Last week, when John McCain and Barack Obama met in Mississippi for their first debate, my liberal friends and I gathered around the television, quaffing red wine and eating sheep’s milk cheese here in bleeding-heart Portland, Oregon. Did McCain even have a chance in this room? Whenever he smirked, we commented on his devilishness. Whenever Obama got in a coy gut-punch, we cheered. We weren’t watching the debate to help decide on a candidate. We wanted to see McCain look like an idiot. A few days later, CNN’s “poll of polls” said the debate did nothing to convert voters. We weren’t the only ones watching for pure entertainment value.
In his new documentary Religulous, HBO Real Time host Bill Maher sets out to prove a very clear thesis: organized religion will ultimately lead to the destruction of the human race. Armed with a camera crew, Maher sets out on a global jaunt to expose the ugly underside of religion --fundamentalism, intolerance, greed, and hypocrisy. Maher makes no qualms about his views on religion. He’s an atheist, and he aims to prove that God is nothing more than a fairytale.
Maher has no interest in creating a balanced documentary. This is all spin, all the time. He has no issues humiliating the people he interviews. And the people he profiles often seem well worth mocking. Consider José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a Miami preacher with a following of 100,000 in 35 countries. He claims he is the Second Coming and carries on about his fondness for gold. Isn’t this bozo ripe for a Maher-sized takedown? Also interviewed is Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas), who believes the world will end when Jesus returns. But when pressed, he cannot find a venue where faith is used for good.
A large majority of our country actually believes in tales about talking snakes and Jonah's life in the belly of a big fish. One of the most disturbing scenes of the film takes place in a faith-based theme park in Orlando. Each day an actor playing Jesus reenacts the Stations of the Cross. People go to this place on vacation.
But despite these curious characters and destinations, Maher is too smug for his own good, actually undercutting his argument by interrupting the people he interviews. Rather than let his subjects speak for themselves and demonstrate what he considers crazy, he provokes them. Finally, when one Rabbi will not stand for the interruptions, Maher shrugs and just walks away.
The film ends on a somber note, with Maher informing us that the world will end if religion is not abolished. Over disturbing imagery of death, bombs, and planes striking the World Trade Center, the tone quickly changes from lighthearted disbelief to dire urgency. While it may be jarring, it is a brilliant imitation of the Bible, in which Revelations is meant to scare the reader into believing. Unfortunately, the Bible does not have the same filmic archive Maher does to back up its portents.
Now, I am an agnostic, and I watched this film in one of our country's most liberal cities. The audience in Portland laughed as Maher took shot after shot at the big three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. We've already bought what Maher is selling. But how would Religulous play in Salt Lake City or Fargo? Will this film change anyone’s mind? I doubt it. It will just widen the growing chasm between those who believe and those who don’t.
The other day I watched Tony Kaye’s masterpiece Lake of Fire. Rather than inject himself into this documentary about abortion, Kaye allowed his subjects to speak for themselves. While I mainly laughed at Maher’s take on fundamentalism, Kaye’s film devastated me and made me think. Perhaps it’s time for more truly “fair and balanced” coverage on the left, as well as on the right.