Religulous Larry Charles

Religulous Larry Charles
Comic and professional idol-defiler Bill Maher’s shtick in new video essay Religulous is essentially Michael Moore’s: let’s poke fun at the rubes. And even reaching for just the lowest of the low-hanging fruit — talking snakes, the death penalty for Hassidim who tie knots on the Sabbath, Xenu the Scientology alien — Maher and Borat director Larry Charles could have had five movies worth of easy, eye-rolling laughs for those who share their jaundiced view of the credulous, polysestered masses of the faithful.

And, like Moore, Maher doesn’t trouble himself with balance. If religion has a useful function to serve — comfort for the bereft, say, or as instiller of moral values — you won’t hear about it here. This is advocacy, not journalism.

But there is (forgive me) a fundamental difference. While the Moore school lampoons a thing to establish the truth of its opposite — just as, say, apostate du jour Christopher Hitchens eviscerates religion by way of plumping for militant atheism — the only product Maher is peddling here is doubt —agnosticism, essentially, though the word is never uttered.

According to Maher, the human history is a sorry litany of getting-it-wrong, and so to prize the certainty of faith — belief without evidence — is irresponsible. What’s the good of free speech, he asks, if we don’t use it in service of free, questioning thought?

Maher, whose Jewish mother and Catholic upbringing situate him in a suitably ecumenical place, casts his net widely. The target-rich environment of evangelical Christianity gets the lion’s share of the ribbing but Judaism, Scientology, Mormonism and Islam also take their lumps. He’s particularly brave with the Muslims, taking an honest and fatwa-inviting look at the gloss of tolerance — "religion of peace,” and all that — routinely laid on jihadist violence.

There are teachable moments — a survey, for example, of some early Egyptian dogma from which Christianity may have made some commandment violating lifts — but Maher is generally savvy enough to play comic rather than inquisitor. (An ex-gay minister: "No one is born gay”; Maher: "Have you met Little Richard?”) Better, he keeps the snark low; his target isn’t really the religious themselves but their bulletproof fealty to so many goofy-sounding beliefs.

It ends on a down note — a suddenly sober Maher fretting that End Times beliefs are way too acceptable to way too many people way too close to way too many loose nukes — but there’s a lot more sugar than medicine.

Many a soi-disant enlightened urbanite will say that Religulous is funny because it’s true. But it’s also funny because it’s funny. And amen to that. (TVA)