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Religulous

Posted by Mike on October 6, 2008

You always wonder if a controversial movie is going to get picketed or protested and sure enough as we got in the ticket line there were protesters. However, to our surprise it was the blind protesting the movie Blindness. 🙂 The theater playing Religulous wasn’t full even during prime time on a Friday night opener, but it was close and it was an excellent crowd. Some guy below yelled “I knew I was in the right place” after the entire audience died with laughter at the W. trailer (It really does look like a riot). Well, I shouldn’t say that everyone in the audience thought it was funny, as the people sitting right behind us didn’t laugh even once during the entire movie. I wondered if they were reporting to their own religious organizations.

Religulous is Bill Maher’s scathing documentary on religion, one of the most controversial topics on the planet. I’ll admit, I’m very close to Maher’s views on these things and have always admired his ability to step up to the plate on this very important issue, despite the fact it makes you very unpopular in today’s political and religious climate (not to mention your family, job, etc). Like myself, Maher isn’t an atheist in the sense that he’s making a positive claim there’s no God, but as he says several times, he’s basically a champion of the ultimate agnostic position, “I don’t know.” Personally I think such died in the wool skepticism is particularly a positive when it comes to the spiritual search, which is fraught with symbolism and meaning. It’s all too easy to apply meaning to something when skepticism counsels otherwise. In fact I think one of the particular downfalls of literalism is that ability to create equality on two sides of an equal side that don’t necessarily equate. In math, x = x and y = y; in religion God is good, God is love, three entities are really one, etc. etc.

The most important part of Religulous is that Maher lets the words (and at times even more importantly the facial expressions) of the interviewees speak for themselves. From fundamentalist Christians to Muslims to Mormons to Scientology and even on to a cantheist, a pot religion, Maher realizes that letting the talk speak for itself is the best humor. His interviews with an Arkansas Senator, a creationist and fundamentalist Christian, are among the best, due to the senator’s late realization of what he’d just said and the accompanying eye popping. His visits to a creationist museum and a “Holy Land” theme park where biblical scenes are acted out are priceless. In the latter segment the park director realizes all too late that Maher’s in the park interviewing the man who plays Jesus, again, letting the man’s words speak for themselves (in the current political environment these are being called “gotcha” questions). The Vatican, due to Maher being something of a famous anti-Catholic, wouldn’t even let him have an interview and the crew is also escorted off the grounds of the temple in Salt Lake City. Ironically the only thing I could think of during these segments is that it’s likely one particular religious viewpoint would be all for the skepticism of the others, just not their own.

The funniest segments, however, aren’t so much with the big religions but with the head (?) of the cantheists in Amsterdam. Maher’s no stranger to the sacred herb here even during the interview, yet manages to mess with Chief Pothead terribly, including the movie’s funniest segment as he pretends a fire has caught by the guy’s head. By this point I was crying I was laughing so hard, it was the final belly laugh in a movie with tons of them.

While I do agree with Maher in his closing segment that there’s a danger to many religious teachings, I don’t think I’d go so far as saying religion as an entirety is a bad thing, no matter what evil it releases in the bargain. An equal contradictory movie could easily skew the results the other way and show how the most liberal and tolerant members of religions are responsible for a lot of good in the way of charity and societal advancement. I know several religious people a lot closer to the mainstream and less reactionary members of fundamentalism who probably wouldn’t have a major problem with much of this movie, particularly when it comes to evolution, global warming and other scientific theories where the only reason there’s an argument in the first place is because admitting these things are true tends to destroy the tower by admitting an error in a purportedly inerrant book. But quite frankly even a movie such as Religulous doesn’t redress the balance that over half of this country has upset by sticking to irrational and long disproven forms of belief.

One of the adepts in my tradition once stated that if he was to have heard a voice in his head he’d either check himself into the psych ward or pick up a baseball bat and go looking for intruders. This statement reflects exactly Maher’s position, repeated on shows like The View in the week heading up to the release of Religulous. Through the movie we heard that the little voice was the Holy Spirit, God or something else from people as high up in the political spectrum as George W. Bush. In my tradition this is called ego inflation, this idea that of all people God’s actually decided to speak directly with you. I got news for ya – that ain’t God.

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