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Cinema in Focus: ‘Religulous’

Sardonic comedian Bill Maher turns to religion, but the result fails as a comedy and as a documentary.

1 Star — Degrading

There is a saying among Christians that you can tell the spiritual maturity of a person more by the genuineness of their laugh than the piousness of their prayer. Taking ourselves and our religious efforts lightly, mature Christians focus not so much on ourselves or our religion as on Jesus himself.

We recognize that we and our churches are imperfect reflections of the one who loves and lives perfectly. So it is no surprise that when sardonic comedian Bill Maher turns his attention to religion that he finds some inconsistencies. What is surprising is that Religulous is not that funny.

Taking himself way too seriously and expressing religious doubts at a level consistent with his 13-year-old exit from the Jewish-Catholicism faith-mixture of his two parents, Maher’s film is disappointing, seldom rising above adolescent humor.

Director Larry Charles uses the same style of filmmaking in Religulous as he does in his film Borat. Finding unsuspecting people who don’t know why they are being interviewed and then embarrassing them or mocking them, the film lacks integrity. But different from the former film that really has no purpose, in Religulous Maher makes the clear message that he believes that religion is detrimental to human life. It is his belief that religion is killing humanity, so humanity must kill religion to survive. He believes that killing religion would allow us to “grow up” and join the 16 percent of Americans who claim no religious beliefs, implying the other 84 percent of us are children.

Although Maher’s childhood religion of Catholicism is the primary subject of the film, Christianity as a whole, Islam, Mormon, Judaism and Scientology are all included in his work. Unlike a documentary that seeks out the best people to answer the difficult questions of life and faith, this comedy picks those on the fringes of each faith. The first place Maher turns to raise his questions about Christian faith and practice is not a seminary or even a neighborhood church, but rather a truck-stop chapel where five or six truckers are worshipping in a converted truck container.

Although many of the questions Maher raises are valid and require thoughtful answers, it is clear that he is after the laugh through mockery rather than discussion through integrity. This is seen not only in the way he conducts his interview, but in the juxtapositions of the images and responses. Using religious footage from various secular and sacred films and educational materials, Maher raises the questions of believability of various aspects of the various religions.

In Christianity, he questions the virgin birth because two of the gospels do not include it. In Islam, he questions the message of peace because of the violence he juxtaposes visually to the Imam’s answers. In Judaism, he ridicules modern attempts to keep the kosher rules, which are designed to protect a person from breaking the Sabbath.

The beneficial aspects of the film come in calling attention to the inconsistencies between believers and their behaviors. Explaining that he began his comedy career by poking fun at religious inconsistencies, his skepticism, he says, has taken him to a place of anti-religious activism. This is so strong within him that he presents at one point a series of comparisons between Jesus and the Egyptian god Horus, a comparison that is made by those attempting to discredit the Christian faith. Claiming that long before Jesus was conceived of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, Horus also was conceived of a version, he omits the fact that his mother was the Egyptian goddess Isis and not an actual human. The film also repeats the claim that Horus was crucified, died and rose again, though crucifixion was not invented until the Roman era.

It is true that the concept of a dying and rising god is fairly common in ancient mythology, formed after the daily experience of the dying of the sun and its daily resurrection; however, here the comparison lacks the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth with the historical evidences provided. Maher seems to purposefully avoid talking to the experts in either ancient religions or current ones.

Like all such films, Maher and Charles have the right to express their opinions. Although Maher ends with an “anti-religious” call for all nonreligious people to stand up and fight against religion, it would be good if each person first researched what it is they are fighting. The vision of religion Maher gives is interesting, but in the end it is ridiculously incomplete and inaccurate. Religulous fails as a comedy and as a documentary.


» The first verse of the first Psalm explains the progression from walking with the wicked, to standing with sinners and finally sitting with those who mock people trying to do good. The author says:  “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” Why do you think mocking is more destructive than being wicked or sinful?

» When Maher ridicules the beliefs of the people he is interviewing who believe the biblical accounts, many of the people explain that you have to believe that a miracle is possible. Maher says he does not. Do you believe a miracle is possible? Why or why not?

» Though Maher is against religion, it is clear from the way he speaks to the Christians that he admires Jesus. Do you only admire Jesus or do you follow him? What is the difference in your understanding? What a difference has that choice made in your life?

Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit

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