Posted on December 26, 2008
Filed Under English
Saw Bill Maher’s Religulous yesterday. Regular viewers of Real Time with Bill Maher and Bill’s standup shows will know what to expect, and Bill doesn’t fail to deliver. Religulous is a good-humoured attack on religious beliefs in general and the big religious organisations in the US in particular. Through a series of irreverent interviews with ministers, priests, rabbis, ‘formerly gay’ evangelicals and ‘escaped’ Mormons, Bill paints a picture of hypocrisy, lack of logical reasoning, evasive answers and rigid doctrine.
The way Bill aproaches these people is certainly a breath of fresh air. There have been other documentaries dealing with religion, but even the most critical of these usually display some (innate?) reverence towards ‘persons of the cloth’, whether they deserve any or not. Not Bill. When a ‘formerly gay’ minister decides to hug Bill farewell, the latter simply inquires about a possible hard-on. When a group of men in a truck stop chapel decide to bless Bill and pull him into a prayer circle, he claims to be missing his wallet afterwards, etcetera. There are plenty of irreverent and funny moments like that.
Still … it isn’t all good. It’s quite clear that Bill took a leaf or two from Michael Moore’s and Stephen Colbert’s editing playbooks. Asking a difficult or trick question and substituting a likely answer with a puzzled or stupid look just to make the subject look goofy has been done before. It is funny when it’s not overdone. In Religulous it is used a lot, and although it serves its comedic purpose quite effectively, it does look like a cop-out when done to death. Bill Maher is a very funny person, and religion hardly needs any parody; using editing tricks to stress either point makes it look a bit forced.
There is one other point that feels like a missed opportunity: Bill is so busy showing the downside and inconsistencies of religious beliefs that the case for atheism that he is clearly trying to make is underexposed. The documentary could easily have lost the UK rapper (who failed to utter a consistent thought), the Dutch cannabis guy (who failed to utter any thought until his hair caught on fire) and the gay muslim guys (who failed to do more than sit there). That would have freed up ten minutes or so for people like Richard Dawkins and Cristopher Hitchens, both of whom are among the most eloquent and savvy defenders of atheism and critics of religious beliefs. They appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher numerous times, so they would undoubtedly have been happy to voice their opinion. It would have made Religulous into a more coherent atheist manifesto.
The rather one-sided (albeit humorous) approach fails to put Religulous into the ‘ooompf!’ class of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. It is preaching to the atheist choir (people who don’t need to be convinced) and it will fail to cause even a slight dent in the religious mindset (people who only respond to strong-armed manipulation or even propaganda). Adding Richard Dawkins and Michael Moore as executive producers to the payroll of Religulous II might be a good idea …