By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
I’m probably closer to being an atheist than Maher, but though I’ve seen the movie twice and laughed out loud both times, the more I laughed, the uneasier I grew. It’s true that Religulous blows a timely wind through a country where, depending on which statistics you buy, up to 90 percent of the population believes in God (including, if a recent Pew study is to be trusted, an astonishing number of professed atheists and agnostics) and two-thirds believe in the existence of angels and devils. Maher is also right to point out the bizarre contradictions of capitalism in a religious society.
“We’re not even a service economy anymore,” he says. “We’re a small-print economy based on charging interest — which is expressly forbidden by the Bible.”
And in an election season in which every politician, Obama included, rushes to declare himself holier than thou, while the Republican Party fields an evangelical vice-presidential candidate who thinks creationism should be taught in schools and justifies the Iraq war as “a task from God,” it is frankly gratifying to watch Maher tie up in knots the fundamentalist (and semiliterate) Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, or a couple of well-dressed two-bit Elmer Gantry types who bilk the poor for their shyster ministries. But it’s hard to argue with those who feel he comes off smug and hectoring in the movie.
In person, Maher is anything but smug or strident, and he’s a more polite listener than most people who make a living out of grandstanding — or indeed than he is on his show. Like Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and many another atheist, Maher goes after religion with what I can only describe as messianic zeal. He bridles when I suggest that in Religulous, he’s thrown out a whole lot of baby with the bath water of gutter spiritualism.
“That’s the argument that drives me crazy,” he says. “There are a couple of extremists in the movie, because they’re funny and we’re making a comedy, but most of them are not crazy. Senator Pryor is completely mainstream. My critics would like to have this rational person who could give me the ‘good’ argument about religion, but they’re all easy pickings. The majority of people in America believe that people are not born gay, that there’s only sinning. I have people come up to me and say, ‘Bill, I hear you, I’m not one of these religious crazies. I believe in Jesus, I just don’t believe in the Bible.’ There is no religion without the Bible. If you don’t believe in the Bible, what’s the point of being religious?”
Charles also denies that the movie focuses on marginal figures. And given that McCain is fielding a running mate chosen precisely for her ability to mobilize the religious right, Charles may be on the mark. But he comes much closer than Maher to admitting that Religulous is a provocation whose focus is not Christianity per se but its evangelical wing. “The fundamentalists are the problem,” he says. “They have no motivation to change the world, and their literal interpretation of the Bible allows them to do violence to others. They deserve to be illuminated, and they need to be mocked.”
Charles, who shows up in the movie as a spectral éminence grise, and who looks like a cross between Osama bin Laden and a Lubavitcher rabbi, grew up in a Jewish family, went to Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed — he even considered a career as a rabbi. “But my parents said, ‘Get the bar mitzvah, get the money, and get out.”
Maher, by contrast, places himself on the side of doubt, but you suspect that his dismissal of religion gelled a long time ago and won’t change for anyone. “Do I think that there’s something out there that I don’t understand? Of course. I don’t know if it’s what you would call a god. I don’t know and I don’t really care. But I’m pretty sure that if there is something, it’s not in the form of a personal god who had a son who flew down from heaven after his father impregnated a Palestinian woman, who gave birth to Jesus, who was really his own father. That’s just as ridiculous as the talking snake.” He goes on, “I know many wonderful religious people. I say in the movie, it’s amazing how religion can include so many people with such goodness in their hearts, and then it becomes about having sex with children and burning people at the stake. If you don’t believe in rational argumentation and your mind goes to magical thinking, you are an extremist.”
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city