny. It does require a thick skin and an ability to laugh at yourself and your beliefs if you are religious though. It’s not greatly sophisticated humour and it doesn’t hold back much. Maher seeks out various religious leaders and self-identified divine prophets as well as some more ordinary believers and asks them questions about their beliefs, views and justifications. During interviews the film quite often cuts away to another believer expressing an entirely opposite view or a footnote is displayed giving information which contradicts or an unspoken commentary of Maher’s thoughts at the time. To their credit, the interviewees are quite patient and tolerant of their questioning and several people do come up as quite reasonable and amicable people. The Vatican Astronomer, in particular, comes across as an intelligent, interesting individual. It would have been really interesting to see a fuller conversation with him, but the film’s remit was to look at the more extreme individuals so he appears only as the rational antidote to some of the more far-fetched claims of the others.
For me, the most interesting parts come when we see Maher discussing his own experiences with religion and his questions regarding belief. Maher brings his own family into the picture and with his sister and mother they discuss how religion was approached during his upbringing. Maher explains how his mother was Jewish and his father was catholic but both children attended the local catholic church. At some point it seems that Maher’s father decided to stop going to church but we never really learn more about that. Through the discussions with his family, sections of monologue while he is travelling in a vehicle and his conversations with the ordinary believers, we see a more honest and open side of the presenter in contrast to his wise-cracking and blokey persona.
As a critique of religion it’s fairly superficial, although it does seem to come from some kind of a heartfelt place. I would have preferred to see a wider range of religions included but obviously you can’t include everything and the film prefers to focus on a familiar few rather than becoming a whistle stop tour of world religions. The film also presents that oft-used idea of Christianity and Islam being warlike religions, although this appears to arise from an actual fear that the feuding between the religious groups, especially regarding Jerusalem and the holy land, could lead to serious wars which would cause huge loss of life in this age of extremely powerful weapons. Ultimately, I think Religulous hopes to serve as a warning that extreme and intolerant ideologies could prove to be very dangerous. I appreciate the sincerity of the position but I fear that films like this just perpetuate stereotypes of violent Muslims, ignorant bigoted fundamentalist Christians and corrupt religious leaders. If Bill Maher and colleagues really want to avoid religious warfare then we need to see more understanding of religions, tolerance for different beliefs and more dialogue between the different believers and also non-believers. When we paint caricatures of religion, we forget the people they represent and the people are the only part that matters.