Religulous (documentary)

If anyone is more arrogant, condescending and smug than Bill Maher, I don’t want to meet that person. Funny and insightful, yes. Someone I’d want to hang out with, no. This comes into play with “Religulous,” Maher’s smarmy documentary that basically forces us to hang out with him as he travels the world interviewing the dumbest, least eloquent, most extreme religious adherents he can find. His goal? To convince the audience that God is imaginary, that the people who believe in him are delusional, and that organized religion is a blight that must be wiped out if humanity is to progress.

You could disagree, as I do, with Maher’s basic premise while still enjoying (or at least finding interesting) a movie that pursues it. But probably not this movie, which is as intellectually dishonest toward religion as “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” was in the other direction. For that matter, it’s not even really anti-religion — it’s anti-Christianity. Judaism and Islam each get a scant few minutes of screen time, and no other faiths are even mentioned. The film can’t make up its mind whether it’s a sincere investigation or just an abrasive satire, and it suffers because of it.

Maher starts by saying he just wants to find out WHY people believe in God. “My big thing is, I DON’T KNOW,” he says. Then he spends the next 100 minutes showing that he was lying when he said that. He’s not looking for answers. He already has the answers — God isn’t real, people of faith are crazy. He keeps saying that people should take an “I don’t know” stance on God, rather than insisting they “know” he’s real — yet Maher is just as insistent on his own “knowledge” that God doesn’t exist.

“Religulous” was directed by Larry Charles, whose work on the “Borat” film was good practice for what Maher had in mind here: conversations between Maher and earnest religious types who, for the most part, don’t realize they’re being made fun of. To support his thesis that 4 billion of the world’s inhabitants are wrong about God, Maher chooses a few dozen of the goofiest ones: redneck Christians, television evangelists, pedophile priests, “ex-gays,” a man who claims to be the Second Coming of Christ, a Holocaust-denying Jew, Scientologists — come on, Bill, Scientologists? Talk about your fish in a barrel. Even religious people think Scientology is nutty. He doesn’t even bother talking to any Mormons, choosing to meet with a couple of ax-grinding ex-Mormons instead.

Some of what happens is funny, even hilarious. Maher is quick-witted and intelligent. Like all good comedians, he has a gift for recognizing and capitalizing on absurdity. The problem here is that he has organized the absurdity himself: He chose his interview subjects specifically because he knew they would provide him with fodder for the jokes he’d already planned to make. Someone who earnestly wanted to learn why religious people believe in God would have talked to some normal religious people, not the fringe-dwellers and nutcases who comprise the bulk of Maher’s interviews.

He insists that Jesus didn’t exist, not even as a regular, non-divine person. He also points out that modern-day Christianity bears little resemblance to what Jesus taught in the Bible. In other words: Jesus never lived, and the things that he didn’t teach (because he didn’t live) aren’t being followed by his adherents. You Christians aren’t very good at following the fictional character you worship!

It should be obvious by now that Maher is preaching to the choir. No one who believes in God is going to see this film and think, “Hey, he’s right. I’m going to become an atheist!” By focusing on religion’s hypocrites and ignoring the overwhelming majority of devout people whose belief in God leads them to be better parents, friends, and citizens, Maher ensures that no one will hear his message beyond those who already agree with it.

All of which would be fine if Maher’s intention was simply to make a comedy. Believe me, I’m very much in favor of making fun of people who disagree with you, and Maher is good at it. But his impassioned diatribe at the end indicates that he wants to make a serious point, which means he’d need to do a better job presenting his case than he has done here.

C (1 hr., 41 min.; R, some profanity, and some nudity and sexual material.)