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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Religulous Review

Religulous is funny to me, without a doubt. The question is, is it funny to mainstream people who take their own faith and beliefs as seriously as the wackos Bill Maher interviews in his documentary?

I'd be interested to know.

The movie exists in three layers: 1) a personal journey for Maher himself, raised in a religiously-mixed home, who spends time unpacking his early experiences of religion with his (largely agnostic) mother and sister; 2) a rogues' gallery survey of the absolute weirdest, clueless, and hypocritical religious individuals (confined to the Abrahamic faiths) he could find in America and Europe; 3) a potent argument against religious fervor in the face of increased global reach and military might that threatens to actually acheive the theological wet-dream apocalypse conceived of by the prophets of ages past.

Maher fancies himself as something of a Doubt Fairy; popping into truck-stop trailer-churches to ask difficult questions (and anger large men), or appearing on Speakers' Corner to lay bare the core tenets of the Church of Scientology. Many times he's just a wry observer, as when he visited the Creation Museum with Ken Ham, or speaks with a man who believes himself to be the second-coming of Jesus Christ. But between these visits we also get to peek into Maher's own thought process, to gain some understanding of the agnosticism he feels to be a virtue, and appreciate the method of his fascination with madness.

The pacing and editing is extraordinarily clever, although I suspect the few background sound effects will become significantly less funny on repeat viewings. It's particularly good towards the end of the movie, where scenes cut immediately from one religious person making a dogmatic pronouncement of some kind, directly to another religious person making the exact opposite pronouncement with the exact same conviction as his counterpart.

Bill Maher's message strains at the proverbial gnat when he delves into the same Historical Jesus material already covered by The God Who Wasn't There. He throws out some of the parallels without much context, which looks great to the unfamiliar but is hopelessly unsufficient to its subject. Even without Richard Carrier's recent discoveries, this line of argumentation is far too complex for a throwaway portion of a larger work.

Without a doubt, atheists and freethinkers will find this movie utterly hilarious, at least worth one viewing. My guess is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims will laugh as well, most loudly at the faiths they don't personally hold, and more softly and nervously when their own belief system is held up for inspection. Whether they laugh or not, I'd like to hope that the message at the end of the movie is taken to heart: One's personal beliefs should not be grounds for genocide.

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