Religulous - Bill Maher takes pot shots at the follies of religion

American comedian Bill Maher takes pots shots at religion in Religulous, a snarky satirical documentary that sees the stand-up comic and talk-show host roaming the globe to quiz members of various faiths about their beliefs.

He visits Jerusalem, Egypt, London, Amsterdam, the Vatican and various bits of the US, and lines up a range of believers for his sceptical inquiries. Most are Christians, though he also gets Muslims, Jews, Mormons and Scientologists in his sights.

It’s hardly sharpshooting, though. Maher’s pot shots are aimed here at some pretty easy targets, whether it’s the visitors at the Creation Museum in Kentucky that shows cave children happily playing alongside animatronic dinosaurs (the Earth is only 5,000 years old, didn’t you know?), or the actor playing Christ in kitsch re-enactions of the Crucifixion at a theme park in Orlando, or the wealthy Miami preacher, José Luis de Jesús Miranda, who declares that he is the second coming of Christ and claims 100,000 followers.

Religulous - director Larry Charles & comedian Bill Maher

If you’re familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, you’ll be familiar with the approach (minus the Mankini and with a good dose of Michael Moore). Maher’s collaborator is Borat director Larry Charles, and the duo follow the same tack here of letting the foolish and gullible expose themselves in front of the camera.

When the victim is creationist politician Mark Pryor, Democrat Senator for Arkansas, who blithely says, “You don’t need to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate,” then you reckon he’s got it coming. No wonder Maher is worried that “there are people running my country who believe in a talking snake”.

Yet when Maher’s interview subject is a born-again trucker trying to articulate his belief in the authenticity of the Turin Shroud, you feel a poorly educated man is being unfairly exposed to ridicule.

Religulous - Comedian Bill Maher’s satirical documentary about religion

But I can see where Maher is coming from when he describes religion as a “neurological disorder”. Cast a sceptical light on any of the so-called major world religions and they appear indistinguishable from the nuttiest of cults. As he says, “the only reason why people think it [their particular religious belief] is sane is because so many other people believe the same thing. It's sanity by consensus."

Here’s how Maher describes one religion, as summarized by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir:

What if there was a religion, asks comedian Bill Maher, in which an all-powerful god from outer space decided to send his unborn son on a suicide mission to planet Earth? So this space-god impregnates a human female in some mystical, not-quite-physical fashion, and she gives birth to a baby who is both a human being and a divine incarnation, simultaneously the space god's spawn and the space god himself. (Oh, space god also has a third manifestation, one that's totally invisible.) So space-god junior is born on Earth destined to be killed, even though he's a space god and therefore immortal.

And here’s an account of Maher’s take on another religion, as described by the doyen of US film critics, Roger Ebert:

He impersonates a Scientologist at the Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park, and says Scientology teaches that there was a race of Thetans several trillion years old (older than the universe, which is only 13.73 billion years) and that we are born with Thetans inside us, which can be detected by an E-Meter, on sale at your local Scientology center, and driven out by "auditing," which takes a long time and unfortunately costs money.

Religulous - Bill Maher surveys Megiddo, the hill in Israel where, according to the New Testament, Armageddon will take place

By this reckoning, if Scientology is still around in 2,000 years time it will probably be as respectable as Christianity, with Tom Cruise no doubt occupying the role of the faith’s St Paul.

That is, if nuclear-trigger-happy believers in Armageddon or the Rapture, or any other millennial nonsense, haven’t sent us to hell in a handcart first.

They probably won’t see this film, though. Maher’s congregation will no doubt be made of liberal sceptics, who will probably lap up his mocking scorn, and gawp, gasp and chortle at the credulity, stupidity and charlatanry he exposes. All the same, it’s a shame he hasn't tackled more intellectually formidable adversaries, and it's a shame that in going for easy laughs he’s only preaching to the converted.

On general release from 3rd April

Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.