Monday, October 6, 2008

'Religulous' Speaks for a Large, Growing Silent Minority

When Sarah Palin was stumped by perfectly legitimate questions that she couldn't answer in two major network interviews, she deflected the blame onto the questioners.

This is a common dynamic that's part of human nature, and it seems at least partially to be what's driving the controversy being generated around Bill Maher's new comedy Religulous, which raked in $3.5 million on its opening weekend, cracking the top ten despite a limited release on only 502 screens nationwide.

Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, doesn't seem to have much of a problem with Jesus. He actually reminds some of his interview subjects, like the blinged out pastor Jeremiah Cummings, wearing lizard-skin shoes and gold bracelets, that Jesus would never have dressed or decorated himself that way. He asks a Vatican priest - on location - whether Jesus, known for his humility and modesty, would live in such opulence. He questions an ex-gay pastor about his mission to convert gay people to heterosexuality, when Jesus was never even known to address homosexuality.

What Maher does seem to have a problem with, though, is the increasing involvement of religion in politics, its self-proclaimed monopoly on morality, and its infiltration into everything from US foreign policy (complete with a W. quote) to science education in schools - illustrated adeptly with an immensely entertaining tour through a creationism museum in Kentucky showcasing animatronic human children and dinosaurs happily playing side by side.

The central focus of Maher's quest is to finally ask the questions that have always been taboo to ask, including the questions that many religious people are often afraid to ask themselves - and to do it with an element of lighthearted humor. He does this by questioning the unwavering certainty that his subjects have in their beliefs more than the beliefs themselves; his operating premise is, "I don't know, so how do you know?"

If you're expecting a serious discussion, debate, or detailed investigative analysis on the dynamics and intricacies of belief, this movie will probably leave you dissatisfied - it's constructed as a comedy, not a documentary.

And if you're sensitive about your religious beliefs, you may find yourself offended at Bill Maher's methodology. He is definitely provocative in his questions, and because this is a comedy, he tries to get laughs, which he does successfully even when he comes across as glib and condescending.

The good news is, he covers all of the major Abrahamic religions, and even people of faith like critic Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times and Ebert and Roeper), who gave the film three and a half stars out of four, report taking some guilty pleasure in it:

"...I report faithfully that I laughed frequently. You may very well hate it, but at least you've been informed. Perhaps you could enjoy the material about other religions, and tune out when yours is being discussed. That's only human nature."
A lot of criticism has been directed at Maher for interviewing those considered aberrations and "kooks" instead of learned theologians. In some cases, this is true. His interview with Yisroel Dovid Weiss, the anti-Zionist rabbi who attended and spoke at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference in 2006, falls under this category. Others, with geneticist and Human Genome Project head Francis Collins, Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, and Vatican astronomer and priest George Coyne - do not, yet some of them do come across as conflicted when they attempt to reconcile their faith with their own perceptions of modern reality.

And some of the "fringe" characters that Maher is accused of unnecessarily focusing on are actually significant, like Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, who believes he is the second coming of Christ. Miranda, portrayed as one of the "kooks", is very entertaining until you learn that he has actually managed to amass a following of over 100,000 people who believe in his claim to divinity. This - in addition to his inherent, priceless comedic value - rightly earns him his place in the film.

Though he focuses primarily on Christianity, Maher also takes on Judaism and Islam. As someone who grew up in a Muslim environment, I can all but confirm his suspicion that Muslims generally tend to tout the "religion of peace" claim unequivocally in front of outsiders, while they remain very conflicted about it within. He interviews Aki Nawaz (aka Propa-Gandhi), the controversial UK rapper, as well as a more mainstream, moderate Muslim woman in Amsterdam, both of whom struggle to reconcile their faith and their ideals in response to his questions.

And that is the point of this film - to ask questions. In one of the earlier scenes, where Maher holds interviews in a small church for truck drivers, one of the truckers immediately says, "You start disputin' my God, and you've got a problem," to which Maher replies, "I'm only asking questions." The trucker walks out shortly afterwards.

Maher points out that non-religious people now constitute over 16% of the US population - a higher percentage than than blacks, Jews, or homosexuals. He provides a voice for this large, silent, fast-growing minority, encouraging them to speak up and reclaim their right to what is actually a completely legitimate alternative view of the world - a view that is just as moral, and based on at least equivalent values of reason, rationality, and consistency. This is the group that this film is directed to.

For those who feel that this film is disrespectful and dismissive of the faithful, remember: most widely followed religious texts have declared skeptics and nonbelievers to be morally bereft, lost, strayed souls that are potentially punishable by death and condemned to damnation and eternal hellfire.

In response, all Maher is offering on our behalf is a little film, a comedy which at the very least is laugh-out-loud hilarious - whether you're a believer or not.


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Internet radio player said...

I've watched this movie a while ago and was astonished by the insight of the creator. It was quite interesting to see it and I'll definitely watch it again.