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Religulous Review

As a fan of Bill Maher’s Real Time series on HBO, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Religulous since I first caught wind of its existence well over a year ago. While Maher’s paranoid delusions about western medicine hardly make him the ideal poster-child for atheism, it’s always nice to see a witty and outspoken non-theist in a position to reach the (North American) masses.

After a series of tortuous delays made all the more painful by Maher’s continuing plugs on his weekly political chat show, I finally got to watch Religulous last week – here’s my review of the film, for those that are interested.

Maher has said before that so much footage was shot they could have made a 10-part television show, and after watching the film, I wish that this were the avenue they explored, given how it feels like a 100 minute teaser-reel for an upcoming miniseries.

Maher takes viewers around the world, highlighting various peculiarities of world religions, and while the journey is always fun with Maher’s wisecracks, the exhaustive pace at which topics and countries are jumped between obfuscates what exactly is the point of this fantastic voyage.

The film seems to tackle every aspect of religion it can manage – the plagiarism of Christianity from ancient religions, the violent overtones of Islam, the ludicrousness of Scientology, and the blatant racism of Mormonism stand out in particular. As well as this, Maher spends considerable time on the hypocrisies of all religions, the nefarious double-standards of ‘free-speech’, the outright lies perpetrated by creationists, the malleability of sacred texts by various cults, and the disgusting interweaving of the Judeo-Christian god with American politics and patriotism.

The style of the film is quite loose, possibly to imbue it with a sense of being more raw and honest, but it is quite distracting when the boom mic slips into view, or the director and crew are visible in a shot. Compounding this sloppy feel is the ADHD style of editing, in which interviews are interrupted by sudden non-sequitur clips, facetious subtitles are overlaid to lazily ridicule interviewees in post-production, and sound effects are dubbed in to add drama – as a result of these I found myself not trusting the editor, and trying to establish if clips were deliberately manipulated for cheap laughs.

After a while, it seems apparent that the reason the film doesn’t have a narrow focus because there is no overarching theme other than ‘look at how ridiculous you all look!’. For this reason, Maher can be forgiven for talking to the volume of lay-people that he does, as they are ill-equipped to deal with his rhetoric and only serve as comedic fodder.

Just as soon as you’ve let your guard down, ready to dismiss the film entirely, you’re sucker-punched, as all of a sudden the epic music swells, the low angle shots of Maher begin, and the stirring monologue about how “Religion must die for mankind to live” cut to a rapid-fire montage of scenes of pollution, terrorism, mass supplication and sheer corruption starts up. Maher, standing next to the rather-subtle sight gag of a burning bush, lambastes all religions for their focus on end-times, draining motivation to improve life on Earth, and impoverishing the species as a result.

I’m not sure if I’m bothered by the fact that this thesis hasn’t really been established and bolstered over the course of the film – on the one hand, the sudden tirade lends a certain gravitas to the final ten minutes tacked onto the first ninety of light hearted jokes and cheap shots – on the other hand, it arguably renders those first ninety minutes obsolete, which might explain why Atheist Media Blog posted just the last ten minutes of the film before putting up the whole thing.

Despite the dichotomy of thought on this one, I’m inclined to recommend Religulous – if you’re like me and you’ve watched similar documentaries before, it won’t offer any new information, and the production may grate, but it’s enough fun to make it a worthwhile investment of your time.