Bill Maher documentary has some surprises


From the film’s short synopsis, there would not seem to be much in Bill Maher’s political humor documentary Religulous that particularly would interest readers of the Jewish Light. But having seen the film, I now think differently about it.

This is not so much a recommendation of the film to readers, as an effort to point out some interesting content. Religulous, while undeniably incendiary, still offers some thought-provoking, pointed commentary on mixing religion with politics, science and more.


The documentary opens with political humorist Bill Maher in Israel, standing on the site of Megiddo and talking about how some religious groups would like to see Armageddon. From there, Maher launches into a hard, satiric look at all religions, especially in relationship science, money and politics. In some respects, he is an equal-opportunity insulter with humor but in others, he turns a hard eye on those who mix religion with politics or science, particularly Muslim extremists and more extreme Christian fundamentalists.

The overall tone of the film is comic, although he comes on stronger at some more serious points. Maher’s documentary reflects his views as an agnostic and the film is a comic swipe at all religions in some ways.

Maher’s mother is Jewish but his father was Catholic. His mother never converted but he was raised loosely in his father’s faith until he left religion behind at about age 12. Nonetheless, it comes through that his sympathies lie with his own Jewish roots and some of his more heated comments indicate his strong support of Israel, with Iran a special target of outrage.

Maher states his views on religion upfront but engages in more gentle ribbing of individual believers than leaders, especially leaders who attack science, promote violence or simply accumulate money.

He is playful when quizzing members of a tiny, truck-stop church for truckers but less gentle when talking to an evangelical minister sporting a designer suit at congregants’ expense. He points out some absurdities about a minister who aims to cure people of “gay behavior.”

Maher balances a visit to a museum devoted to Creationism with a talk with the Pope’s official astronomer, a Catholic priest who vehemently opposes Creationism as un-scientific, and a talk with a Jewish scientist about the neurological basis of religious belief.

Maher has fun visiting, and poking fun at, a Christian “Holy Land” amusement park in Florida, but while actually in Israel, he turns more harsh with Muslims regarding their control of sites sacred to all three major religions of the area. He views with skepticism repeated claims by Muslim leaders and activists of their religion’s tolerance, bringing up the Salman Rushdi death threats, violence over published cartoons and the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh over a film some Muslims found offensive. An anti-Zionist rabbi, who visited Iran and believes that Israel should not exist, gets scathing treatment from Maher, as do Muslim Holocaust-deniers.

Although Maher remains committed to his anti-religious theme, his comments on the hazards of mixing religion and politics or science hit some powerful chords. In the end, the film is just Maher’s opinion but it contains enough thought-provoking material to make the film worth a look for some readers who will not be easily offended Maher’s main point.