About twenty years ago, I was chatting with a colleague of mine about another co-worker. My friend told me, “Jimmy thinks that every night while he is asleep that his soul rises out of his body and travels the world, only to return to his body by the time he wakes up in the morning.” He laughed uproariously and I joined him in laughter as I said, “Yeah, that’s funny. Kinda like that story about the guy who was born of a virgin and then got killed and rose up into the sky a couple of days later.” I kept laughing, my friend did not. He stopped dead in his tracks. I wasn’t deliberately laughing at his religion. I was making a point of how dare he ridicule the supernatural beliefs of someone else when his own belief system was far from scientific.
So, it’s no wonder that I was eager to see Bill Maher’s new film, “Religulous”, a deliberate melding of religious and ridiculous. Bill’s claim is that this film will not offend believers. Honestly, I doubt that. The film is at once mocking and devastatingly critical. Some highlights:
- A “reformed” homosexual talks about how he helps gays fill the emptiness in them that makes them gay.
- Bill visits what can only be called a religious amusement park complete with tourists snapping pictures of the re-enacted crucifixion.
- We hear from a man who claims to be the second coming of Christ (and has lots of praying and paying worshipers following him).
- We’re introduced to a stoner priest whose only real religious tenet is getting high.
Bill does not play favorites in the film although he is a bit hard on Muslims. There are two very striking moments. During the crucifixion re-enactment, the camera pans up from “Jesus'” suffering body to the sky where a jet airliner is flying overhead. Later in the film we visit a holy Muslim site in Jerusalem where someone starts running a vacuum cleaner. Bill’s intent is clear — to contrast what he considers to be fantasy, with the scientific realities of the modern age.
The film’s tone changes from gently mocking at its start to darkly horrifying at its conclusion. Bill’s verdict is that “the end of days” will not come because of any divine decisions. It will come because deluded people with fairy tales in their heads will destroy our planet in some realization of misguided prophecy. You leave the film either dismissing Maher as an intolerant non-believer or agreeing with him that our collective refusal to say “I don’t know” about the mysteries of life and death, will eventually get us all killed.
Most of all, however, you come away from the film understanding that faith really cannot be discussed or debated. Many of Maher’s interviews look like two people speaking totally different languages. With the exception of a few religious hucksters and a very funny and practical vatican priest, all of Bill’s interview subjects evidence an impenetrable barrier of blind faith. These folks can no more understand Bill’s skepticism than he can understand their belief in angels, prayer and speaking in tongues. (The “amusement park Jesus” did get Bill thinking though. He compared the father, son and holy ghost to the different manifestations of water: liquid, steam and ice. Bill was impressed with the analogy although he eventually dismissed it as hokum.)
As the film ends, amid pictures of suicide bombers, atomic explosions and utter chaos, Maher pleads with the 16% of the US that do not affiliate with a particular religion to rise up and put a stop to what he believes will bring an end to us all. Surely, Bill knows that no one in that 16% will make any more headway than he did. It is truly a case of irreconcilable differences.