Picking on the Pious

Bill Maher skewers religion in his funny, confrontational 'Religulous'

Organized religion and some of its many followers take a kick in the nards from Bill Maher in Religulous, a funny and sometimes brutal indictment of all things God-related.

This documentary is sure to stir up controversy and get Maher banned from a mosque or two, but Maher never lets his celebrity get in the way of his mission. He goes at people with a ferocity that takes a lot of guts, and the results can be shocking.

There was a time when I didn't think Bill Maher was very funny. He just seemed smug and pompous; his standup comedy was one-note, and his TV shows were an exercise in smarminess. But sometime within the last couple of years, the man started cracking me up. His latest show, Real Time With Bill Maher, works well, perhaps because we get him in smaller doses mixed with multiple guests. I consider his tirade after Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists interrupted his show one of the great TV talk-show moments of the past decade.

With Religulous, Maher crosses over into film with a vengeance. It's one of the more daring documentaries I've ever seen, often featuring Maher basically telling devoutly religious people that they are full of shit. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Scientologists all face Maher's wrath, and it's probably accurate to say he didn't make many friends on this shoot.

One of the things I love about this film is Maher's ability to shine a light on the intolerant nature of some so-called religious people. While there are a few interview subjects who patiently accept his line of questioning and hang in there, more or less, many treat Maher like he is Satan incarnate for having the brashness to question their doctrines and dogmas. He's also kicked out of the Vatican and told to leave the grounds of the Mormon Tabernacle. When visiting a mosque, someone comments that he's an unfunny Jew, that he shouldn't be here, and that his show sucks.

Maher takes an interesting approach while interviewing subjects. I'm guessing most of the setups were some sort of ambush, meaning his subjects weren't really sure what they were getting into. The film is directed by Larry Charles (Borat), who is no stranger to brutal sneak-attack interviews. I'm sorry, but when people are this ignorant, stubborn and hypocritical, I'm more than happy to see them get caught like a squirrel that broke too late in its effort to scamper across the highway.

After seducing his subjects with good humor, Maher's fangs come out. He even smokes a joint with the head of some sort of strange marijuana religion in Amsterdam before mocking him (an interview that concludes with the subject's hair catching on fire).

Maher does a beautiful job of showing how people have basically bastardized the beauty of Jesus' teachings. Maher also questions whether Jesus ever really existed; he cites other pre-Christ religions that included prophets who were born around Dec. 25, were crucified and were resurrected from the dead. Maher clearly doesn't care who he disturbs.

Ultimately, Maher sees religion as just plain silly, and he can't believe that intelligent beings choose to believe that dinosaurs existed with man, and the fate of man changed when a talking snake recommended a certain fruit. In one case, he utilizes an old anti-Mormon propaganda cartoon that I recall seeing when I was kid. It made me laugh then, and it made me laugh now.

By the film's end, Maher is no longer laughing. He's pissed off, looking straight into the camera and telling doubters to speak up--and the religiously devout to grow up. It's his belief that religion is a corrosive force, and that organized religion is contributing to our eventual demise. Amen, Bill ... amen.

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