October 2, 2008


Religulous "There is no arguing with faith," writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times. "As the comedian and outspoken nonbeliever Bill Maher travels the world, interviewing Christians, Jews and Muslims in the facetiously funny documentary Religulous, you begin to wonder if there might be two subspecies of humans."

"Bill Maher's one-man stand-up attack on religious fundamentalism is a dog that has more bark than bite - a skeptical, secular-humanist hounding of the hypocrites, amusingly annotated with sarcastic subtitles and clips from cheesy biblical spectacles." The Voice's J Hoberman reviews this one alongside Allah Made Me Funny.

Updated through 10/3.

More on that one from Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer: "In these paranoid times, I couldn't help wondering if [the] spectators had been coached, like standard studio audiences on radio and television comedy programs, to be overly enthusiastic, with the added incentive of being vociferously politically correct." And Ed Gonzalez in Slant:

Also in Slant, Nick Schager: "Bill Maher's Religulous, an atheistic wannabe-dissection of modern faith, and Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a pro-creationism look at the "debate" over evolution, couldn't be greater ideological opposites. Yet to both films' detriment, they employ a similar, debilitating brand of smug disingenuousness, feigning interest in discussion while arrogantly and speciously preaching in the very same manner that their subjects are ridiculed for."

"[W]hat has always bothered me about Maher is the irreconcilability of his dual, if defining, impulses: to engage seriously and intelligently with politics and morality, yet crap away all nuance, at a moment's whim, for the sake of an easy joke," writes Eric Hynes at indieWIRE. "Rather than one supporting, illuminating, or even tempering the other, he too often just dilutes or degrades both comedy and argument. His latest project, Religulous, a Larry Charles-directed, gonzo-documentary screed against faith, is similarly self-defeating."

"In this Borat-meets-Michael Moore world tour of religious extremism, which encompasses Jerusalem, the London Underground, the Hague, an African-American megachurch in North Carolina and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish village in suburban New York, Maher is pretty good at making boobs and fanatics look like boobs and fanatics," writes Andrew O'Hehir, introducing his interview with Maher at Salon.

"Religulous is going to piss off a lot of people, including some diehard secular humanists," warns Dennis Harvey at SF360. Ever the smart-mouthed comedian, Maher constantly interrupts his subjects, putting them on the defensive, never letting them articulate themselves at length. The editing also sometimes makes them look like dupes, while Charles' frequently funny use of interpolated tacky religious instructional films, ridiculing on-screen text, and other devices hardly play fair." Still: "The movie's frequently hilarious yet ultimately dead-serious cry is for 'Rational people [to] come out of the closet' lest people who 'make a virtue out of not thinking, of [trusting in] fantasy and nonsense' bring about a 'religion inspired nuclear disaster.' Such global catastrophe might not be the desire of your average, peaceably faithful Ned Flanders or Apu Nahasapeemapetilon next door. But it doesn't seem to bother much those many fanatics of several faiths, some owning heavy weaponry, who think apocalypse is nigh and a good thing too."

"Religulous is a weird movie to watch because the lack of a laugh track leaves Maher's hostility exposed," finds Armond White in the New York Press. "To scoff at the foundations of charity, justice and love that hold people together, that's what's ridiculous."

"As for the movie's own ending, I wouldn't dream of giving it away, only to mention that it's both gut-bustingly funny and as dead serious in its way as anything in Revelation," writes Rob Nelson for the Minnesota Post.

"[F]or all my misgivings about Maher and Charles's approach to this material," writes Paul Matwychuk, "Religulous still has enough preaching-to-the-choir entertainment value for me to recommend it... assuming, of course, that you're a member of the choir." Paul also interviews Charles.

John Leland talks with Charles and Maher for the NYT.

And Josh Modell talks with Maher for the AV Club.

Updates, 10/3: Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times: "This review is going to depend on one of my own deeply held beliefs: It's not what the movie is about, it's how it's about it. This movie is about Bill Maher's opinion of religion. He's very smart, quick and funny, and I found the movie entertaining, although sometimes he's a little mean to his targets."

The Chicago Reader's JR Jones finds Religulous to be "a major disappointment because here, unlike on Real Time, he aims for laughs instead of insight - and aims low." What's more, "Maher might have produced a more useful documentary if he'd limited himself to the dire influence of Christian fundamentalism on American democracy."

"Maher makes sure not to miss a major Western religion (or too many minor ones)," notes Keith Phipps at the AV Club. "It's easy to appreciate his punkish commitment to absolute skepticism and hard to swallow the intellectual bankruptcy of the approach."

"If, through some fluke (or through rigged voting machines and suppressed minority turnout), [John] McCain wins the upcoming election, the actuarial odds are pretty high that, within the next decade, [Sarah] Palin could be calling the shots (and I do mean shots)," Andy Klein reminds us in the LA CityBeat. "If Maher considered the situation urgent while he was shooting Religulous, he must consider it doubly so now."

"Maher won't lose this election on his own - we can always blame Oliver Stone for that - but given his penchant for cheap shots, the audience he needs is not the one he'll get." Ben Kenigsberg in Time Out New York.

"Only Bill Maher could make you feel sorry for the kinds of believers who, far from being pitiable, wield an enormous amount of power in this country," writes Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. "It's the rest of us we should be feeling sorry for, not them."

Laura Kern in the NYT on Allah Made Me Funny: "The title doesn't lie. These guys know how to tell a joke, often at the expense of their customs, religious holidays, families and themselves." More from Noel Murray at the AV Club.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 2, 2008 2:57 PM


Check out this feature too. It has some good quotes from the people Maher interviewed in the movie.


Maher takes on religion, but some interviewees cry foul

Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2008

LOS ANGELES — Bill Maher has never been shy about speaking his mind. He doesn't mince words.

In his new film “Religulous,” which opens Friday (Oct. 3), the comedian calls religion “detrimental to the progress of humanity” and portrays believers — especially Christians — as irrational and perhaps even psychotic.

“People otherwise so rational about everything else, (on) Sunday they're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old god,” he says in the film.

He then leads viewers on a whirlwind trek across four countries and five religions. He conducts more than 30 interviews with people of faith, including a Muslim rapper in The Netherlands and a Florida sect leader who preaches he is the second coming of Christ. The film — punctuated with wisecracks, clips from epic religious films, mocking on-screen text and sarcastic monologues — focuses mostly on Christians.

The problem, according to some people in the film, is that Maher's fast-paced, edited versions of exchanges don't truly reflect the complex beliefs they shared with him.

“Bill Maher was quite aggressive in pursuing his atheist agenda,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, which successfully mapped human DNA.

Collins filmed lengthy conversations with Maher about the relationship between faith and science, making “the case that acceptance of evolution is entirely consistent with belief in God,” he said. That conversation apparently ended up on the cutting room floor; Collins appears briefly in the film, discussing a non-science related topic.

“Religulous” is directed by Larry Charles, the man who teamed up with Sacha Baron Cohen to create “Borat,” which drew criticism from its subjects for some of the same deceptive tactics and creative editing.

Maher declined requests for an interview, but explained his tactics to the Los Angeles Times:

“It was simple: We never, ever, used my name,” he told the newspaper. “We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it `A Spiritual Journey.' … At the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they'd be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they'd have to talk to me.”

Some of Maher's subjects appear to be saying things they never intended. At the Vatican, Maher interviewed the Rev. Reginald Foster, a gregarious Wisconsin native who's the pope's unofficial Latinist. Foster genially agrees with Maher's argument that Jesus' birthday is not on Dec. 25, saying, “Yeah, yeah, we don't know when it is.”

The implication is that the church has been lying about the truth of Christmas for 2,000 years. In reality, the church concedes Dec. 25 is never mentioned in the Bible, and says the actual date in history is less important than the historic event it commemorates.

The Rev. George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican observatory, was interviewed to rebut assertions made by Ken Ham, a proponent of Intelligent Design and curator of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Coyne tells Maher that “the Bible is not a book of science,” but leaves out his belief that evolution nonetheless represents a “continuous creation” by God that the Catholic Church believes need not contradict science.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a research neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Why We Believe What We Believe” was interviewed about his studies that show unique brain activity associated with religious belief or practice.

“People would look at the scans that we did and somebody like Bill Maher would say, `There it is. It proves that (religion is) just a manifestation of your brain and that's it.' And somebody (else) would say, `Wow. This is how God interfaces with me, interacts with me and affects me and changes who I am.“'

Newberg said he disagrees with — and never implied in his talk with Maher — the idea that religious people are somehow delusional. “Certainly he's going to spin it how he wants,” Newberg said.

Which is not to say all those featured in the film were left uneasy by their portrayal on screen. Joe Copeland of Truck Stop Ministries, an organization that places chapels at truck stops throughout the country, said he enjoyed his encounter with Maher “tremendously.”

“They didn't tell me it would be Bill Maher,” Copeland said by phone from North Carolina. “They told me they were doing a story about different types of religious services in our area.”

After a sometimes heated exchange, Maher thanks Copeland for “being Christ-like, and not just Christian.”

For Copeland, responding gently to Maher was all in a day's work as a pastor and volunteer.

“We're not going to get far if we're trying to badger, beat you, belittle, put you down. We gotta move to where we say, `You know, regardless of what you believe, we still love you.' We still love him. Regardless of whatever his beef is, he's still him. He's still a child of God.”

Posted by: Dan Egger at October 2, 2008 7:27 PM


Posted by: ian at October 7, 2008 11:11 AM