Monday, November 3, 2008


An unpleasant array of emotions washed over me as I watched “Religulous,” Bill Maher's anti-religionist documentary: shock, shame, horror, denial. Do these religious fundamentalists really still exist? Could such unabashed ignorance and stupidity still grip so much of mankind in a world constantly revolutionized by science and reason? I'm a “non-believer” and a casual follower of various anti-religionist crusades, so I didn't expect to learn much from the film. Growing up in the Texas Bible Belt, my brother and I had suffered through our fair share of church brainwashing summer camps, Sunday morning Bible studies, Wednesday afternoon church youth groups, abstinence-only sex education, etc. I knew all about the ignorance, the self-delusion, the fundamentalist hatred. So why was I so shocked by the film?

There's nothing really new about the film's concept. The genre is rife with documentaries about the unending parade of religious incongruities. These films are typically serious, well-reasoned (if not always well executed), and politically correct. “Religulous,” on the other hand, is beautifully offensive. The title sums up the approach; it's a portmanteau of the words “religion” and “ridiculous.” And, unlike its peers, this film is personality driven. It is as much about Bill Maher and his own comic take on the problem as it is about religion. If you're not a fan of his standup or his HBO show, you'll probably dislike the film. Director Larry Charles (of Seinfeld and Borat fame) also serves up some wickedly comic editing, including some very creative cuts from Hollywood's biblical lexicon.

“Religulous” progresses as a series of confrontations and interviews with various religious followers and figures. Maher first visits the “Trucker Church” - a roadside trailer-cum-chapel. We witness as the truckers attempt to fend off Maher's simple and straightforward questions with a mix of pseudo-scientific “proofs,” outright denials, and blank stares. You might be willing to forgive their ignorance; we don't necessarily expect truckers to be the most educated group of Americans. You might even pity them.

Maher's next victim is, however, entirely unforgivable: Bill Pryor, the junior Democratic US Senator from Arkansas. With the exception of President Bush, I have never witnessed such a shocking display of idiocy and backwardness in someone holding such a high office. This self-proclaimed creationist spews out a list of religious absurdities, intersperses them with a string of Bushisms, and caps it all off with the Freudian retort: “Well, you don't have to take an IQ test to be in the Senate.” His face slowly turns from a smile to an expression of fear as he realizes he just called himself an idiot on camera. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

Maher is an equal opportunity ridiculer. In addition to Christianity, he takes aim at Judaism and Islam with gusto. For me, particularly intriguing was his examination of Islam, where he challenges the popular left-wing assertion that Islam itself is a peaceful religion, while the extremist offshoots responsible for so much terror and death in the world are actually just unrelated perversions. He examines both the history of Islam over the past two millennia, and also considers some of the more contemporary Islamic horror shows we've seen on the evening news. We watch as a powerful imam in Jerusalem denies that the Koran contains any lines condoning killing or violence, while at the same time stating that the 8th century imperialism, subjugation, and oppression of most of Europe by the Arabs wasn't “warfare,” but simply “spreading Islam.”

After the film, I imbibed some “devil's water” with my blasphemous wife and friends while we ruminated philosophically over the film. Surely, it only includes the most extreme examples in the religious world; most people couldn't really believe all of that nonsense, could they? But why not? Our societies are idiotic enough to create weapons that can obliterate the entire world. Why wouldn't we expect them to simultaneously deny belief in the very same scientific method that makes their “end times” possible? It turns out that in a list of the top 38 industrialized democracies in the world, the US ranks 37th when it comes to the percentage of the population that accepts the tenets of evolution. The only country ranked lower was Turkey, a nation infamous for Islamic fundamentalism and intolerance. I dug a little deeper and found that not even 50% of Americans could give even the most minimal definition of DNA.

Of course, to be fair, we can't necessarily conclude that atheistic societies will fair much better in creating a harmonious, tolerant world. The horrors unleashed on human kind by the first atheistic society – the Soviet Union – should give pause to anyone contemplating the end of religion. And then there is China's campaigns of terror against the Buddhist temples during the Cultural Revolution, or their more recent suppression of Christian house churches, complete with mass jailings and bulldozers. Yet perhaps these atheistic societies were actually consumed by their own type of religion – in their case, the religious-like belief in the inevitability and infallibility of their dialectical “science.” This belief made it possible for so many to either justify or deny the gulags, political terror, oppression, human rights abuses, etc. Is this ideology really all that different from the absurdity of the world's religions? Perhaps; we at least have to wonder why Marxist communists have become increasingly anachronistic while religious fundamentalism is stronger than ever.

In the end, maybe it's not religion, but the inherent drive towards dogmatism that represents such a danger to the world. As Maher states, he isn't selling certitude, but doubt. I'm reminded of the writings of Milovan Djilas, the one-time vice president of communist Yugoslavia who was thrown from power after daring to contradict the official Marxist tenets. After enduring torture and repeated jailings for his blasphemies, the government made every attempt to erase him from Yugoslavia's thoughts and memories. But Djilas's writings survived. In “The Unperfect Society,” he states that ideas themselves, or “the idea as idea, the idea in embryo,” while vital and necessary for the development of humanity, are the seeds of power and tyranny; that “one ideal dies that another may be born, manifestly 'finer' and more 'ultimate,' and this is the human lot, for good or ill.” God help us.

Still, the question lingers: why did this film actually shock me? I think that, over time, I have forgotten what it was like to live in a sea of stupidity; it was my own blissful ignorance that this film has shattered.

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