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 he’s decided to take that platform to another level and take on religion. Yes, all religion.
Maher’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 movie’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.
What’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 wasn’t anything religious about Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.
That’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 he’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 Iran’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 “mainstream” 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 doesn’t really want to have a conversation. He wants to dominate and ridicule. I wouldn’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 he’s not doing that, he uses subtitles to mock what they’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 he’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, he’d take on people who’ve really thought through and written about these topics. But it’s easier to imitate the worst aspects of Michael Moore and pick on the rubes and unsuspecting.
The film’s greatest sin, though, is that it’s not terribly funny. Of course, preachy arrogance rarely is. I would’ve thought that given all Maher’s travels he would’ve learned that by now. But I guess it’s hard to learn anything when you think you already know it all.