April 24, 2009

Film Review: Religulous

ReligulousI finally got around to watching Religulous last night. As most of my Twitter followers predicted when I told them I'd soon watch it, I really liked it. This is one of those films that I will probably buy, not because I plan to watch it over and over but because I want to loan it out to as many people as possible so they will see it.

As I see it, there are two primary audiences for this film, each of which will experience it in very different ways. First and most obvious, there is the atheist crowd. For them, this film contains precious little in the way of new ideas. There really wasn't anything in Maher's film that I hadn't encountered previously. For us, the film is simply funny, entertaining, and reinforcing of how we already feel about religion.

I have always liked Bill Maher, but I tend to prefer him in smaller doses than what I received in this film. Politically Incorrect was generally about right; this movie was a bit much Maher for my tastes. Still, this was a relatively minor quibble.

Another minor (at least for me) criticism concerns Maher's apparent ignorance of the meaning of atheism. He is obviously an atheist but cannot quite seem to embrace the label. It seemed a bit hypocritical when he called for nonbelievers to come out of the closet and voice their doubts when he has not yet been willing to apply the dreaded atheist label to himself.

Aside from these issues, the film was funny and certainly entertaining. Many of the religious individuals Maher interviewed were certainly more articulate than what he could have found. Thus, I did not find the often-heard criticism that he simply selected morons to be a valid one. In fact, I thought he used a reasonably good cross-section of the religious. Sure, it was skewed for comedic effect, but it could have been so much more so.

Who exactly is the second audience to which I referred above? I'll describe them as moderately religious people with a sense of humor. It is difficult to imagine religious fundamentalists being willing to sit through this film. However, I think that religious moderates may enjoy much of it. More importantly, I think that this is an excellent film to provoke thought and discussion among mixed groups of atheists and religious moderates.

I expect that religious moderates would encounter quite a bit of new information in Maher's film that might lead them to ask some important questions, seek out additional information, and engage in discussion. In fact, I think that this might be the primary way in which Religulous succeeds. I really wish I could have watched this with my parents when they were here recently.

Maher is one of those comedians who has a real knack for taking on political issues and using humor to engage an audience, entertaining and provoking thought at the same time. I think he accomplishes this feat quite well in Religulous. The mockery may sting a bit initially, but the religious moderate who is willing to think about what Maher is actually saying may indeed find the experience worthwhile.