Movie: Religulous

Starting with the title Religulous ridiculous combined with religious ­ outspoken comedian Bill Maher makes his stance clear. In this comedy-documentary, Maher travels to Jerusalem, the Vatican, the Netherlands and London and around the US, asking people about their beliefs while pulling no punches. He is upfront about seeing many religious beliefs and stories ­ such as the temptation in the Garden of Eden and virgin birth ­ as laughable.

Maher makes it equally clear that he is uncomfortable with the increasing convergence between religion and politics. Don't expect to see Christians raising money for disaster relief in Religulous. All types of religion are a source of comedy, starting with Maher's own Catholic-Jewish background. Among those interviewed are evangelical Christians, former Mormons, a cult leader who believes he is the second coming and the leader of a cannabis religion in Amsterdam.

Religulous is directed by Larry Charles, who directed Borat, about a Kazakhstan reporter who makes Americans look simple-minded by letting them speak for themselves. In Religulous, Maher takes on the Borat role, letting people talk about their faith then jumping in where their arguments fall down. The occasional appearance of the camera crew helps maintain a documentary feel.

Footage from Charlton Heston epics and Monty Python films, newsreels and Maher's comedy shows between interviews adds to the quickfire feel of the film and provides some lightness ­ or show the consequences of extreme views. Subtitles poke fun, sometimes to make a point or make fun of an interviewee, and sometimes just to get a laugh. And Maher finds no lack of comedy material as he travels around the US, from a pop-star-turned-preacher who insists the Bible supports striving for wealth ­ "Jesus dressed very well," he insists ­ to the creationist museum, where animatronic dinosaurs munch vegetation alongside animatronic humans, and a triceratops dinosaur is saddled up ready for a ride.

At the Holy Land Theme Park in Florida, Maher surreally debates with a performer who plays Jesus, who looks precisely like Jesus in a child's picture book. At a gory crucifixion show, one visitor looks tearful while another get close up for a photograph. While theme parks and religious retail provide an easy laugh, Maher is uneasy at the closeness between religion and politics, and the equating of Christianity, an international religion, with patriotism. It is unsettling to watch former US president George Bush saying "I believe that God wants everybody to be free ­ that's what I believe ­ and that's one part of my foreign policy." Maher challenges Mark Pryor, a Democrat senator, that his beliefs are absurd: "You're a senator ­ it worries me that people who are running my country believe in a talking snake." Pryor then says that "you don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate", then looks mortified as he realises what he has just admitted.

More reasonable views of religion come from people such as Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, who sees no conflict in being a Christian and a scientist. Father George Coyne of the Vatican Observatory cheerily points out that the observatory is not run "just so we can get out there are baptise the extra-terrestrials before the Mormons get them". Modern science came long after the Bible was written, he says. "How could there be science in the scriptures?" he asks. "The scriptures are not teaching science."

After being thrown out of the Vatican, Maher talks to Father Reginald Foster. The senior Vatican scholar and principal Latinist for the Pope denies being a maverick while saying the Bible contains "nice stories" and that Jesus would more likely live in a suburb of Rome than the opulent St Peter's. Maher is blunt is all his questioning ­ while Muslims tell him that their religion is peaceful, he does not shy away from questioning about violence within their religious works or their right of free speech not applying to Salman Rushdie.

While many may find Religulous's blatantly anti-religion position offensive, it shows all too plainly why some people do find religion absurd or are hostile to it. Unfortunately, members of the religious right are more likely to bepicketing cinemas than admitting that religion can have a very dark side ­ or realising just how bizarre their views can appear. Religulous, certificate 15. is released on 3 April 2009

By Christy Lawrance

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