Saturday, October 25, 2008


I went to see this on Wednesday because I needed to be out of the apartment for four hours after the exterminator came. Definite mistake. Theoretically, I'm the target audience for something like this. I don't believe in God, and my opinion of fundamentalism is about as low as Maher's. I think that a great deal of the evil in this world is attributable to religious beliefs. And people who don't believe in evolution, think the world is 7,000 years old, etc. baffle me completely. So the movie should be right up my alley. I thought it was terrible.

Problem numero uno is that Maher is a condescending asshole throughout the film. This is a problem that afflicts many anti-religionists--hello, Richard Dawkins!--but as a result the film works best when Maher isn't talking. Many of the people he features are ridiculous enough that they can make a mockery of themselves with no help from Maher. But Maher clearly loves to hear himself talk, so that's unfortunately not to frequent occurrence. I feel like it should be possible to respect a person (and their intelligence) even when you don't have much respect for their religious beliefs. I know smart people who are deeply religious. There are many people who are much more intelligent than I am who believe in God. It doesn't seem to me that they're deserving of my condescension.

The second issue is that the view of religion that Maher presents in Religulous is almost completely lacking in nuance. The one point where he provides something other than a black-and-white view is when he speaks to a Catholic priest who explains that believing in evolution isn't against Catholic doctrine and it is possible to reconcile faith and science. It was such a relief because it was one of the only times when Maher presented the audience with someone who could express and defend his or her beliefs on an intellectual level. Because he's not interested in that; he wants to show religious people as dangerous idiots. He'd rather we see the guy who runs the patently stupid evolution museum or the man that believes god performs miracles for him. When the man who plays Jesus at the Holy Land theme park explains the Trinity as being like the three states of water Maher talks about how clever that is as though fake Jesus were a dog that just learned to roll over. (Sidenote: I can't believe there's a Holy Land theme park. How weird.) And many of the people he interviews of really on the fringe. I mean, of all the rabbis in America--most of whom are reasonable, intelligent people--he picks the nutjob who went to Iran to meet Ahmadinejad? Yet he doesn't seem to differentiate between these extremists and mainstream religious people.

The third problem, which encompasses the first two, is that Maher has made a small, petty movie about a big subject. Religious extremism, on the parts of not only Muslims but Christians and even Jews, is terrifying. It's a topic that deserves real consideration and discussion. And Maher's a comedian, so of course he's not giving us this. But in his statement about the dangers of religion at the end of the movie he concludes as though he's just given us a serious and compelling argument. It feels completely unearned. The movie would have been far better and more interesting if Maher talked to more people like the priest and rabbi in the YouTubes below as well as the fools and extremists.

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