Imagine Richard Dawkins armed with a smirk and some jokes rather than scientific and philosophical argument and you’ll have some idea of the tack Bill Maher takes in “Religulous,” a jovial but in the end quite serious assault on the three major forms of monotheism that dominate western religious thought (with minor side trips involving Mormonism and Scientology), though the most consistent target is Christian fundamentalism. Religion in the broadest sense is the subject, but Judaism gets off pretty easy—a rabbi who’s a Holocaust denier is the main interviewee, hardly a representative subject—while the two Catholics priests Maher talks to are dismissive of literalism and indeed any sort of extreme traditionalism. So mainstream Judaism and Catholicism—which happen to be the two faiths from Maher’s childhood—are fairly gently handled, apart from a scene when the comedian gets tossed out of the Vatican for trying to see the pope.
In terms of its approach to the subject, there’s really nothing new in “Religulous”—the same sort of attack goes back as far as the Enlightenment and beyond, though then one had to depend on paper rather than celluloid. Those who disagree with Maher’s disbelief will find the picture blasphemous, and those who agree with it will find it amusing. But it certainly won’t change any minds. And given the fact that Maher gives himself the first word, the last word, and virtually all the good ones in between, that outcome seems predestined (though not divinely so).
The basic method employed is for Maher to interview folks—truckers in a trailer chapel; workers, performers and patrons at a “Holy Land” theme park; an imam talking about the Koran; evangelical Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas; the head of a ministry that aims to “cure” gays; a incendiary Moslem rapper, to name a few—with a supposedly open mind. But his questions are clearly designed to force them to reveal what he considers absurd positions that they hold. By contrast, he deals more directly with Scientology, showing footage of a sidewalk proselytizer expounding its tenets, and Mormonism, giving two ex-church members the opportunity to describe its beliefs (though in this case he repeats the Vatican bit by getting thrown off church property in Salt Lake). Naturally the outcome is hardly complimentary in either case.
All of this material is jazzed by director Larry Charles (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and editors Jeffrey Werner, Jeff Groth and Christian Kinnard with lots of inserts—stills, excerpts from movies and TV shows, subtitles and footage to serve as counterpoint to what’s being said by interviewees—that offer not-so-subtle digs. Maher also predisposes viewers to find him sympathetic through a talk with his mother and sister about his own religious background and his pose of humility in merely asking questions. At the close, however, he makes his position clear in a strident critique that makes abundantly clear what the title indicates from the first.
The end result is a Maher riff that’s amusing enough, but hardly profound—one that’s unlikely to alter your views on religion, whatever choir you’re in.