Movie Review: Religulous (2008)

Bill Maher outside the Vatican City in Religulous
Photo: Lionsgate

I know there are several folks out there that hate Bill Maher, and trust me, he knows you are out there. It isn’t lost on him for a second. I, however, have never watched his television show and as strange as it may seem have very little to no experience with him whatsoever. I have heard sound bites of him from his television show, but for the most part this was my formal introduction. As it stands, I can’t say I disagree on what he is presenting in Religulous one bit, however I wouldn’t be as quick to condone the religion of others as much as I would be inclined to ask that the beliefs of other people never have a direct impact on my life, which is to say the involvement of religion and government is something that bothers me supremely.

Religulous is Maher’s attempt to show religion as a series of false and made up stories used for political gain and for the comfort of humans on a whole. Maher is obviously an atheist and he takes his documentary tour from a small chapel for cross-country truckers to something of a religious amusement park in Florida called “The Holy Land”. He goes from the Vatican in Rome, speaking with a very odd Vatican priest, to the heart of Mormon country in Utah. We meet a series of evangelicals as well as a man claiming to be the second coming of Christ. Scientology is touched upon and he even interviews his own mother.

I would say much of the film is fair and Maher saves the majority of his hard-hitting in your face commentary for a final “sermon” of sorts calling for other non-believers to stand up and end religion once and for all, saying humans will never reach their full potential until they are willing to let go of the false stories holding them back.

The film is something of an eye-opener and if you pay close enough attention at the opening you get the sense Maher isn’t against the positive effect religion has on people and the way it can be used to instill confidence or promote peace. He seems to become upset when it is used negatively and has a feeling it can corrupt even the most decent of people. People using religion for monetary gain or as a means to fight holy wars are certainly at the top of his list and he holds no one religion at fault, basically claiming each is as crazy as the next, with Scientology being the jumping off point for that discussion and then moving on to the story of Jonah and the whale.

Maher makes plenty of points and as with all religious discussions to the contrary there are no solid answers as religion is built on faith and someone’s faith in something cannot be disputed. Maher, as well as many others, have a hard time grasping this concept, which is not surprising since the majority of people wouldn’t be inclined to believe most stories of miracles simply because a book told them they were true.

Will Religulous change any minds? Nope, as with Michael Moore’s documentaries battling the right, it only causes the opposing side to fight harder or ignore your message altogether. A belief system is just that, it is what someone believes, and as with most passionate documentarians they always seem to want to go for the jugular. Using a series of funny clips mixed in with some of the most extremely religious folks you will ever meet is fantastic for entertainment, but it isn’t going to be swaying anyone’s opinion that wasn’t already in your camp.

Folks that are going to see this film pretty much already have their minds made up. The audience I saw it with clapped at the trailer for the upcoming George W. Bush comedic biopic W. and clapped when the credits rolled on the film itself. To say they already knew which side of the fence they fell would be an understatement and I don’t expect many with an opposing opinion to Maher’s will be lining up for this film anytime soon even though it is a good watch.