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The passion of the Maher brings eternal life to 'Religulous'

Bill Maher goes on the offensive in "Religulous."
Lionsgate
Bill Maher goes on the offensive in "Religulous."

Is "Religulous" truly the most blasphemous motion picture ever made? In any case, can we handle stand-up documentarian Bill Maher's organized attack on orthodoxy out here in God's country?

Three words: Yes we can!

In one of the film's funniest scenes — which is saying a lot — Sodom and Gomorrah are praised by Maher as the "original Twin Cities." Damn right we're wicked enough for "Religulous"!

The film, which opens nationwide on Friday, is a Michael Moore-esque comedic-political jaunt around the globe, with the irreverent host of HBO's "Real Time" asking various holy rollers and innocent bystanders alike to weigh in on questions both big ("Why is believing in something without proof good?") and really big ("How can smart people believe in the talking snake and guys who live to be 900 years old?").


Nobody is spared
Half-Jewish and raised Catholic, Maher spares no one of any denomination in his satiric quest to show that, as he says in the first scene, "Religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity."

Better ask again: Can we tolerate "Religulous" in the land of 10,000 churches?

As the film's local publicist, Kimberly Quy of Terry Hines and Associates, told me, a Twin Cities-based exec for a national theater chain, after attending a recent trade screening of the movie, came out expressing concern not for the potentially scorching reaction in his Midwest theaters, but for the coming conflagration in those down South. According to Quy, the executive said he figured he had better keep the holy hit "Fireproof" on plenty of Southern screens just to "even it out."

So is this another Red State/Blue State thing?

Maher doesn't exactly appear to be a John McCain fan. In addition to sparring with true believers in the Truckers Chapel of Raleigh, N.C., and giving an Arkansas senator more than enough rope to hang himself on camera, Maher makes a punch line of the Republican presidential candidate stammering through a distinctly non-secular vote-grab on TV.

No need for broad appeal
Whatever else it might be (e.g., pure evil?), "Religulous" makes very righteous sense in these financial end times of ours. Shot for peanuts in digital video by genius comedic director Larry Charles ("Borat," "Masked and Anonymous," "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), the movie can afford to appeal only to the 49 percent of Americans who'll think it's totally hilarious.

Actually, with major production expenses limited to Maher and company's Middle East travel arrangements and some high-priced pop-song licensing (Lord knows "The Seeker" couldn't have come cheap from the Who), "Religulous" could probably afford to interest only the 16 percent of U.S. citizens estimated to be without religion — the "biggest minority in the nation," as Maher jokes in the film.

So what's 16 percent of 3.2 million (population of seven-county Twin City area [PDF]) multiplied by the average adult movie ticket price?

God only knows offhand, but we can believe that "Religulous" interest is through the steeple. Indeed, Quy says that in less than two hours, she received more than 200 e-mails from Landmark Theatres Film Club subscribers praying for free tickets to an advance screening.

What in Heaven's name will happen when "Religulous" — which uses even images of suicide bombs for comedic punctuation — joins the congregation this week?

As for the movie's own ending, I wouldn't dream of giving it away, only to mention that it's both gut-bustingly funny and as dead serious in its way as anything in Revelation.

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Comments (4)

I'm as likely to watch this as I was Ben Stein's 'Expelled.' Both seem incredibly offensive to me, and not funny, but for different reasons. The Stein film perpetuates the anti-science beliefs belonging the extreme edge of Christianity as true Christian beliefs, which they are not. This film belittles people for having faith. Most religious people know that their faith is just that faith, or a belief in something that can't be proved, or disproved. But of course, this film will also show the extreme and make it look like it is mainstream beliefs.

This latest generation of anti-religious expression reminds me of the Republican smear machine. Stuff out of context, half-truths, whole cloth lies. I wonder at the reason for it now. The greatest lie is that to be religious is to be anti-science. A simple gander around will show religious colleges and universities teaching evolutionary biology and big bang astrophysics quite calmly everyday (and have been for a long time). Another look will find local congregations as contributing members of their communities, the moral content of politics being preached in a non-partisan manner, and a spirit of service.

The apparent inability of Bill Maher et al to understand that a life of faith need not cancel out reason -- and in fact has long been understood to be compatible says more about him and them than us.

I am however concerned about the lynch mob atmosphere that material like Religuous is beginning to produce. The persecution of, say Christianity, has been quantitatively greater in the last 80 years of secularity than the prior 1900+. At some point religiou needs to respond. Rationally.

Belief in religion does not cancel out reason, but it does require that reason be suspended. Reason is not in play when people believe that a sky god impregnated a human woman so that our sins could be forgiven. That is not to say that people who believe this are not reasonable otherwise, but rather that they are comfortable suspending reason in certain cases.

It's hard to be in a majority that comprises 86% of the population and still claim to be persecuted, but you pull it off quite nicely, Ted.