The overwhelming majority of people on this planet claim to have a religious faith. The very essence of faith is of course that it can not be proved, or even tested by science. In that sense, it is a belief in something ‘just because it’s true’. When you think of it like that, religion seems ridiculous (or even ‘religulous’), and there is absurd humour in many religious practices and beliefs.
Religulous sees American comedian Bill Maher and Borat director Larry Charles tour sites of major religious significance, as well as paying a visit to some of the quirkier isolated eccentrics who claim they are the reincarnation of Jesus, or have a church of marijuana, or whatever. In each location, Maher points out the preposterous nature of these claims, either with cogent logical arguments, or ‘comedic’ pieces that are often just rude and disrespectful. There is excellent camerawork in these one on ones, perfectly capturing the exact moments when each interviewee pauses and realises they have hung themselves on the rope Maher has handed them. However, I’m almost certain that none of these people went home, had a think about everything and decided to be a cynical atheist comedian.
The central thesis of the film is that religion is somehow the root of all evil (“The plain fact is that religion must die for mankind to live”), but what Maher fails to grasp is that religious belief has a very different function for George W Bush say (or Barack Obama for that matter) than it does for the ‘person on the street’. Whereas it provided Bush with a means for gaining votes, gaining support for wars, and the knowledge that ‘faith-based’ voluntary groups would fill some gaps when he slashed social programmes, the person on the street often finds in religion solace from a society full of war, social inequality and generalised uncertainty about the future (reflected in ‘End Times’ ideas and Rapture Indexes).
Maher’s lack of a deeper basis for his atheism than mere incredulity leads him into very murky waters. In the section devoted to attacking Islam, he interviews Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who uses anti-Islamic rhetoric to whip up race hatred and anti-immigrant feeling. Since the whole point of the interview is to discuss a hatred of Islam, Maher does not challenge Wilders’ racism, offering him a platform for his agenda.
It is funny when Maher pulls the rug out from under the feet of someone who is clearly making money or gaining power out of deceit. It is much less funny when he points and laughs at those who are handing over the cash, or following the political-religious leaders to their own oblivion. Religious ideas may be ridiculous when analysed enough, but they provide a comfort blanket that many billions clutch in a world organised contrary to their interests. Religion is not the root of all evil, because religious belief can only be truly understood in terms of the social circumstances that create it. Religion will only disappear when those desperate conditions do.
The plain fact is that ‘mankind’ must truly live for religion to die.