Seductive, Reductive, Religulous

Bill Maher issues a “call to atheist arms” in his latest documentary

Jesus and the Jets
One of the movie’s most transcendent sequences involves Maher’s visit to Florida’s “Holy Land Experience” theme park, where he’s greeted by people in first-century period costumes (think cheerful, biblical Disney characters).

He chats up the resident Jesus actor, asking him if he gets recognized at nearby restaurants (answer: yes). Later during a Passion play, while Jesus agonizes and a stolid crowd of tourist looks on, a jumbo jet flies overhead and interrupts the performance, mid-crucifixion.

To Maher’s credit, he denies the temptation—so off-puttingly irresistible to Gore, Stein and Moore—to portray himself as some kind of isolated warrior, alone and irreproachable in his crusade for understanding. Maher is frequently self-deprecating, and for most of the movie seems genuinely uninterested in attributing his travels to any weightier motive than simple curiosity. Often, he’s joined on-screen by his film crew. He even lets them get off some of the movie’s best lines.

An oft-cited—and fair—knock on Religulous is its narrow, biased sample of interviews. Maher begins with the view that religiosity is preposterous, and does little to challenge his own thinking. Instead, he lines up a parade of yokel zealots, greedy messianic hucksters, and angry Muslims who want him ejected from the Dome of the Rock.

As Beliefnet’s Steven Waldman has shown, Maher wasn’t above using trickery, particularly in arranging his few chats with coherent and/or credible believers.

Even so, the man who emerges as the most sensible person in Religulous is a Roman Catholic priest. Fr. George Coyne, an elderly Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican, coolly dismisses any fundamentalist’s attempt to derive science from Scripture, and articulates a place for faith in people’s lives that is modern, sensible, orthodox, and, above all, non-threatening.

It’s Fr. Coyne’s very sensibility, in fact, that highlights the chief shortcoming of Religulous. Maher and Charles couple nearly every defense of religion in the film with footage of suicide bombings and atomic warheads. The implication: the one unfailingly leads to the other.

Yet Coyne is proof enough to dismiss such reductive thinking, and proof enough of Maher’s ultimate duplicity. The comedian starts by assuring us doubt is his product, as if his journey is about softening people’s belligerent certainty. Unfortunately, it turns out, Maher just as belligerently wants to disabuse people of their faith altogether.

He imputes religion to neurological malfunction and, during a concluding screed that doesn’t match the rest of the film in tone or content, he implies our world has two choices: renunciation of belief, or nuclear war.

“The plain fact,” Maher insists as the music swells, “is that religion must die for man to live.”

Given the premise Maher sets out with, this ending feels like a swindle, and a reversion to the vulgar chest-thumping that has been his shtick since Politically Incorrect sank six years ago.

If Mr. Maher actually means to suggest that the mere presence of religion poisons a society, or that its mere absence guarantees some free, peaceful utopia, I’d advise him to spend a few weeks in North Korea.

The lasting image I took from Bill Maher’s Religulous is that of the jet passing over the Passion play. Funny in its own way, the airplane created a momentary disruption for the actors at the Holy Land Experience. Then it was gone, and the show went on as if nothing had happened. Similarly, I left the theater with a grin and a shrug and went to Mass. It was Sunday, after all.

At church, nobody set off any car bombs.