I went to see Bill Maher's documentary Religulous today. It's pretty rare that I go to see movies on opening night; I think the last movie I went to see on opening weekend was last summer when The Simpsons Movie came out. I am a fan of Maher, though, and always find his religious tirades entertaining. Although there were a few old clips of Maher talking about religion during stand up routines, he remained respectively tame on the subject and was clearly trying not to judge or sway his interviewees. As he explained in an interview with Jon Stewart last week, Maher is not an atheist. Rather, he admits that he simply doesn't know whether there is a God or what the afterlife holds. As he says in the final monologue, "doubt is humble."
The film does not set out to bash religion, but rather to ask why. Why do people believe so vehemently in their given religion and take such offense when other people question their beliefs or believe something different than they do? Why do people believe so strongly in things that cannot be proven, yet refuse to believe other things for which the evidence is overwhelming? How much do people actually know about their religion? There were more than a few blank stares when Maher asked an interviewee a question about contradictions in the Bible or how certain passages from the Qu'ran have been interpreted.
Maher travels the world, from The Vatican, Jerusalem and the site of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, a truck stop church in the heartland of America and a Christian theme park in Florida to pose these questions to people of all walks of life. He interviews priests, rabbis, scientists, a U.S. senator, a Jesus impersonator, a Vatican astronomer, an alleged descendant of Jesus and several average citizens about religion. In an attempt to approach the subject with a logical approach, he is repeatedly met with illogical answers. Many of the interviewees blamed politics for how their religion is interpreted or the less than peaceful activities some believers engage in.
Although I enjoyed the film, I must admit that there were fewer laugh-out-loud moments than I had hoped for, although there were a few. The interview with a wacky Vatican priest who agreed to speak with Maher after he got kicked out (you've got to see that one for yourself, because words just can't do it justice), a scene in which he convinces a fellow cannabis enthusiast that his head is on fire and when Maher preaches the tenets of Scientology among other religious zealots in London's Hyde Park are all good for a chuckle.
As my movie companion said, in the film, Maher is basically preaching to the choir. Maher fans who see the film will pretty much get what they expect and I doubt that any religious enthusiasts who see this film (if there are any) will suddenly abandon their faith. Maher doesn't say or propose anything that most of us haven't heard before. If anything, it may make people, as Maher does, ask why, or perhaps have the courage to admit that they simply don't know.
Here's the trailer. If you like what you see, I definitely recommend you go see the movie.
Here's a clip of Maher discussing the film with Larry King: