Today I want to look at Bill Maher’s aggressive atheistic (or agnostic, I am not sure which) manifesto Religulous. In it, Maher starts and ends standing upon the prophesied site of apocalypse: Megiddo, in Israel. He, standing at the end of the world, informs the audience that religion is a dangerous force. Maher urges the under-represented minority of atheists and agnostics to make themselves heard, to “grow up or die.”
As I watched Maher’s trek across the world and his odd (but common) method of arguing with devout theists, I couldn’t help but think, “There is something else going on in this film. Something strange.”
Is this film Bill Maher’s soapbox? Of course it is—ever since ABC canceled Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher has used most of his media pull to exercise his first amendment rights. This movie, however, does something special. It turns Bill Maher into the object of debate. In Religulous, William Maher Jr. is not presented as the tenacious, impenetrable, and witty television icon we all know and love (or, perhaps, love to hate). Instead we are confronted with a Bill Maher who out-talks his opponents, never relents, and receives flack for obvious reasons.
Andrew O’hehir explains:
…I gently tried to suggest to Maher [that] his scattershot and ad hominem attacks against many different forms of religious hypocrisy don’t add up to a coherent critique, and he’s not qualified to provide one. Any serious theologian from the mainstream Christian or Jewish traditions would have eaten his lunch for him, and that’s why we don’t see anybody like that in this film for more than a second or two. It would seem Maher used the Religulous project as an opportunity to reduce the religious world into a sideshow attraction and poke fun at them.
It is odd that most of the interviewees were left pleading “no, no, no” and trying to get a word in. In Religulous, the interviewer sees the most airtime—his subjects often take a back seat. If Religulous is a documentary, then what is it a documentary of? As Roger Ebert explains,
This review is going to depend on one of my own deeply held beliefs: It’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it’s about it. This movie is about Bill Maher’s opinion of religion. Often the film looks as if it were lifted directly from Maher’s brain—thoughts of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments included.
The camera work often grabs Bill Maher in a documentary fashion for short periods of time only to cut to a shot that includes the boom and another camera. This self-aware style only draws more attention to the true subject of the documentary: it documents Bill Maher’s documentary, if that makes sense. It is as if someone were to film a full-length behind the scenes documentary of Spinal Tap. Religulous is a meta-documentary, to word it in the most ridiculous way possible.
To look at the reactions, Bill Maher “plays to his base” of non-believers, pisses off the religious, and irks anyone with formal training in the Philosophy of Religion. The film, then, documents just how he has pleased us, his manner of pissing us off, and the process of irking us. I enjoyed it for these reasons, but if I were to take Maher’s arguments seriously (as seriously as the phrase “Grow up or die” implies) I would have hated it.