Idol Chatter

Idol Chatter


‘Religulous’: Cheap Jokes, Little Laughter

posted by Kris Rasmussen

Though based on some of the responses I have received about my last post on “Religulous”, it might be hard for Idol Chatter readers to believe I kept an open mind when I attended a screening of the film last August, yet I honestly believe I did. I used to love Bill Maher on “Politically Incorrect” and I never saw the praised-yet-controversial flick “Borat”–from “Religulous” director Larry Charles– so I didn’t have any assumptions there either. (Besides, I have been known to laugh at far more wildly inappropriate material than any nice Christian girl should.) But I can tell you the exact moment when I realized that “Religulous”was not going to be that funny, nor was it going to be important or provocative.
Early on in the movie, Maher makes a trip to Raleigh, North Carolina. Good choice. It’s actually one of my favorite places to visit. But the Raleigh that Maher visits in the movie looks nothing like the Raleigh I know. His entire visit seemed to consist of a trip to a tiny chapel at a truck stop where a few truckers meet for church. They obviously didn’t know who Maher was, or what his shtick was, and they quickly become offended when he peppered them with questions about the credibility of the gospel they passionately believe in. Watching that scene, I had only one thought in my head: If you want to pick on someone your own elitist intellectual size, Duke University Divinity School is right down the road!


And that incident more or less sums up the problem with this movie. There is plenty to satirize about religion. There is plenty to debate about religion. But Maher spends time offending those believers of all faiths who are easily offended or fearful and never engages with believers who aren’t afraid of clever banter, witty one-liners, and cheap shots. Not only is there not much sport in that, but, come to find out, there’s really not much entertainment value in it, either.
There’s the scene where Maher is asked to leave the cheesy Christian amusement park after talking to a guy playing Jesus. Now, a scene where Bill is asked by Mormons to leave their church. Then a scene where Bill tries to sneak into the Vatican. Oh, but let’s not forget the guy who created his own religion centered around smoking pot. Are you seeing the predictable pattern yet?
How much more interesting–maybe even funny–could the movie have been if Bill had really had the courage to go toe-to-toe with some of the more charismatic and intellectual religious minds around? But then maybe his pre-prepared zingers wouldn’t have seemed quite so clever. That doesn’t seem to be a risk Maher was willing to take.
I will say that despite the numerous flaws and logical fallacies of this movie, there is one moment I enjoyed. Maher is driving in a car after one of his interviews in which someone explained to him how God could be a triune figure–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The visual analogy Maher is given is one that for someone like me felt so familiar it was like going back to Vacation Bible School 101: Water can exist in three different forms– liquid, solid, and vapor– and so it is with God. Maher, unlike me, seems genuinely surprised and a little impressed by such a smart explanation. It is almost as if a spiritual light bulb goes on over his head–for about ten seconds. Then he quickly quips that he still thinks they’re “full of s–t.” It’s the only moment in the film that made me wonder if Maher is as certain of his rational, intellectual disbelief as he seems.
If “Religulous” had shown Maher actually wrestling with his disbelief-even if done as a fictional, mocumentary type of film– now that would have been funny. Instead, the film is just in-your-face propaganda that will only entertain Maher’s most loyal of disciples.



  • Jenny

    Your link is a poll made by the Baptist, obvioulsy biased, Baylor University about how atheists believe in paranormal superstitions more than Christians or theists? Please! GODS themselves are considered paranormal. So is prayer, speaking in toungues, talking to a god, and etc.
    I agree that Maher is not the greatest spokesperson for atheism, but again this movie is supposed to be a comedy, not a documentory. And he wanted to target everyday believers, not experts. Hence he interivews truckers and people at an amusement park.

  • Dan Egger

    This review has some good quotes from the people Maher interviewed in the movie.
    http://www.charlotteobserver.com/104/story/226061.html
    Maher takes on religion, but some interviewees cry foul
    By REBECCA CUSEY
    Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2008
    LOS ANGELES — Bill Maher has never been shy about speaking his mind. He doesn’t mince words.
    In his new film “Religulous,” which opens Friday (Oct. 3), the comedian calls religion “detrimental to the progress of humanity” and portrays believers — especially Christians — as irrational and perhaps even psychotic.
    “People otherwise so rational about everything else, (on) Sunday they’re drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old god,” he says in the film.
    He then leads viewers on a whirlwind trek across four countries and five religions. He conducts more than 30 interviews with people of faith, including a Muslim rapper in The Netherlands and a Florida sect leader who preaches he is the second coming of Christ. The film — punctuated with wisecracks, clips from epic religious films, mocking on-screen text and sarcastic monologues — focuses mostly on Christians.
    The problem, according to some people in the film, is that Maher’s fast-paced, edited versions of exchanges don’t truly reflect the complex beliefs they shared with him.
    “Bill Maher was quite aggressive in pursuing his atheist agenda,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, which successfully mapped human DNA.
    Collins filmed lengthy conversations with Maher about the relationship between faith and science, making “the case that acceptance of evolution is entirely consistent with belief in God,” he said. That conversation apparently ended up on the cutting room floor; Collins appears briefly in the film, discussing a non-science related topic.
    “Religulous” is directed by Larry Charles, the man who teamed up with Sacha Baron Cohen to create “Borat,” which drew criticism from its subjects for some of the same deceptive tactics and creative editing.
    Maher declined requests for an interview, but explained his tactics to the Los Angeles Times:
    “It was simple: We never, ever, used my name,” he told the newspaper. “We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it `A Spiritual Journey.’ … At the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they’d be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they’d have to talk to me.”
    Some of Maher’s subjects appear to be saying things they never intended. At the Vatican, Maher interviewed the Rev. Reginald Foster, a gregarious Wisconsin native who’s the pope’s unofficial Latinist. Foster genially agrees with Maher’s argument that Jesus’ birthday is not on Dec. 25, saying, “Yeah, yeah, we don’t know when it is.”
    The implication is that the church has been lying about the truth of Christmas for 2,000 years. In reality, the church concedes Dec. 25 is never mentioned in the Bible, and says the actual date in history is less important than the historic event it commemorates.
    The Rev. George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican observatory, was interviewed to rebut assertions made by Ken Ham, a proponent of Intelligent Design and curator of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Coyne tells Maher that “the Bible is not a book of science,” but leaves out his belief that evolution nonetheless represents a “continuous creation” by God that the Catholic Church believes need not contradict science.
    Dr. Andrew Newberg, a research neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Why We Believe What We Believe” was interviewed about his studies that show unique brain activity associated with religious belief or practice.
    “People would look at the scans that we did and somebody like Bill Maher would say, `There it is. It proves that (religion is) just a manifestation of your brain and that’s it.’ And somebody (else) would say, `Wow. This is how God interfaces with me, interacts with me and affects me and changes who I am.“’
    Newberg said he disagrees with — and never implied in his talk with Maher — the idea that religious people are somehow delusional. “Certainly he’s going to spin it how he wants,” Newberg said.
    Which is not to say all those featured in the film were left uneasy by their portrayal on screen. Joe Copeland of Truck Stop Ministries, an organization that places chapels at truck stops throughout the country, said he enjoyed his encounter with Maher “tremendously.”
    “They didn’t tell me it would be Bill Maher,” Copeland said by phone from North Carolina. “They told me they were doing a story about different types of religious services in our area.”
    After a sometimes heated exchange, Maher thanks Copeland for “being Christ-like, and not just Christian.”
    For Copeland, responding gently to Maher was all in a day’s work as a pastor and volunteer.
    “We’re not going to get far if we’re trying to badger, beat you, belittle, put you down. We gotta move to where we say, `You know, regardless of what you believe, we still love you.’ We still love him. Regardless of whatever his beef is, he’s still him. He’s still a child of God.”

  • Daniel

    Jenny,
    The film is being billed as a “documentary.” Maher reveals a certain cowardice in this film that’s characteristic of too many attempts to “question” religion.
    Christians in the U.S. are in particular easy targets because rarely do they respond in kind to the sorts of cheap broadsides these cultural figures deliver.
    I’m of the opinion that it really is time we begin infiltrating some of our nation’s leftwing secularist bastions, and begin recording the kinds of acts that we’ve historically chosen to overlook or minimize for the sake of preserving the dignity of a fellow human being. After all, there’s no shortage of leftists who regularly engage in embarrasing antics, but few Christians have had the stomach to capitalize on such occasions for political or cultural gain.
    And political and cultural gain need not be our motivation; unflattering portrayals are hardly themselves evil. But if the Christian cares enough about truth, then even the technique of unflattering portrayal of our opponents needs to be used–and used deliberately and *effectively*. In this instance, it has already been used by someone who cares little about the substance of the topic he treats so contemptibly. It’s time we return the favor and analyze some of our friends’ less tasteful characteristics and reveal to the public the shams of “reason” that they are.

  • Anonymous

    I am pretty sure Maher’s audience was me and millions of others like me who keep getting looked down on and prosecuted for not believing in the same nonsense the rest of you do. This movie was not for you, it was for me, to tell me that for me to be denied public office unless I lie about believing in fairy tales is wrong. It was to tell the rest of us atheists that we are not alone, that there is nothing wrong with us, and that we are many. For the rest of you faith bound religious folks, there is nothing new or sensational about this movie. In fact, I am not even sure it played in mainstream theater. I had to go out of my way to find a place that even showed it! “God” forbid we atheists speak our minds about our lack of faith in a movie.

  • HP

    I like that last post from “Anonymous”. I don’t think it’s a movie intended to convert people, it’s intended to make people think and hopefully be more moderate about their religion, and at the same time, it does appeal to atheists by saying that they are not alone. However, it’s not only in favor of atheism. Actually, if you look at the interview Maher gave on John Stewart’s Daily Show this week, he explicitly say he is NOT an atheist and he thinks that pure atheism is the mirror of pure faith. How can someone be so sure about what happens after life? I personally hope there is something, but I don’t see any evidence of it, and really don’t think that it should have any impact on our lives right now.

  • not believing saved my life

    If you are religious, and take your religion serious. I dont see how it would be morally correct for you to find this movie entertaining. i would never take one of my religious friends to watch this movie. They would not understand it, they have a mental block for it. If you do consider yourself religious, and you found this movie funny and enlightening, you should re-think your beliefs. I pray that whatever being is in control of this universe has mercy on your religion, because there are billions of other people that say their religion is better than yours…haha.

  • Lewis

    What Mr. Rasmussen fails to realize, I think, when he criticizes Maher for not talking with any intellectual beleivers, is that most non-believers do not think that religion has any intellectual sides to debate. We non-beleivers see faith as the belief in something that you have no evidence for, and thus not something deserving of serious debate and discussion but something deserving of ridicule. I seriously doubt that the Pope or any other theologians could have offered any good explainations to justify their beliefs because the evidence to justify them just doesn’t exist – so what would have been the point?
    Also, as for the fake Jesus’ metaphor for the Holy Trinity (water and its three different forms: liquid, steam, and ice), when is water all three at once?

  • Vincent

    Re: Lewis’ comment on “fake Jesus’ metaphor”, it’s a METAPHOR — something that is like the object in question, but not exactly like it. Otherwise the metaphor would be the explanation. The water-metaphor exists so people can gain a little grasp on the concept of the Trinity — the metaphor itself is not the explanation of the Trinity.
    Also, to reply on a finer point, water *does* exist in all three forms at once. It’s called the “triple point” in thermodynamics, where it’s 273.16 K (0.01 °C) at 611.73 Pa for H2O. At the point, all liquid water, solid ice, and gaseous water vapor co-exist. So there.

  • http://ahapm.com Raleigh

    It is in the commandments of the lord that we should not take His name in vain. Therefore,jokes using God;s name is a sin.

  • http://ahapm.com Raleigh

    It is in the commandments of the lord that we should not take His name in vain. Therefore,jokes using God;s name is a sin.

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