This “documentary” by American comedian and social commentator, Bill Maher, presents a series of edited interviews, filmed in the United States, Europe, and Israel, in which individuals are asked to explain—perhaps, it would be more exact to say “to justify”—some aspect of their religious beliefs. A cinematic commentary by Maher and Borat director Larry Charles on the irrationality of religion, the film critiques the beliefs of both lay and clerical representatives of the world religious traditions and the variety of associated sectarian movements. Maher describes religion as “detrimental to the progress of humanity” and “shamelessly invented” and its supernaturalism, scriptural literalism, inerrancy, and fundamentalism as outlandish and illogical. While seemingly careful not to deny the existence of a “God,” Maher critiques the expression of religion through hatred, violence, prejudice, illogical thinking, or a lack of intellectual openness. It is ironic then that his film itself does not offer much intellectual openness to the beliefs or opinions of others, and concludes with a one-dimensional editorial about—you guessed it—the harm of extreme, thoughtless, one-dimensional religious perspectives.
What this film does provide the viewer is a fascinating collection of believers expressing their ideas about eschatological, soteriological, messianic, theistic, devotional, incarnational, and sacramental realities in a postmodern age. Maher’s view is that such beliefs lack credibility and substance. We are presented a “cast” of individuals speaking about these ideas, ranging from the learned perspectives of the director of the Vatican observatory to the personal reminiscences of Mr. Maher’s own mother and sister on Bill’s mixed religious upbringing (Jewish and Roman Catholic). The film, formulaically, tends to present its informants as representatives of opposing sides on an issue. One, therefore, hears Father Reginald Foster—identified as “a senior Vatican priest and scholar”—speaking on how Christianity has evolved as a religious system since the time of Jesus, juxtaposed with more literalist interpretations of Jesus, the Bible, and the Christian tradition, from tourists and workers at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, an evangelical Christian theme park. One such worker is the actor who portrays Jesus at the park. A Franciscan priest in Amsterdam, who offers a pastoral and sympathetic exegesis concerning homosexuality and scripture, the acceptance of the Bible concerning homosexuality, is paired with Pastor John Westcott of Exchange Ministries, a believer in the therapeutic treatment of homosexuality as a pathological condition that needs to be overcome spiritually. Much time is devoted to the beliefs of members of religious communities often classified by more mainline denominations as “sects” or “cults” and found in America as well as internationally, such as Scientology, Hasidism, Jews for Jesus, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
Reviewing a cinematic enterprise such as Religulous (the title is a portmanteau, derived from the joining of two separate words, in this case “religion” and “ridiculous”) immediately prompts two questions relevant to readers of the Journal of American Folklore: (1) Does the film make an intellectual contribution to the study of contemporary religiosity either as data or analysis—that is, what does it tell the folklore viewer about religion in everyday life? and (2) Is the documentary or some part of it pedagogically useful? Is it possible to excerpt it or show it in its entirety in the classroom, or in a [End Page 240] lecture, to make a point about contemporary belief and believing?
While the film does contribute to an appreciation of the breadth of twenty-first century religion, with its mix of academics, religious functionaries, intellectuals, and ordinary believers, comedian Maher does not appear to trust the intelligence of his own viewers to stop long enough to consider what these sources of information are actually saying about their beliefs. He interrupts them often for comedic commentary, so that even the most seemingly irrational beliefs are never richly explained or explored. In this regard, Maher’s interview with the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, in the middle of the crowd at Grand Central Station...