Friday, October 03, 2008

Religulous: A Review

Religulous was funny and entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying. Like Borat by the same director, most of the humor comes at the expense of the unsuspecting, the unprepared, and the ill-equipped. Maher debates with some people so out of their league that I just felt sorry for them. Rather than being an argument against religion, the movie too often feels like an argument against basic stupidity.

I liked the film better when he chose worthy targets like the Vatican astronomer, who spoke more eloquently against creationism and Biblical literalism than Maher does, and a Catholic priest who as far as I could tell holds approximately the same religious beliefs as I do. His conversation with scientist Francis Collins was far too short and Collins didn't get a fair shake. I would have loved to see a movie that just focused on those people.

Some of the unintelligent people he interviewed did not gain my sympathy, as they are in positions of power and deserve to be exposed. Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Alabama comes off especially badly, and there are a couple of pastors (and one man who claims to be the Second Coming of Jesus) who seem like they're in it just for the money and prestige.

Maher makes no pretense at being fair or balanced. He selectively edits, adds subtitles, and stitches in funny shots from other movies for maximum effect. His primary tool is ridicule, and while that may be the only reasonable response to something like the tenets of Scientology or the talking snake from Eden, it's a tool he goes to a little too often. The documentary is at its best when he lets the craziness speak for itself, like his tour of the Institute for Science and Halacha in Israel, which creates gadgets to exploit loopholes in the laws of Shabbos.

The section on Islam in this film is not funny or novel. Instead of mocking the ridiculous beliefs as he did with other religions, he focuses on the violence and hatred, which everybody is already aware of. There was only one part of the Islam section that worked -- a conversation with an intelligent and moderate Muslim woman who had some trouble defending the hateful and violence-inciting verses of the Koran. This was the only part of the movie where I thought Maher successfully took down a religious moderate.

The end of the movie is basically a juxtoposition of believers wishing for the end times and a montage of truck bombs and nuclear explosions. I found it unsatisfying and too simplistic, although there is obviously a large grain of truth there.

It is something of a thrill to see an anti-religious movie on the big screen, and to be with an audience that was mostly approving. Only once before, at a Richard Dawkins event, have I been in a room with so many open non-believers. It's a cool feeling.


dbackdad said...

Nice review. I hope to catch the movie this weekend.

Anonymous said...

Hm. I'm probably going to go see it tomorrow, but it doesn't sound too great, from your review. I guess I'll have to see!

Theresa said...

The grilled cheese picture keeps making me hungry.

Jewish Atheist said...


Don't get me wrong, it's very funny. It's just not that great as a serious documentary.

TikunOlam said...

Thanks for the review! Was going to see it last night until our friends didn't have a babysitter so we took all the kids to see Igor instead (awful movies BTW). You know, I would see it just to sit with other people who can be openly non-believers. And if his point is to get non-believers to get more comfortable outing themselves, unifying and making demands in a world where theists assume that their beliefs should be "tolerated" even when down right immoral or dangerous, then I hope he meets this goal.

Freethinking Upstart said...

the movie was awful. not funny, not informative, not engaging, not anything a good movie documentary should be.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious "Jewish Atheist". Have you ever read the Quran for yourself? Sadly I feel the answer is no; and yet you approve of this movie taking apart so-called "violent" verses. I suggest you go to a muslim forum and discuss these "violent verses" with them. When you apply a little something called context, then you will realize just how non-existent violence is in the Quran.

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