Movie Review: Religulous

Director: Larry Charles
I did NOT want to see this movie. But Changeling wasn’t out yet, and I certainly didn’t want to see Eagle Eye or Roadside Romeo.

Frankly, I expected Religulous to be a shallow and disrespectful examination of complex religious issues, focused on the fringiest of the Christian fundies in an effort to further discredit the Bush regime (as if that even needs to be done). There is a definite anti-Christian backlash going on, exemplified by the popularity of Zeitgeist, and I’d rather not be a part of it. I respect religious freedoms and I try to see the positive in every religion. For instance, many of the relief services in my city are funded and run primarily by churches.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. In Religulous, Bill Maher sets aside a good deal of the smarminess that I found so grating back when I watched Politically Incorrect, asks some surprisingly thoughtful questions, and gives us lots of laughs…not always at religion’s expense. Here are a few of the film’s hit and miss highlights:

Miss that turned out to be a hit: The filmmakers liken Muslim-turned-Christian preacher “Dr.” Jeremiah Cummings to a pimp because of his bling and his nice suit, and insert subtitles claiming that Cummings isn’t really a doctor. Cheap. But Cummings is taking his cheap shots as well; he claims that the director altered the footage to make it sound like he said, “Call me doctor”, even though he uses the title “Dr.” on his website.

Hit: Maher uses believers’ own logic to expose flaws in it. By exploring the notion that “everything happens according to God’s plan”, he gets an actor who portrays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience to say that the Holocaust was probably part of God’s plan for…something.

Miss: Creationist Ken Ham and his goofity-ass Creation Museum (in which exhibits show humans and dinosaurs hanging out together) don’t get much screen time, meaning Ham isn’t fully exposed as the intellectually dishonest fool he is. In one of his anti-evolution videos, Ham declared that all of the scientific evidence presented by the defense at the Scopes trial has since been debunked. Anything wrong with that statement….?

Hit: Maher interviews people of faith who have embraced science, technology, and rationalism, like Vatican astronomer George Coyne, giving lie to the popular notion that all religionists are superstitious dunderheads.

Hit: The film was not as anti-Christian as I expected it to be. It surveyed most of the major religions, and the only visible annoyance Maher showed came not when he was talking to Christian fundamentalists, but when he was frequently interrupted by anti-Zionist rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss. We see footage of the rabbi hugging President Ahmadinejad at the Holocaust denial conference held in Tehran in 2006, just before Maher cuts off the interview in disgust. Can’t say I blame him. Though some people are still insisting the conference was an anti-Zionism gathering rather than a holocaust denial conference, Ahmadinejad made it painfully clear in interviews and in his opening address that the conference was designed to give Holocaust revisionists a forum for their pseudohistorical views. Attendees like David Duke and Gerald Fredrick Toben made it clear that Jews are lying about the Holocaust and exploiting their “lies” for political benefit, hence cannot be trusted. The thought of any Jew supporting this conference, for any reason, is sickening.

Miss: The filmmakers never really get to the root of religious belief, yet they put forward the idea that it’s time to scrap religion entirely because of the division and irrationalism it creates. They imply that without religion, folks will become saner, more peaceful, and generally better. I respectfully disagree with this conclusion. Spirituality could be an innate part of our humanity, a common bond. Perhaps what we need is not the end of religion, but the start of a more humble and enlightened form of it, free of exploitation and aggression.

A Sad Day

Ben Stein is the star of a new documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. It’s an examination of how Intelligent Design is not being allowed in the public school system or universities.
It’s perfectly alright to study alternative scientific views and to question some of the tenets of Darwinian theory, but I fear this film is just going to become the new rallying point for dogmatic Creationists. It will probably be the first film Kent Hovind watches when he gets out of prison.