MOVIE: Religulous (2008)

religulousFor the life of me, I can’t remember which review I read of this movie that made me want to see it.  After I watched this documentary about religion this weekend, I went back to the usual suspects to try to track down the one I so vividly remembered reading.  The one that told me this was not a movie that made fun of religious people, but instead one where Maher very respectfully asked interesting and thoughtful questions  about why so many people on this planet believe the various things they believe in.

But, I couldn’t find that review, whatever it was.  Ebert, Entertainment Weekly — had I read those, I would’ve had more of a clue going into this that it was actually a snarkfest more than an open-minded exploration.  My husband snorted when I expressed displeasure at this — it’s a BILL MAHER movie, so what did I expect?  But honestly?  What I didn’t expect was a Michael Moore movie.  And that’s kind of what I got.

In this film, Maher goes around talking to a wide variety of people about religion.  Everybody from Christian truckers, to two priests at the Vatican (who I totally want to make Boyfriends of the Week now, by the way — that’s how cool they were), to a scientist who specializes in the fascinating (to me, anyway)  field of “neurotheology,” to two ex-Mormons, to a “Jew for Jesus,” etc. etc.   And yes, I laughed out loud a LOT during this movie.  And I understood the points Maher was trying to make.  And he makes a lot of very good ones.

However, just like with Michael Moore’s films, I found that Maher’s good points about religion were way, way overshadowed by the fact he was only pretending to be open-minded and “curious” about the people he was talking to, and as soon as he was out of ear-shot, he let his judgments flow.  He would snark at their beliefs behind their backs, substitute fake captions that made people look (and feel, I’m sure, once they watched the film) extremely stupid, and he also very, very carefully selected the people he talked to, making sure their beliefs would fit neatly into his preconceived notions about religion (i.e. that it’s all equally ridiculous).

He didn’t pick, for example, Christians who were thoughtful and questioning of their religion’s dogma and whether or not the Bible should be interpreted literally.  Like, say, the numerous Christians who have decided that Creation and evolution don’t make sense when put side-by-side, and have spent quite a bit of time studying both ideas and working out a way the two can coexist in a fairly logical manner.

Instead, Maher focuses on the Christians who think dinosaurs and man coexisted, and, just in case we still don’t get it, repeats his point over and over that their beliefs are completely irrational (not to mention wholly unoriginal, which was actually one of the parts of this film I found the most interesting).

Maher also sabotages his own movie by tossing into the final act a Dutch guy who has created a “religion” around marijuana.  The guy had no actual dogma — he essentially just gets stoned and calls his pad a “church.”  Maher spends a lot of time with him as though he is actually representative of some type of organized religion.  But in reality, it seemed pretty obvious to me that this was just a gimmick to get the film to The Netherlands, where he could track down some Muslims and make fun of their beliefs too.  (Why look for Muslims in the Netherlands, you wonder?  Because of Theo Van Gogh’s murder:

I dismissed that marijuana church scene just like I dismissed the one in Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, where Moore tries to demonstrate how violent and idiotic Charlton Heston is by confronting him almost viciously, even though Heston was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was clearly confused and unsteady.   That’s not playing fair — that’s playing up.

So, yes, this movie has some interesting things to say about religion.  Just like Moore’s movies have had interesting things to say about gun violence, the healthcare system, and etc.  And yes, it’s also very, very funny at times.

But the problem I have with movies like this is that as soon as you cross the line from “documentary” to “mockery,” you invalidate your position from my perspective.  These movies preach ONLY to the choir — they present the information their intended audience already accepts, and that is as far as they go.  Where a reasoned examination of religion might have the power to change or at least open minds, this movie merely has the power to invoke one of two emotions:  “right on!” assent or outright fury.

Neither one of these two emotions lends itself well to reasoned discourse.

Disappointing, to say the least.  It did lead me to make up a new film genre for this site, though:  Snarkumentary.  I suppose that is not worth nothing.

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre: Snarkumentary
Cast:  Bill Maher, lots of religious people, some marijuana

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18 Responses to “MOVIE: Religulous (2008)”

  1. Marni Says:

    interesting, magoo. thanks for posting! guess i’ll skip this one. no need to find out more of some random guy’s judgementalism.

  2. Liz Says:

    VERY well thought out and written! You’ve nailed why I feel so uncomfortable with Michael Moore movies. I always thought that if you were going to go around interviewing people, you OWE IT TO THE AUDIENCE to be as fair-minded and all-encompassing as you can. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as much to me if I “agree” with your point of view or not; I want to see the “arguments” presented fairly. Your new word, “snarkumentary” ought to be in the dictionary!

  3. Lorraine Says:

    Hmm, at some point I could have written and said that I liked this movie 🙂 Like a Michael Moore movie, it is unreasonable to approach this movie expecting a pure documentary”, if there even is such a thing. There are many documentaries on religion which present a more thoughtful view. I know because I’ve watched dozens on PBS, Discovery, and History. I don’t think this movie really made any claims that it was unbiased.

    It’s been quite awhile since I saw the movie but I vaguely remember that Maher states several times that he is exposing the hyprocrisy and danger of extreme/fringe viewpoints. Doesn’t he admit that he is purposefully not talking to people who take a rational view? It is this irrationality and its danger that he is trying to expose. I guess that is what I liked about the movie and would recommend it. I was honestly horrified at some of the people that he talked to. And like Maher and you, I appreciated the rationality of the Vatican priests.

  4. megwood Says:

    But none of the people he talked to were radical, extreme, or all that fringy, either. He wasn’t talking to people who were advocating violence, people who were inherently angry or aggressive, etc. They mostly struck me as just kind of goofy, really. The guy who thought it was a “miracle” when he put his hand out the window and it started to rain, for example. That guy didn’t seem “dangerous” or “extreme” to me. He just seemed kinda silly.

    So, if the goal was to expose the “hypocrisy and danger of extreme/fringe viewpoints,” I’d also argue this film fails. I mean, by comparison, try reading Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” (You can read excerpts here: It seemed more to me like Maher was just making fun of people, not trying to make an actual point about anything.

    Which I suppose is what I should’ve expected from a stand-up comedian, but again, I didn’t know much about Maher before this and had read a review of this film that made it sound quite different from what I experienced. Next time I’ll know better!

  5. Lorraine Says:

    Really? Even if many of those people didn’t have obvious violent tendencies, some did not appear to put rational thought before their beliefs. The message that I took away from the movie was that it can be dangerous to ignore the fact that some people relish the “end of the world” when there is so much destructive weaponry. It may be to our detriment to consider these people as just quaint and a little wacky.

    But I must concede that Maher was making fun of most of those people, or at least some of their more non-rational beliefs. But like many “documentaries”, it exposed me to some new ideas and made me think. For me, that makes a movie worth watching.

  6. megwood Says:

    Well, as I said in the review, I did feel like Maher was making some very interesting and valid points about religion in this film. My problem was that ultimately, the snark overshadowed the logic for me. It’s clear that Maher is a smart guy, and it should also be noted that many of his beliefs about religion are quite similar to my own. The same is true for Michael Moore, as I said above too. Smart, makes a lot of extremely interesting points, most of which I agree with.

    But in both cases, the WAY they go about making their points really bothers me. And, frankly, it invalidates the whole discussion for me because I’m so completely turned off by cheap shots. Not just because I think it’s mean to pick on people, but also because when you insult people, they stop listening to what you have to say.

    It makes this a movie ONLY people who already agree with Maher can take anything away from. People who share some of the beliefs he mocks, even if they don’t share the SPECIFIC beliefs he mocks (for example, Christians who believe in evolution and not dinosaurs and man living as neighbors), will be immediately dismissive (at best) or offended (at worst) because of his tactics.

    So, the point of this movie becomes “entertainment” instead of “education.” And heck, if I’m going to sit down to watch an “entertaining” movie about religion, I’d much rather pop in Life of Brian.

    “Stwike him, Centuwion. Stwike him vewy wuffly!” 🙂

  7. Verna Says:

    Hence the reason I will not watch their movies. When they (or anyone, for that matter) want an honest discussion and dialogue about Christianity and the beliefs inherent in the “church” is when 1) I will watch and 2) I will even enter the discussion.

  8. Liz Says:

    Aha! A movie I can quote:
    “Blessed are the cheese-makers?”
    “Always look on the bright side of life!” (which, IMHO, is brilliant in this movie – but NOT in “Spamalot!!”)

    Lorraine and Meg, you both make very valid and interesting points. I’m a Christian myself, but I’ve always believed that the theories of evolution and creationism CAN work together – for the same reason that I think there are so many belief systems in the world. None of us can possibly know the whole truth, so I think there are different parts of the “Truth” in many beliefs. I also agree (and I hadn’t thought of this before) that to dismiss the embracing of destruction and violence as “quaint” or “wacky” could be dangerous. I hate to say it, but I’m growing more curious about this movie.

  9. Lorraine Says:

    Meg, I understand your reaction. For me, the scales tip in the opposite direction and I appreciate a movie like this and Michael Moore’s. I can’t say that I am specifically “entertained”. Rather, I find them interesting and thought-provoking. They have a shock value. But, I still also love a good straight documentary. And maybe Maher did partially accomplish his objective with you. It got you thinking and writing, and us talking.

  10. Trip Says:

    Are you the Judean People’s Front?

  11. megwood Says:

    Judean People’s Front? We’re the People’s Front of Judea!!

    Judean People’s Front. . . Wankers.

  12. megwood Says:

    Thanks for participating in the discussion, Lorraine! I really do appreciate your sharing your perspective here! 🙂

  13. Trip Says:

    Wait till Biggus Dickus hears of this!

  14. megwood Says:

    “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

  15. Liz Says:

    Okay, I give! What IS the “Judean People’s Front?”

  16. megwood Says:

    Liz, rent Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” to find out! 🙂

  17. Liz Says:

    Okay, now I’m embarrassed. I thought I was up on my “Monty Python.” I’ve seen “Life of Brian” – heck, I quoted from it – but not many times over. Or recently. I totally forgot about the “Judean People’s Front.”
    BTW, Meg, I like your new picture/icon – it’s very librarian-y.

  18. megwood Says:

    If you want to join the People’s Front of Judea, you have to really hate the Romans.

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