A documentary that explores religion, faith and human kind’s ability to believe or deceive ourselves when it comes to God, Religulous is a tricky film to even begin to review. The subject provokes strong reactions from almost all of us; whether atheist, agnostic or theist. Despite personal opinion and belief, the only way to analyse this film fairly is through the study of the film as a documentary and a piece of cinema alone. Comedian Bill Maher narrates and dictates this study of religion and human belief in the unexplainable. As a firm atheist, Maher attempts to understand and dis-prove the beliefs and rulings of particular religions and faiths. His intentions are clear from the outset, to convince both the audience and those being interviewed that they are ultimately kidding themselves if they believe in a higher power or “God”. It was always going to be a controversial documentary but it is the film’s approach and attitude that turned out to be more interesting than Maher’s explorations.
What was particularly irritating about the film was the confusion and merging of both ‘faith’ and ‘religion’. Criticizing religion, Maher focused on some interesting and relevant issues that religion addresses through scriptures, rulings and opinions. One section of the documentary shows Maher discussing the 10 commandments and their role in modern society. Such parts of the film provoked thought and conversation about contemporary politics and society but they were overshadowed by Maher’s study of faith. By criticising faith, Maher came across as more of a bully of vulnerable individuals who are content with their personal outlook on the world and its forces. The naive and the bizarre are viewed as a threat in the same way as the religious extremists, something that felt unbalanced within Maher’s skepticism and rationality. Bill himself was an entertaining but infuriating narrator. His comedic approach to the subject was entertaining at times but disrespectful and distasteful in certain scenes. His arrogance and confidence was initially very unlike-able but his manner was suited to such a documentary. Speaking of his own experiences with religion during his childhood and adolescence, Maher did explain his personal perspective well.
It is easy to create an argument when you study only the extremes. It was lazy to focus on religious extremists and anomalies. When exploring Christianity, only the most radical and controversial elements were studied. Catholicism was discussed from Vatican City and focused merely upon the wealth of the church. There was no balance to the argument and this made Maher seem manipulative and this unfair approach made it easy to criticise the documentary. There did not seem to be an intention to understand and explore faith it was always going to be attacked and contradicted by Maher. Maher judges theists and believers for their unrealistic views of the world but his suggestion that abolishing religion would leave a healthier, more peaceful word felt just as deluded. Islam was explored as a violent religion, Catholicism as a greedy one and Judaism as a contradicting one. By studying religions in such a specific and narrow minded way, Religulous continued to lose credibility.
Religulous is entertaining enough and there is always something stimulating and enjoyable about discussing the “big questions” but Religulous, and its hypocritically preachy conclusion, simply answers some obvious questions and fails to go any deeper than simply mocking believers and pointing out the stupidity of faith. The documentary’s editing is unsubtle and results into some obviously staged conversations and reactions. This false treatment of interviewees adds to the film’s overall sense of manipulation and dictatorship. I suspect Religulous never intended to be understanding or sensitive but, either way, this becomes its greatest flaw. No matter what your faith, religion or mind-set is, you will not appreciate the fake and stilted use of dialogue that Religulous presents us with.
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