PSA: Religulous (2008), or SOMEONE Had To Say It

26 07 2009

Suppose for a moment I told you that there was a Boogeyman living under my bed. You couldn’t see him, because as soon as the lights come on, he disappears. In fact, there was no evidence at all that he even existed besides a journal I had kept of all the times he woke me up and scared me. There is not one single piece of credible empirical data to prove that there is or ever has been a Boogeyman besides my journal. Now, say you try to speak out against my claim of said Boogeyman, seeing as any claim needs SOME semblance of proof, and I chastise you for it. And not only that, but I tell the entire community about it, who also believes in the Boogeyman and has read my journal to the last letter. Suddenly, YOU’RE the crazy one, the outcast who doesn’t believe in the creature living under my bed. You’ve stirred up tons of old local superstitions about non-believers, which everyone takes at face value to be true. People who claim to have spoken with the Boogeyman insist that you retract your statement about the nature of His existence for the good of the community and for the safety of your eternal spirit, lest the Boogeyman tear it asunder in the hereafter. Even your family looks at you differently, and whenever they see you, they ask you if you’ve looked under your bed recently, hopeful that you’ve seen His face glaring back at you in the dark. Wouldn’t that be awful? Wouldn’t that be insane?!

But that’s silly. Nobody believes in the Boogeyman, right?

Today’s film is the first in what will hopefully be a long line of films posing serious questions to the faithful. Religulous is a big deal for someone like me who tries to be an active atheist in the community, because it brings on a powerful medium a message of skepticism to a broad audience who hitherto had met with little to no resistance in their superstitious ways. In this documentary, Bill Maher (not a big fan, but I’ll take what I can get) travels with über-doc director Larry Charles (of Borat and Brüno fame) across the world to ask all manner of people about these strange beliefs that take up so much of their precious lives. Not in a hateful way, nor in an intensely respectful way, but rather more of a blunt, no-frills style that acts as a foil to all the wild-eyed hypocrisy involved with the world’s major religions.

Maher takes us on a journey through a cultural and historical journey throughout the world of faith and all its purporters. We meet people from all walks of life. Truckers in North Carolina, praying in a small “Trucker Chapel” trailer for forgiveness. Visitors and employees at a Bible-themed Amusement Park in Florida, including the handsome actor who plays Jesus. Patrons at a gay Muslim bar (there aren’t that many). A British Muslim rapper named Propa-Gandhi (HA!) who upholds Islamic othopraxy. A rabbi who invents devices that perform work for you on the Sabbath (because being productive on the Sabbath is forbidden, for some reason). The curator of the Creationist “Museum”, which houses dioramas of men riding dinosaurs with saddles (quotes around “museum” because a real museum would have real historical artifacts in it). We even talk with the Democratic Senator from Arkansas, Mark Pryor, who embarrasses himself complely. Interspersed with these interviews are insights by Maher and director Lary Charles into how fucked-up our world has become due to these dangerous and grossly ignorant superstitions we base our entire lives around.

Now I know I’m a bit biased, considering my connection to the material, and perhaps I should be overly critical to shirk off any favoritism, but fuck it; I enjoyed almost every single minute of this film. I saw Religulous in theaters, and it was such a fulfilling experience, having someone voice your opinions on the big screen. It was like what Christians must surely feel every time their pastor goes up to the pulpit. But I posit that people of faith can also enjoy this movie. Anybody with an inquisistive eye into the workings of their religion, or even their fellow faithful, will surely find something to laugh at or contemplate in this probe of society’s most revered illness. A religious friend said to me after seeing this, “I’m more ashamed, I’m more humbled, and I’m more curious than ever. I’m glad I saw that.”

Many reviews have been written that criticize Maher for attacking these people’s beliefs. Not that I have a problem with that whatsoever, but it’s just not true for the most part. Everybody gets their two cents in, but they are talking to a man with facts and reason on his side, so they end up looking a bit foolish. Some points during the movie he gets a little spiky (especially with an Anti-Zionist who denies the Holocaust), but we ARE talking about Bill Maher here, so considering who it is, I must commend his restraint. Compared to his TV show, I felt like he turned into a different person for 100 minutes.

Don’t avoid this film because of Maher. I know he can be abrasive; I’m not a huge fan of Bill Maher myself for various reasons. His politics are messy and unreasonable at times, his self-annointed agnosticism betrays his apparent lack of understanding as to what an atheist is (I don’t KNOW that God is a superstition because I can’t prove a negative without proof of the positive; I BELIEVE there is no God), and from what I’ve seen, he generally isn’t very funny. But we see eye to eye on a few things, so I can tolerate him for 100 minutes. Plus, every now and then he hits it out of the park. At one point during the movie he goes out to a public park in Britain and tries teaching the tenets of Scientology like a street preacher. He is met with such open scorn and derision that it really takes you aback and makes you think for a second. Because how crazy is Scientology compared to the Big Three religions, really?

Whatever you believe, watch Religulous. This open discussion of faith needs to be taking place more and more around the world. As we come to see that the world is not flat, that devils do not rest on our food while it cools on the table, and that perhaps when we die it really is just the end, we can look on faith in a more objective light and see that its apparent benedictions might indeed be robbing us of our potential to do good and to look to the future. I give Religulous 9 harmful superstitions out of 10, and I end this review with a quote from Maher himself: “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.”

Tomorrow we take it back to the 80s for My Dinner With Andre!

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