Bill Maher has gained a devoted following with his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. His intellectually skeptical approach to politics and other issues, combined with healthy doses of humor, have made him a darling of many. Now heâ€™s decided to take that platform to another level and take on religion. Yes, all religion.
Maherâ€™s thesis is that religion is not only wrong but decidedly harmful, not only for the people who practice it but society as a whole. He argues that the only proper perspective is doubt, and that anyone who claims any certainty on faith is deluded. To clear up that delusion, he hit the road with a film crew in tow to interview people around the world (though mostly in the U.S.) and challenge them to justify their beliefs. Snippets of those interviews make up the bulk of his new documentary.
For someone who celebrates doubt as much as he does, Maher is certainly sure of himself. This reaches its nadir in the movieâ€™s closing minutes when he offers his own sermon of fire and brimstone. Images of the most awful religiously motivated atrocities (a plane flying into the World Trade Center features prominently) intercut with Maher deploring all religions and calling on the atheists of the world to stand up for themselves.
Whatâ€™s amazing about Maher is that he seems to have forgotten the 20th century. He sounds like one of those late 19th-century thinkers/politicians who assumed that mankind was destined to improve, that progress was inevitable if we could just steer clear of silly superstitions. World War I smashed those utopian notions, and, lest we forget, there wasnâ€™t anything religious about Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.
Thatâ€™s not to say that religion is blameless in our contemporary society, but Maher spends most of his time setting fire to strawmen. He interviews a guy who says heâ€™s the second coming of Christ. He confronts a televangelist about his $2000 suits and lizard-skin shoes. He tries to get a word in edgewise with a rabbi who finds more in common with Iranâ€™s president than other Jews. Not many religious people would disagree with Maher here, but you get the sense he thinks these wackos are the norm.
When Maher actually tries to argue with â€œmainstreamâ€ people of faith, he picks on, shall we say, the less intellectual among us. He debates redneck truckers about the Bible and questions a Christian knickknack seller about miracles. He visits ridiculous Christian theme parks, interviewing patrons and workers alike.
But even there, Maher doesnâ€™t really want to have a conversation. He wants to dominate and ridicule. I wouldnâ€™t mind if he gave himself the last word, but he wants the first and middle words, too. He consistently interrupts people and cuts them off. Or when heâ€™s not doing that, he uses subtitles to mock what theyâ€™re saying. Worst of all, he arbitrarily cuts to cheesy scenes from Biblical epics or random explosions. At one point, Al Pacino in Scarface makes repeated appearances. These are good for a few laughs, but even there the humor feels cheap and forced.
The ironic thing is that Maher sets himself up as an intellectual investigating the claims of religion. But heâ€™s just mimicking the kind of manipulation and obfuscation that TV preachers have been utilizing for decades. If he really wanted to confront the claims of faith, heâ€™d take on people whoâ€™ve really thought through and written about these topics. But itâ€™s easier to imitate the worst aspects of Michael Moore and pick on the rubes and unsuspecting.
The filmâ€™s greatest sin, though, is that itâ€™s not terribly funny. Of course, preachy arrogance rarely is. I wouldâ€™ve thought that given all Maherâ€™s travels he wouldâ€™ve learned that by now. But I guess itâ€™s hard to learn anything when you think you already know it all.