Apr 8, 2009

Religulous [15]

Dir: Larry Charles
In one of the great Monty Python sketches a man goes into a room for an argument, only to be faced with another man whose entire approach is to say “No it isn’t.” That, as the sketch quite rightly says, isn’t an argument. Nor is anything Bill Maher does in Religulous, he doesn’t constantly say “No it isn’t”, but he may as well have.

It’s worth having a debate about the role of religion in today’s world; about whether it’s still needed when we can explain most things in the world through science, about whether it, on the whole, is beneficial and about how we can stop it being used for nefarious and dangerous purposes. To do that though you need to do more than just, essentially, point at some nutters and laugh. The level of discourse on display in Religulous is so appalling that I’d expect to find more adult debate in a primary school playground “You smell, cause you do” is about the level that Maher pitches the debate at here.

Maher is a comedian first, not a terribly funny one, and his jokes lower the tone of Religulous because the flippancy defeats any point that he might otherwise be making. He uses a lot of carefully selected film clips, taking the cheapest possible shots at his targets. My particular favourite was a montage of war footage subtitled "Modern Culture." First of all - wrong - war is NOT culture and second of all what about, for example; Sigur Ros, Before Sunset, The White Stripes, No Country For Old Men (insert your own examples here) and all the other many and varied brilliant things modern culture has given us? This is typical of Maher’s reductive argument. Some religion is stupid and dangerous; therefore all religion must be stupid and dangerous.

For a man who clearly thinks a great deal of himself and his opinions (said the critic) Maher shows a contemptible unwillingness to challenge himself. He picks on the fringes, seeks out the crazies – a rabbi who is against the state of Israel, another who has invented devices to allow Jews to get around the rules of the Sabbath, an ex-gay minister, the staff of the Holy Land Experience theme park, the man building a creation museum. What he doesn’t do is talk to, for example, a normal Parish priest. Why couldn’t he try and seek out Archbishop Desmond Tutu – a man of boundless faith, but also of wisdom and compassion? The answer is likely because he wouldn’t be able to argue with people like that simply by sneering and telling them that they’re wrong.

Quite apart from the lack of intellectual rigour, and the film’s bullying, hectoring tone there’s a deep hypocrisy at its centre, in two respects. Firstly Maher is full of examples of the bad things that can result from religion – war, the shunning of those who are different - but what he never addresses is the much good that religion does. Where would we be, for example, without the many Christian charities; YMCA, Tear Fund and others? Religious organisations offer counselling, some run outreach programmes that help feed the homeless. The positives go on and on. Maher, however, never even looks at this. Secondly, and perhaps most troubling, Religulous amounts to a two hour sermon, by a man who wants to tell his audience that sermons and those who preach them are stupid. How can a man who, surely, must be quite intelligent, not see that this constitutes gross hypocrisy, and even if he can’t see that, isn’t this entire film an argument about why I shouldn’t buy into a word he says?

Religulous is a bad film. It’s poorly put together by Borat director Larry Charles (who seems to be making a habit of grossly unfair and unfunny critiques of the USA) but that’s not the problem, it’s that a film that should have had a lot to say, should have provoked an engaging debate, ends up doing no more than pointing at religious people and saying “You’re stupid”. I’m not religious, and even I find that offensive.

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