Bill Maher’s Religulous, an atheistic wannabe-dissection of modern faith, and Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a pro-creationism look at the “debate” over evolution, couldn’t be greater ideological opposites. Yet to both films’ detriment, they employ a similar, debilitating brand of smug disingenuousness, feigning interest in discussion while arrogantly and speciously preaching in the very same manner that their subjects are ridiculed for. Obliterating any real discussion through a combination of self-satisfied condescension, argumentative sloppiness and aesthetic silliness, Maher’s documentary—helmed by Larry Charles, with considerably less cohesion and concision than his prior Borat—finds the HBO Real Time host and stand-up comedian traveling around the globe to various religious meccas. There, he speaks to a diverse group of people (everyday folk, scientists, spiritual leaders and experts) about religious beliefs, because, as he states at the outset, “If there’s one thing I hate more than prophesy, it’s self-fulfilling prophesy.”
The implication of that opening statement is that Maher wants to elucidate how organized religions’ infatuation with morbid end-times narratives and afterlife fantasies leads followers to care less about improving life on Earth than simply annihilating it. That thesis, however, is wholly ignored until the final few minutes, when a rising-crescendo montage of Iraq, Bush, Osama bin Laden and other horrors are trotted out as proof. In between these bookends, Charles and Maher visit random locales to thrash out the plausibility of bibilical “facts” with true-believers, which would be fine if Maher didn’t treat so many of them with eye-rolling disdain that’s further amplified by jokey subtitles and sarcastic aren’t-we-clever cutaways to film clips. Maher’s incredulity seems in many cases justified, but his supercilious one-liners quickly reduce the proceedings to simple mockery—and, worse, to mockery of (often kooky) nobodies rather than the real organized-religion bigwigs whose opinions might shed light on the issue of whether faith is relevant and important.
Maher’s conversation with an actor who portrays Jesus at a bibilical Orlando theme park is germane insomuch as the gentleman is actively promoting (and profiting from) Christian dogma, just as the comedian’s refutation of a Muslim cleric’s statement that Islam has no ties to violence raises issues of that cleric’s selective blindness and denial. Yet convinced that its guerilla-style nonfiction methods are somehow more informative and entertaining than clear, organized reasoning, Religulous doesn’t bother establishing even a simple structure (like, say, Christianity-Judaism-Islam) to tie its various strands together. Instead, it merely takes a rushed get-in-and-get-out approach—Maher sits down with someone, sardonically challenges their (often extreme) religious convictions, and then quickly moves on to the next target—that, when coupled with nightclub-ready zingers, passing mentions about his own religious upbringing, and egotistical sub-Borat moments in which he’s escorted from a given premises, only prove that the real subject of Religulous is Maher himself.