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Bill Maher may preach as fervidly as the holy men he interrogates in Religulous, but he doesn’t expect to be worshiped. Well, not by them at least. Take his interview with Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, founder of Miami’s Growing in Grace Ministry, who tells the comedian, “I’m the second coming of Christ.” “Not just because you share the name ‘Jesus?’” Maher asks, before suggesting he may really be the second coming of Carmen Miranda: “Maybe you should have fruit on your head. Instead of in your head.”
Quick cut to a Scarface clip of Tony Montana saying, “Fuck you! How’s that?” Then, when Miranda claims that angels spoke to him—and Maher inevitably quips that he must mean a couple of Latinos named Angel—here’s Tony again: “You know what I’m talking about, you fucking cockroach.”
Maher and director Larry Charles (Borat) make it clear during this documentary about organized religion that they realize they’re taking a shotgun to sacred cows. Maher, a generally high-minded if sarcastic comic whose brand of humor is summarized in the title of his old show, Politically Incorrect, is half Jewish and half Catholic, was raised as the latter, and has spent most of his adult life characterizing faith as, among other unflattering definitions, a “neurological disorder.” The past, oh, eight years or so have given his theory a lot of support, with murder in the name of God escalating since 9/11 and the voice of evangelical America getting louder with every campaign. By the end of the film, in fact, you suspect that if Maher hadn’t pursued this project, his head would have exploded some time ago.
Then again, it nearly does onscreen anyway. Maher travels the world and talks to leaders and followers of all faiths, including Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, Scientology, and—wait for it—the Cannabis Ministry. (“How does this differ from just getting wasted?” he asks a stoned-out-of-his-mind “reverend.”) Along with mosques, churches, and temples, Maher visits more atypical houses of worship such as a North Carolina trucker chapel and Orlando, Fla.’s Holy Land Experience, a kind of theme park for Christians that features dance performances, a Jesus impersonator, and plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs. Maher’s beef with organized religion is epic, but two issues seem to trouble him most: the connection between violence and faith, and the unwavering belief that followers of all sorts place in their sacred texts. He’s particularly incensed at the tendency of most Christians to take the Bible as, well, gospel, its stories as hard news instead of parable.
Throughout the film, Maher largely remains inquisitive instead of accusatory and even starts out respectful, which will come as a bit of a shock to anyone familiar with his work. But condescension and metaphorical forehead-slapping creeps into his voice and expressions. He’s particularly a jackass to an anti-Zionist rabbi, interrupting him, rolling his eyes, and finally walking out of the interview, saying, “No, I’m done” even as a behind-the-camera voice (likely Charles’) entreats him to follow up on a question. Usually, though, Maher’s able to cool his impatience with the bullshit by employing a joke: “I do not receive a salary from the church,” one Rev. Jeremiah Cummings, formerly of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, says, while sitting in a very expensive suit. “You take it right out of their pockets!” Maher retorts. Other times, the interview subjects provide their own punchlines, such as Christian Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor when asked how people who believe in talking snakes could be running the country: “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.”
The funniest moments in Religulous are provided by a Netflix library’s worth of film clips, spliced into interviews with ingenious timing, as well as subtitles, such as a fake text message the filmmakers imagine a Muslim scholar sending when his cell phone interrupts their interview with a “Kashmir” ringtone: “death 2 bill maher lol :)”—after the minister insists that his religion preaches peace. Not so funny is the copious footage of bombings, torture, and God-laced speeches from world leaders, including, of course, President Bush, whom Maher labels an “irrationalist.” The tone swiftly becomes more serious in the film’s last reel, coming to a brilliant (or infuriating, depending on your beliefs) head with a Maher monologue that’s stunningly biting and incisive after all the horseplay, no matter how intellectually grounded. What Maher pleads for, incidentally, is not atheism, but doubt—not to mention people’s ability to call a spade a spade. “If a club was associated with as much bigotry, misogyny, violence, and general ignorance as religion,” he says, “you’d resign.”