Bill Maher goes for a stroll through crazy town
In the comedic documentary Religulous, Bill Maher tours the world and takes the task upon him to discover why religious people believe. Not in any dead serious way, but with a sort of casual, honest kind of inquisitiveness that lends some fresh air to the thing. Religious discussions can quickly become complicated philosophical arguments spread out into dozens of little skirmishes, so it's nice to see something like this.
The documentary is basically Maher sitting down in hillbilly trucker chapels, Arab mosques or Jewish invention lairs (seeing is believing in this case) and allowing a selection of people to publically humiliate themselves. The funny thing here is that Maher in no way bullies these folks into a corner. Everything that happens is the direct result of they themselves speaking their mind. All Maher does is pose simple counters, often nothing more than a basic fact. In a precious chat with a US senator, Maher gets him to laughingly admit that 'you don't have to take an IQ test to become a senator'. It takes the senator a full second to realize what he just implied. Religulous isn't such a good Sameritan that they won't cut to the next scene on the official's dumbstruck expression.
Maher tours from church to synagogue and has sympathetic chats with people who simply don't have the intellectual honesty to admit the obvious paradoxical follies of their beliefs. At no point does the documentary appear to aim for anything more than gently ridiculing religion. Maher is exceptionally charming and witty, managing to walk the tightrope between playfulness and sarcasm with skill. That makes the ending all the more puzzling. In the last five minutes, Religulous suddenly takes a grim turn and warns for the dangers of religion. Religions are obsessed with the end times and according to Maher will usher in the end of the world if we let them. He urges us, atheists, to take a stand and actively fight religion.
There are two reasons this leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The first is that it doesn't fit the tone of the movie. There was never any build-up towards anything but an amusing poke at people caught up in the confused web of revelation. Then, suddenly, this violent outburst, a call to arms, targeted at American closet atheists. It's a weird, inflammatory ending to what was a mainstream, moderately Christian-friendly movie (which is exactly what it would need to be if it wanted to do more than preaching to the choir).
The second reason I didn't really like it was that I'm not sure if such a polarizing message is really the way to deal with the dangers of religion. First and foremost, I agree completely with Maher that religion is in essence a dangerous thing. It’s a set of mental dogmas that often fail to fit into modern realities and creates a dissonance of morality. It actively stops people from thinking critically and has certain parasitic qualities. But things won't improve by making a battlefront against religion, not like this. Not by becoming militant. I prefer the way of a young Richard Dawkins: by raising awareness, by giving [religious] people new perspective on things, by presenting clearly stated, beautifully told facts on nature. Allow them the choice. The objective should never be to wage a ‘war’ on religion; it is much wiser to promote being moderate in your beliefs. Whatever you believe, it is only hurtful when an element of fanaticism springs up. It’s the extremes that are dangerous.