Monday, October 13, 2008

Religulous

I watched Religulous down in Bethesda this last weekend. Bill Maher questions religious belief in an open and refreshing way in a film that may be, in some way, a bellwether, as atheists and agnostics grow more comfortable coming out of their closets to declare their lack of faith.

The film is most brilliant when Maher is in monologue mode, sharing humorous and insightful reflections while driving around between interviews. After hearing so many talk about religious belief fraught with cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy during our election cycle, it's a breath of fresh air to hear someone be perfectly honest and say what many of us are thinking.

Unfortunately, when it comes to interviews, Maher is no Michael Moore. He's so heavy-handed that the viewer ends up feeling sorry for the person being interviewed. The interview with the anti-Zionist Jew and various Muslims are especially caustic, probably a sign of his own personal identification with his (non-practicing) Jewish background via his mother.

All told, the interviewees are, for the most part, a sympathetic lot. I can't believe that these were the most hot-headed religious fanatics that could be rounded up. In my life, I've come across a lot of pushy weirdos without even trying. I think Maher needed to try the next southern trailer park over.

But don't get me wrong: there are a few precious moments, such as the interview with a very liberally-minded priest in front of the Vatican. And Maher's aggressiveness is often justified as when he interviews the Hispanic Jesus or the black preacher with the thousand-dollar suit and gold jewelry. (Somehow he's managed to dodge all the hitmen.)

In his final monologue, he makes an excellent point about our need for leadership that isn't based on millennia-old superstition. I'd go even farther than Maher--I'm pretty sure that 99% of leaders couldn't give a damn about it, but are quite willing to use it to manipulate people. Even so, Maher's right in saying that religion is causing a lot of damage, dividing people at a time when unified action is needed.

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