By Bryan Newbury
October 12, 2008
“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
There seems to be a drumbeat. Through the ages, battles of ideas and territory (and, of course, acquisition of resources, which always brings about ideas on why someone wrongfully holds territory) have raged, to the point that it would seem to most observers that conflict and usurpation are simply part and parcel of the human condition. In the 20th Century, the model was that of the Cold War, where, as Ed Abbey put it succinctly, “In the Soviet Union, government controls industry. In the United States, industry controls government. That is the principal structural difference between the two great oligarchies of our time.” In 19th Century America, it was over the scourge of slavery, or, if you prefer, a clash between an outmoded agrarian culture and a new industrialized one. In the 18th, to venture further into a sort of romantic oversimplification, there was the battle between monarchy and representative governance. And on through the centuries, even back to the sieges of Lisbon, Jerusalem, Istanbul, et cetera.
The drumbeat that Religulous continues, building on the rhythms of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, might be summed up thusly: Welcome to the New Dark Age. For the more hopeful, it could be tweaked to read “Let’s get a handle on this thing, or we’re looking squarely into the New Dark Age.” As Bill Maher inveighs against the reckless stupidity, arrogance and danger of religion in our time with rapier wit and a type of infectious charm, there is no secret that the thesis behind this comedy is no laughing matter. In fact, he sees the problem as important enough to eventually say it flat out. If those who value rational thought don’t begin to stand up to those of fundamentalist persuasions, we are courting disaster. The 21st Century will not be defined by American economic power versus a rising China, nor by a battle the world over for depleting resources, but by a final battle, pardoning the revelatory tone of such a phrase, between secular and scriptural.
When one examines the last couple of decades, the pieces seem to fit. They seem to paint a picture that makes a compelling case for what would have seemed hysterical posturing. Even a few years ago, the concept of our time being defined by a tussle between faith and reason would raise nearly every eyebrow in the room. As political theology morphs and advances, as it becomes more sophisticated and savvy the world over, it becomes very hard to dispute the core statement of Religulous, that just such a battle will indeed define or devour us all.
Maher’s grand statement is a must-see if only for timeliness and as a companion volume to the aforementioned authors on the subject. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film is also brilliantly written, sleek in production, direct and coherent in narrative and simply hilarious.
Being an American who was raised Catholic, Maher reasonably begins his examination of all things irrational with Christianity of the American persuasion. One doesn’t need a documentary to prove that there’s an acre wide streak of avarice, hypocrisy, bigotry and intolerance within the faith, from the most erudite Jesuit to the simplest Rattlesnake Baptist, but that doesn’t make the journey any less entertaining.
It is important to note that Maher strikes an unusually conciliatory tone with many of the interview subjects, and even points out his appreciation of those who behave in a Christlike way, as opposed to a “Christian” way. If that distinction isn’t crystal clear, you probably won’t be impressed with how jovially the film progresses. For the rest of us, it is a pleasant surprise. Though the acerbic tendencies of the host make him appointment viewing, even an exercise in sanity preservation, it is clear that he has a keen grasp on just how to navigate the eggshell obstacle course that religious discussion inevitably becomes. It is one of the profound historical ironies, which is dealt with masterfully, that the teachings of Jesus Christ tend to be far more palatable to agnostic rationalists than to those who belong to the church. As an example, there is a riff on Christ and nationalism, two obviously antithetical concepts that are so often married.
During this, the longest segment, Religulous takes on more wrongheaded platitudes of our religious right: that the nation was founded on Christianity, when in fact the Founding Fathers were, if anything, outright hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular; that Jesus wants us to be rich; that the story of the sun god who is born of a virgin, works as a carpenter, has twelve disciples and is resurrected on the third day first appears in the gospels and so many more.
If fault can be found with the film, it lies in the epicenter of religiously based suffering, the Middle East. While Maher points out some of the quirky absurdities of both Islam and Judaism, one cannot help but notice that the focus on the latter is in the quirky, the former absurd. In the single bellicose interview of the film, he sits down with an Orthodox rabbi who opposes Zionism. It is hard to tell whether the man is the archetype of the self-hating Jew or an opponent of oppression because the interview quickly descends into something reminiscent of NPR’s Steve Inskeep grilling Iranian President Ahmadinejad and coming out the asshole in the room. While it is evident that the rabbi has an almost Palinesque capacity for inanity, he isn’t given much of a chance to make his case, which stands out in light of the film’s objective. If religiously motivated madness and violence is to be taken on, any honest discussion must include the apartheid conditions suffered by the Palestinians for reasons of religion and race – race as religion and the other way about being a peculiar liberty only found in Judaism. The film does well to point out the needless brutality of the Muslim response, but conveniently sidesteps the state sanctioned violence of the side with the real power in the conflict. It seems that, no matter how irreverent or sacred cow slaying something might be, there is still no room for this debate in the American arena.
This is not to excuse Muslims. Far from it. If politically motivated Christianity is a nuisance in the United States, political Islam is downright scary, more so for the people living under it than for us. There are two sides to this coin. The first is in the Middle East, the second in Europe, where a clash of civilizations seems to be brewing whether we like to admit it or not. While focusing on the European side of things, Maher again navigates to the meat of the matter. In an interview with what we might refer to as a hiphopjahadeen, Maher easily bests his guest. While Aki Nawaz appreciates the tolerance of western values such as free speech and association for his own highly charged and combative lyrics, he isn’t so keen on the same being extended to Salman Rushdie. The same is illustrated on the continent, where the Netherlands is struggling with the concept of being so tolerant that they are courting intolerance. This isn’t exclusive to Islam, and there are a number of socioeconomic variables that make the case of Muslim integration into western Europe one without a clear analogue (imagine Latinos having an entirely different faith than Anglos), but nowhere is it more clear that the tolerant tendencies of pacifistic social democracy could spell the undoing of western civilization.
Beyond the Big Three, Bill takes a little time out to savage the updated imbecilities of Scientology and Mormonism. If he were simply playing it for laughs, these two would take up over an hour of the film. As it stands, the segments given are roughly proportional to their influence and affiliates, and that is enough. In an atmosphere where the Media Lite are loath to take on Scientology for fear of legal action and the Full Flavor Media, with a few notable exceptions, are too chickenshit to point out just how nonsensical and downright ugly are the tenets of a bigoted two-bit swindler from upstate New York. These are great moments in film, and Charles & Maher don’t even need crudely animated nine year olds to say it for them.
Beyond the bravery and timeliness of Religulous as polemic, something should be said about it as a film. It has been noted above that the comedy clicks on all cylinders, but this isn’t just the witty retorts of Maher or the dubious declarations of his faithful foils. Interspersed throughout are devilishly clever bits of illustrative footage that elicit laughter at full guffaw speed. It isn’t uncommon to find oneself laughing through a considerable portion of the following segment when one of these comes up. This, and the thoughtful manner in which Maher’s personal story merges into the overall subject, should be a lesson to documentarians everywhere. Possibly the first lesson is not to try this method until absolutely sure of the filmmaker’s craft. For every moment of cohesion and harmony in Religulous there are about a thousand examples of scatterbrained solipsism and distressing discord in lesser films. What more can be said about the execution of a film? This is how the pros do it, babe.
From alpha to omega, Religulous delivers on every promise the viewer perceives. It is an oasis of doubt in a troubling desert of certainty. It is a Swiftian barb, though not petty or mean, at the folks who cause the thinking man all manner of inconvenience, from prohibition of Sunday beer sales to turkey bacon to circumcisions both male and female. Above all, it is a call to arms, not only to the considerable percentage of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists, but to all reasonable people, against the scourges of dogma, abuse, idiocy and hucksterism that aren’t exclusive to religion but somehow find a very comfortable home within it. It is hard to tell whether Jesus would like it, but one gets the feeling that people like Thomas Jefferson, those rational folks who valued the Christlike over the Christian, would be liberally distributing copies to everyone in sight.
Bill Maher, Thousand Words Productions
Directed by Larry Charles
Color, 2008, 101 Minutes