Religulous is Bill Maher's documentary exploring various aspects of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, with a little Scientology thrown in for comic relief, and no attention whatsoever paid to Buddhism or other Eastern or Native American traditions. The film is told through a series of interviews Maher taped with various representatives of their faiths, in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.
The film begins with Maher on the Biblical field of Armageddon in Israel, where the Book of Revelations claims the final battle in the End Days will rage. Maher stands on a collection of ruins and talks about humanity's evolution of ever more destructive weaponry -- which has given us the power to end the world, and the knowledge to bring about Armageddon, without a corresponding intelligence to see through the superstitions and religious beliefs that fuel a self-destructive desire to see our world end.
Maher jumps through various threads in the film, dealing with one for a while, then cutting to something else, and returning to his first thread again throughout the documentary. One of these touchstones is his family life -- he was raised Catholic, but is half Jewish. The family decided to raise both Maher and his sister Catholic with no Jewish instruction until he was 13 - at which time Maher's father stopped bringing his children to church, and stopped attending Mass himself. Maher's mother did not accompany her family to mass on Sundays, and Maher said his family never took religion seriously. In fact, he often wore his toy cowboy belt and gun to church and said Superman was a bigger influence on his life than Jesus and Catholocism ever were. Maher's mother said he was heartbroken as a boy to find out there was no such thing as Santa Claus -- and Maher said he didn't care at all about figuring out there was no Jesus. Maher's mother said, at the time, no one could say that. In interviewing his own family, Maher establishes that going to church was something his family did because his father wanted them to, but they never made religion a big part of their lives, and never even discussed the fact Maher's mother is Jewish. When Maher was 13, his father got tired of hearing the priest at their church talking about how bad birth control is, that he just decided to never go back to church again. And that ended Maher's involvement with Catholocism.
These family interviews cut into Maher traveling in what looks like Missouri, or possibly Kentucky, encountering a Chaplain and small evangelical church for truck drivers. The church is literally either the back of a semi or a long trailer, with folding chairs and a small pulpit. Here, Maher speaks with an assortment of burly truckers, who all take Jesus very seriously, and thus take offense to Maher's mocking tone. The film follows Maher's HBO format when interviewing -- his questions are at times disrespectful to his subjects in that he provokes rather than draws answers out of them. This tactic is not especially effective with the truckers, and at least one of them walks out on Maher as he believes his religion is being ridiculed. He says to Maher, to the effect, "I don't know what kind of documentary this is, but I want nothing to do with it and I am out of here". The people who stay challenge Maher when he says there is no factual proof of Jesus ever living --- the truckers argue that Jesus was indeed real, and Maher intercuts various scientists and experts saying he wasn't. They also get into the Virgin Birth and other aspects of current Christian belief that were not contained in all parts of the New Testament --- Maher's argument is that if this was true, that no editor of the Bible would have left out this important part of the interview. The truckers go back to fact that Jesus is a comfort in their lives -- and Maher relents that someone living alone in a prison cell might only have Jesus, so that is what he clings to. One trucker reveals that he spent 30 years of his life as a Satanist and was a Satanic priest before being saved by Jesus. Maher later mocks this man in a car while presumably driving away from the interview.
There are segments interspersed here where Maher speaks with the head of the Human Genome Project who is also very religious and Maher attempts to get him to explain how the two relate, and how a man of science can believe in something as ridiculous, to Maher, as religion. This being Maher's documentary, the scientist does not come off well.
The film visits a religious gift shop run by an "Ex-Jew for Jesus", where Maher questions this convert on what miracles are. The heavy set bearded man claims he experiences miracles every day, and that's why he believes in Jesus, because the miracles make him believe. Maher asks for an example, and the man says once he was thirsty and a man gave him a glass and said if Jesus was so powerful he could just reach into the air and it would fill with water. So, the man went to the window and held the glass in the air and asked for rain and Jesus made it rain and filled the glass for him. Maher laughed at him and said that was a coincidence. They also got into the story of Jonah and the Whale, to which the bearded man corrected Maher -- it was a giant fish, not a whale. Maher makes fun of that too -- saying this always happens with Christians. They say the story makes sense being a giant fish, not a whale -- and Maher thinks that is ridiculous and laughs at the man.
He also visits an "Ex-gay" who leads a movement that pairs gay men with lesbians and marries them so they can have children and turn straight. Maher tells the man he still seems gay because he is good looking and is dressed neatly and they get into a debate on whether people are born gay. The Ex-gay man claims no one is really gay, and that people are just confused and need help. Maher gets in a few jokes at the man's expense, featuring the Brokeback Mountain theme at one point, and the two part ways with a big hug.
This interview is interspersed with stock footage of various anti-gay demonstraters, including the Rev. Phelps, who claim all gays are going to Hell and that God hates them.
Next up is a visit to the Creationism Museum in Lexington, Kentucky, where Maher is shown around the building while it is under construction. There are animatronic dinosaurs and robot children playing in various displays, with a triceratops wearing a saddle for children to ride on like a pony. Baby T-rexes play with children like they are small dogs. The Director of this museum claims all animals and humans were created on the same day, roughly 4,000 years ago, and that the museum attempts to show that if people do not believe this and reconcile the fact that dinosaurs lived alongside people that nothing else in the Bible would make sense. Maher claims the Museum teaches that the Flintstones really happened, as they had dinosaurs for pets and rode Brontosaurous buses too.
At the Vatican, Maher meets with both a Vatican astronomer and a priest, both of whom challenge the stereotype of Catholics. The astronomer gets the biggest laugh in the film with a GREAT joke. Maher asks why the Vatican would have an astronomer or be interested in science and the priest says that "Well, I can tell you that we are not here trying to find other planets just so we can get to them and convert everyone --- and beat the Mormons to it". The priest also explains the New Testament was written 2000 years ago and that modern science only began in the last 500 years...so the Bible should not be read as a scientific work, and there are no scientific facts in there. The catholic church has never believed that, this priest assures. The Bible is a theological text, and science is a separate realm. The Vatican has maintained scientists and scholars since the Middle Ages. The other priest Maher spoke to was on the subject of church opulence -- Maher points to the Vatican and calls it a palace and says Jesus would have never lived there, and the priest readily agrees. He also says that Jesus was not born on December 25th and could have been born in April or June for all anyone knows. He says a lot of what people think is religion is actually just a nice story to tell. The priest also notes that in Italy when a person is in trouble, they pray to various saints before they even think of Jesus, and he is supposed to be the focus of the religion. The priest and Maher have a discussion on monotheism, since surrounding the Vatican is a sea of statues to various saints -- almost like the old Roman gods, demigods, etc. This segment focuses on the fact that people like telling the stories they enjoy and making the religion what every individual person thinks it is, or wants it to be, and that gets away from what the Church really is today. The priest also says the concepts of Hell, the Devil, and damnation are "the old Church", which gets a surprised reaction from Maher, since the two priests at the Vatican come off as the most with-it and modern religious figures in the entire film.
Maher speaks with a flurry of other religious figures, including a black Baptist minister who wears flashy clothes and lots of gold and used to be a member of a famous singing group. Maher calls this man out for using church money to buy fancy clothes, and the man claims Jesus wore fancy linen and gold, because he was given gold when he was born. Maher mocks the man and uses that segment to comment on black ministers taking advantage of their congregations --- where the minsters wear the fancy threads and gold of flashy entertainers like Elvis Presley.
Maher visited Israel and dealt with the odd topic of scientists who work to find loopholes in the rules against observant Jews doing any work on the Sabbath. So, to get the things they want without breaking their religious rules, these people use complicated devices to cheat the elaborate system. For instance, they are not allowed to push any buttons on the Sabbath, so they have special phones that have all the buttons already pushed, and so they can use a special stick that STOPS a button from being pushed, which is the opposite of pushing a button, so that is allowed. That same logic is applied to everything Jews are not allowed to do on the Sabbath. If they are not allowed to plant crops that day, if they have a machine that will plant the crops unless they stop it, and have another machine that stops the first machine from planting, but is hard to use, then failing to operate the second machine correctly and failing to stop the first machine from planting the crops is allowed. So, the crops get planted but it is not the person's fault. There was an entire room filled with these machines used only in Israel to do things on Saturday they would not normally be allowed to do.
A visit was also made to the Dome of the Rock, which is a muslim Holy Site built upon the location of Solomon's Temple, which is a Jewish Holy Site, in which Maher is given a tour by a Muslim who explains Jews are not allowed in the building --- and several Muslims inside try to interrupt Maher's filming there because they believe he is Jewish and they don't want him there. Maher interivews an Imam in Amsterdam who claims Islam is a peaceful religion, while Maher intercuts with various images of Muslim intolerance, such as the killing of the Dutch filmmaker who made a movie critical of Islam. Maher interviews an Islamic woman who says her people are not violent, and Maher intercuts footage of the London protests against Salman Rushdie that called for beheading him. This segment also showed two gay muslim men in the only muslim gay bar in Amsterdam, who sit alone in the bar on a Thursday night while Maher jokes that he hopes they find each other attractive.
The most interesting part of the film happens at a Holy Land Amusement Park in Orlando, Florida that has various settings depicting Bible stories as well as a passion play with an actor playing a crucified Jesus walking the streets. Maher challenges the Christian beliefs by noting that -- just like the fact the Dome of the Rock was built on a Jewish Temple which was built on a Pagan Temple before that and many mosques used to be churches that were pagan temples before them -- that the story of Jesus is very similar to stories told of various Hindu and Buddhist figures centuries before Christianity. Also, the story of Jesus most interestingly dovetails with the story of Horus in Egypt: Horus was born to a virgin with the god Osiris as his father. He was baptized in a river and the person who baptized him was beheaded. Later, he raised a man name Azra from the dead whose name translates into Lazarus. Then, he was betrayed, crucified, and rose from the dead and was heralded by two women who reveald this miracle to the world.
An awkward segment occurs between Maher and a rabbi who denies the holocaust happened and who does not believe in Zionism or the state of Israel -- this same rabbi appears with the president of Iran at various events. Maher makes a dramatic point of getting up and leaving that interview midway through, saying he can't take any more of this man's craziness after the rabbi interrupted Maher several times.
Maher has a segment where he ridicules Scientology by standing in a British part and screaming out Scientology's beliefs while images of Tom Cruise and John Travolta are on the screen -- that the Great Galactic Emperor Xenus put alien bodies on volcanoes and then dropped a hydrogen bomb on them, which left evil things inside all of us called Thetans that only a Scientology audit can remove from you, using E-meters to detect how many Thetans you have inside.
From there, Maher goes to Salt Lake City to talk about Mormonism and is kicked off the temple's grounds by security. He does meet with two ex-Mormons who tell more about Mormons' belief that God is a 6 foot tall man living on the planet Cholu who came to Earth and had sex with many women to create the human race, and that Native Americans are the lost tribe of Israel and the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. Mormon underwear protects them from fire and disease and all sorts of other dangers. Maher gets a good laugh at all of this.
Sporadically he also takes shots at President Bush and Democratic Senator Pryor of Arkansas, who is interviewed on the Ten Commandments and mispronounces some words, that Maher makes fun of. Bush is ridiculed for saying God wants everyone to be free, and that is American foreign policy in his administration. This all builds to Maher's conclusion that in an age of technological advancement when we have things people thousands of years ago never dreamed of, we hold on to religious beliefs that make no sense. He says people are elected to office who don't use logic to solve problems, but instead take pride in being ignorant and leaving this up to God and luck. Maher points out "faith" is admired in our society and that President Bush had the support of millions because they didn't care how smart he is but that he says he believes in God.
Maher closes the film once again on the field of Armageddon, where he lectures on the danger of clinging to faith from the bronze age when we no longer hold stock in anything else from those days. He says people who have the power today to destroy the world can no longer afford to believe in the craziness of world-ending cults or Armageddon of any kind. If we can create that sort of unparalleled destruction ourselves, we surrender the luxury of believing in religions that reserve such power for vengeful, jealous gods.
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