Bill Maher's anti-religious satire, Religulous, makes even an agnostic root for the other side
The American stand-up comedian Bill Maher was once host of a late night show on the US ABC network called Politically Incorrect. The network decided not to renew his contract after he made remarks on-air just after 9/11 to the effect that the terrorists involved were not cowards. “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly,” said Maher, who has described himself as a “libertarian”. “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
As is so often the case, the ensuing media storm centred on the wrong point made by the wrong person at the wrong time. The effect of opportunistic controversialism such as Maher’s, posing as it does as political sophistication, is always to take the impressionable away from the real issue and march them up a blind alley.
Exactly the same can be said of Religulous, the comedian’s new cinema “documentary”, which sets out to show, as the name rather clunkily implies, that all faith is ridiculous – or indeed worse, that it represents the most dangerous impediment to man’s progress. If, as it seems at present, it is open season on religion, and Richard Dawkins has the literati covered, then Religulous should cater nicely for the comedy circuit and its willing audiences of those who laugh on principle – especially as the movie is directed by Larry Charles, the man behind the terminally hip TV series, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
But let’s be clear about this from the start – Religulous reserves the full onslaught of its firepower for Christianity, and in particular the homespun American variety. Around ten minutes of its 90-minute running time is given over to Islam, less still to Judaism. Buddhism and Hinduism are not even mentioned. Instead, we are treated to a series of interviews and encounters with assorted fruitcakes, fraudsters and the simply not very bright, who mostly prove no match for Maher’s professional schtick or indeed, one suspects, his clever editing team.
The governing principles of filming seem to have been set by the Louis Theroux and Ruby Wax school of factual programming. Find the softest targets you can, set them up and go in for the kill. Occasionally, this is entertaining in an embarrassing kind of way, such as when Maher interviews a spectacularly thick Evangelical Democratic congressman. But mostly the result is repetitive and demoralising. What possible point is served by interviewing – at some length – an actor who plays the part of Jesus in some tacky Holy Land theme park in Middle America? Is he going to talk himself out of a presumably much-needed gig? Why stroll into a tiny truckers’ chapel on the edge of some highway and get chummy with the down-home guys, who are perfectly welcoming until the penny finally drops that they’re being used as stooges? It’s always a bad sign when film-makers determined to make a point resort to filming Speakers Corner in Hyde Park but on their global travels Maher and Charles and their crew leave no such cliché unturned.
Maher – the child of a Jew and a Catholic – is occasionally funny with his wry asides but the relentlessness of the overall approach is counterproductive. Something is wrong if, like me, you are an agnostic with atheistic tendencies and you find yourself rooting for the other side. But more important than this is the disturbing cultural trend of which this film is a part. You do not have to be Christian, or religious at all, to see that the sole reason why movies such as this – or Dawkins’s books, or indeed the endless media discussion about the causing of religious offence – now exist, is the rise of a radical, politicised Islam. Out of fear, or misplaced sensitivity, or both, this fact cannot be admitted. Instead, we turn our guns on ourselves. If we rid ourselves of this superstitious nonsense, the reasoning goes, then the world will be a hell of a lot safer for all mankind. Maher makes no mention of the Enlightenment. There is no reference of how Church and State were separated. Footage of imams calling for the death of Jews is intercut with George W. Bush praying. The effect, obviously intentional, is to leave one with the impression that the trucker in his cabin is, in his way, as misguided and dangerous as the suicide-bomber. We are no better than them.
The brief section dealing with Islam fleetingly mentions the death of Theo van Gogh – there is a glimpse of his film Submission – and Maher gets to interview the Dutch politician Geert Wilders briefly. The film sparks into life at this point, almost as though it had inadvertently stumbled on something of consequence. But this is put side by side with a sequence, played for laughs, of a Dutch pot-head who has set up a personal religion around his drug of choice. This is trivialisation to a dangerous degree.
If one wanted to give Maher the benefit of the doubt one could say that this is all the product of ignorance. Despite 9/11, the ongoing problems Europe faces with Islamism still do not loom large in the US. But I think it more likely that the filmmakers realised that Islamists are not known for laughing at themselves or to take perceived offence lying down, so decided to lay off. Now that, as Maher might say, is cowardly.