Redolent of Roman decadence and authority gone mad, the title Religulous rolls pleasingly off the tongue. But Bill Maher’s one-man stand-up attack on religious fundamentalism is a dog that has more bark than bite—a skeptical, secular-humanist hounding of the hypocrites, amusingly annotated with sarcastic subtitles and clips from cheesy biblical spectacles.
Initially quite funny in its head-on engagement with star-spangled, self-righteous platitudes, Religulous is one small career move for the left-libertarian tele-savant Maher and another, equally modest step toward confronting the migraine-inducing, theocratic With God On Our Side nonsense that defines much American political discourse—John McCain gets a cameo insisting that “the Constitution established the United States as a Christian country,” but he’s hardly the only public figure out to sever the U.S. from its Enlightenment roots.
Religulous opens with Maher in Israel at fundamentalist ground zero, reporting from Megiddo, the designated spot for the Battle of Armageddon. By way of an alternative vision of the apocalypse, the movie breaks into a comic montage juxtaposing all manner of holy men, true believers, and pious pols—then licenses the comedian to spend the rest of its 101 minutes turning his blunderbuss on this barrel of fish.
For some, Religulous might seem to articulate what has been imagined as Hollywood’s secret agenda since the 1920s: Is nothing sacred to these heathens? Maher, who explains that he was brought up Catholic by a non-observant Jewish mother (dragged on camera to proclaim: “Every family is dysfunctional”), seems unambiguously alienated from cosmic consciousness. Recalling his boyhood, he says that God “wasn’t relevant to my life—Superman was relevant” and maintains that he would have worshipped any deity that let him jerk off. (The latter is counterintuitive to the max: Radical psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich theorized that it was precisely to keep kids from masturbating that humanity invented the notion of an invisible, all-seeing God.)
Although his antics are directed by Borat showman Larry Charles, Maher is hardly comparable to Sacha Baron Cohen as a trickster performance artist. (His funniest act in Religulous is a brief stint, big glasses on and ear-flaps down, preaching Scientology in Hyde Park, London. A few minutes into his rant, a bystander steps out of the crowd and crowns him King Ding-a-Ling, solemnly placing a garland of balloons on his fevered brow.) Nor is Maher a swashbuckling provocateur like Michael Moore, comforting the afflicted and confronting the infidels with his intimidating bulk. Mainly, Maher is pleased to play devil’s advocate; occasionally, he presents himself as celebrity Antichrist.
On a road trip through rural North Carolina, Maher and his unseen entourage pause at a tiny truck-stop chapel for some good-natured joshing with the congregation. Whereas religion sells “an invisible product,” Maher explains to them, he’s peddling doubt. Sensing what’s to come, one believer angrily makes for the door. Maher is always pleased to challenge, debate, and laugh at the lumpen faithful, willing as they are to cite “historical facts” to defend any position. Still, as a polemicist, he’s hardly fair—more than a few exchanges are recalibrated in the editing, and too many end with Maher flipping Pascal’s Wager, rejoining a believer’s “What if you’re wrong?” with an emphatic “What if you’re wrong?”
Such one-sided encounters are more depressing than fun. As a showbiz wise guy, Maher is more effective when hanging with more public personalities. He gets a dapper soul singer turned preacher to insist that “Jesus [also] dressed very well!” and then go on to mangle Matthew 19:24 (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”). He maneuvers Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas into accepting the premise that religion is a remnant of the Bronze Age; unperturbed, Pryor defends his beliefs by lamely pointing out that “you don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.” Maher confounds tourists and an unhappy public-relations woman in Orlando’s Holy Land theme park by engaging the star-struck actor who plays Jesus in a theological debate.
These straw men are Maher’s more formidable opponents. It’s far less enjoyable to watch him bait an anti-Zionist Hasid, a barely coherent Scottish Muslim, a guy who claims to be a descendant of Jesus, the proprietor of a creationist museum of natural history, or a Dutch pothead who runs a “cannabis ministry.” The last half of the movie is more or less spent with the freaks on the carnival midway in preparation for Maher’s big spiel. Throwing his own brand of snake oil on the fire, he insists that faith makes a virtue of stupidity, identifies religion as dangerous because it encourages people to believe they have all the answers, and warns the world to “grow up or die.”
Heavy stuff. Freud, who devoted his life to the study of irrational behavior and characterized religion as humanity’s “universal obsessional neurosis,” concluded The Future of an Illusion on a wistful note—arguing pragmatic, imperfect scientific thinking as the only alternative to the delusional totality of religious faith. Maher more or less short-circuits this line of thought with a fire-and-brimstone crescendo of exploding nuclear bombs and a chorus of the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.” The anthem isn’t inappropriate: Religulous doesn’t really go anywhere either. It’s ultimately a celebration of the old-time religion we call entertainment.
Maher prides himself on being an equal-opportunity offender—easy enough for a half-Jewish, raised-Catholic white American. The three Muslim-American stand-up comics showcased in the concert film Allah Made Me Funny have things a bit tougher, both as citizens and comics. Terror, for these guys, is something more than stage fright. Each of their sets has multiple references to the FBI.
Albert Brooks went looking for comedy in the Muslim world. Perhaps he should have started here. Mohammed “Mo” Amer and Azhar Usman can make fun of themselves—their wife and mother jokes are universal; much of their ethnic shtick could be Jewish or Italian—and their situation. Amer (why didn’t he add “–ican”?) bounds onstage expressing incredulity: “This is a lot of room for a Palestinian!” The heavily bearded Usman (who does riff on his patriotic-sounding name) starts immediately with bin Laden jokes. Usman is less cautious than Amer—a good vaudevillian, he rags on Jews and Catholics as well as South Asians—but he still stops well short of any irreverence. His look is provocative enough.
Allah-Made-Me-Funny is a relative concept. The filmmakers pay considerable attention to the audience, which, although pointedly heterogeneous, is heavy on the head scarves and enthusiastic ululations. It’s obvious that Amer and Usman labor under the burden of making humor at once insider-cool and outsider-friendly. And it’s hard to finesse “offensive” from a defensive crouch. The most skilled comic of the three is the Nation of Islam convert Bryant “Preacher” Moss, who not only evokes Saddam Hussein but goes on to imagine him as a black man in court, arguing with the judge. “The U.S. is scared by two things,” Moss riffs. “I got the best of both worlds.” He’s completely self-referential. Perhaps satirizing his faith will be next.