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Religulous May Offend – See It Anyway

If you have ever watched comedian Bill Maher’s Real Time on HBO (yeah right, what good Adventist watches HBO?), it will probably not surprise you that I saw two people walk out of his new documentary, Religulous, within the first ten minutes. Maher courts controversy. He’s opinionated, brash, and he is funny as [a word that his movie mocks extensively].

After watching the trailer for Religulous, I expected the movie to be a biased diatribe against organized religion. To some extent, it was. And yet I think that thoughtful people from every religion need to see this film.

Religulous begins with a shot of Bill Maher standing on a desolate pile of rocks he says is Megiddo, the place where many Christians believe the Apocalypse’s battle of Armageddon will one day bring the end of the world. Cut away to clips of disasters, explosions and violence, and then Maher deadpans, “One thing I hate more than prophecy is self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The film follows Maher’s journey to countries around the world to converse with (often talking over) the faithful from the world’s great and not-so-great religions. With biting wit and a keen interrogative sensibility, Maher cuts to the heart of the frequent absurdities of religious belief.

At a roadside chapel for truckers, Maher asks a group of truck drivers to explain why they believe in God. When he presses the issue, one large man gets angry and walks out in a huff. Others end up placing their hands on their interrogator and praying for him in Jesus’ name.

They are “selling certainty,” Maher says. “Not me. I’m in the corner with doubt.”

Maher converses with a televangelist, an ex-Jew for Jesus, a group of Christians at a Passion-of-the-Christ theme park, an evangelical congressman, gay Muslims, celibate priests, Mormons, Jews, imams and ordinary, average religious adherents. He even gets face time with a dancing, soon-to-be-crucified Jesus impersonator. He visits the Vatican, a creation museum with dinosaurs and children playing together and the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

In every conversation, Maher presses home the point that religion is often irrational. Come on, do you really believe that a man lived for three days in the belly of a whale? It was a great fish? Oh, I see. A great fish. And the virgin birth? It’s not in the Bible. What about the fact that the Jesus story has numerous parallels in the stories of the Egyptian god Horus and the Hindu deity Lord Krishna?

When pressed, those Maher interviews reveal just how much their faith rests on blind belief. Maher asks us to consider: If we were brought up to believe the story of Jack and the Beanstalk rather than the story of Jonah and the Whale, would we know the difference?

Interspersed among the conversations, director Larry Charles (Borat) splices in stock footage of religion gone bad – the God-hates-fags crowd makes the cut as do Muslim rioters violently protesting the infamous cartoon of Mohammad. George Bush explains that he bases his foreign policy on his beliefs about God, and scientologists do whatever it is that scientologists do.

Through it all, Maher adds his own sarcastic yet disarmingly funny interpolations. He opines that the Gospels likely omit the accounts of Jesus preteen and teenage years because Jesus was an awkward youth with “a big Jew ‘fro”. While Maher reveals an obvious bias in failing to interview any religious scholars, aid workers, or people who give religion a good face, and while the occasional mocking sarcasm is easy enough to ignore, Maher’s penetrating questions cannot be ignored.

My recommendation that religious people see this movie is like your doctor’s recommendation that you get your colonoscopy done. It may not be the most pleasant experience, but it is crucial to take a hard stare inside, in the dark, twisting places where we would rather not look, to see what kind of things might be growing there.

What sort of cancerous growth does blind belief foster? How does a lack of scrutiny lead to absurd belief and more importantly, what are the consequences of an unquestioned faith?

Bill Maher forces us to ask ourselves tough questions. What basis do we have for believing in the God of seemingly fantastic stories? Religulous makes it abundantly clear that we’re not going to get off the hook by intoning, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Such platitudes just won’t do.

The film ends back where it began, on a pile of Megiddo rocks somewhere in Israel. But this time, Maher isn’t joking. He makes an unmistakable point by book-ending his interesting, often bizarre religious conversations with straight-into-the-camera colloquy from this doomsday locale. With footage of atrocities done in the name of religion flashing on the screen, Maher leads us to the Cliff where blind belief falls off into catastrophic oblivion.

After watching Religulous, you may find yourself saying like the man to my left in the theater, “Gawd…hahahaha!” Or, more probably, you will find yourself feeling unsettled, even annoyed. But that is no reason not to see this movie.

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