Tossed alongside the upcoming line-up of faith-based films is an intentionally controversial “documentary” that is sure to rile many of the millions of Americans who consider themselves to be faithful adherents of a particular religion.
"Religulous," featuring Bill Maher, host of "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO, was originally slated for a release date coinciding with this year’s Easter holiday, but post-production delays resulting from a screenwriters guild strike pushed the release date back to July 11 and then to Oct. 3 – its current release date.
Weeks before the film hits theaters, critics have been quick to weigh in on "Religulous," which Maher himself admitted will offend “any religious person.”
“[Maher] thinks religion is a big crock of spit,” wrote Los Angeles Times blogger Patrick Goldstein, who described "Religulous" as “a comic bookend to Sam Harris' 'The End of Faith,' a humorless best seller that views religion as a bastion of superstition and moral hypocrisy.”
“[E]veryone in this movie has one only one thing in common,” added author Kris Rasmussen in “Idol Chatter,” the religion and pop culture blog of Beliefnet.com “[T]hey are made to look as stupid as possible – some just didn't need as much help with that as others.”
For the self-described documentary, which Rasmussen called “more of an ambush-style reality TV show,” Maher traveled to a few of the world’s most prominent religious destinations, such as Jerusalem, the Vatican, and Salt Lake City, interviewing believers from a variety of backgrounds and groups.
Among those interviewed by Maher was a man playing Jesus at a Holy Land theme park in Orlando, Muslims at a gay bar in Amsterdam, and Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a Puerto Rican heretic who calls himself both “the Second Coming of Jesus” and “the Antichrist.”
To obtain interviews, Maher admittedly lied about himself and his film.
"We never, ever, used my name,” Maher said. “We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it 'A Spiritual Journey.'”
The result, according to Spoutblog contributor Karina Longworth, was a film “not about finding out what makes religious people tick, but about using the tics of mostly fringe religious people to prop up the thesis Maher came in with. Which is – in a nutshell, but totally without irony – that everyday religious practice will soon result in global apocalypse.”
Longworth said Maher approached each subject “as if in a sincere attempt to gather information, and then – both in the room with his verbal mockery and attacks, and on a super-diegetic level with the cutaways and after-the-fact on-screen titles illuminating what Maher’s thinking in the moment – turns the situation into an opportunity to gather comedy at the unwitting subject’s expense.”
“Maher telegraphs an extremely hostile self-rightousness (sic) about what he’s doing,” she added.
Although Maher was born and raised as a Catholic, the standup comic intellectually gave up on organized religion as a young man and has since been highly critical of it, skewering it as a bunch of ancient superstitions that do more harm than good.
"Religion is the ultimate taboo, and the one in most need of debunking," Maher, 52, said last week during a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival.
According to Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman, who gave a relatively favorable review for "Religulous," Maher apparently sets out “not to question religious dogma but to bury it” through the upcoming film.
“He's out to burn holes in the Bible and to trash its literal followers – to declare open season on their contradictions and hypocrisies, heaping ridicule upon all they hold dear,” he wrote in Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch Blog.
Beliefnet’s Rasmussen, meanwhile, who saw a screening for "Religulous" at the Traverse City Film Festival in early August, said she expects Maher to continue to promote his film “as a call for religion in all shapes and sizes to commit a quick, painless death so intelligent civilization can flourish.”
“I know some readers may think I am exaggerating when I say that, but I am actually only paraphrasing the final comments of Maher himself at the end of the movie,” Rasmussen wrote.
In the closing scene of "Religulous," Maher reportedly tells the audience "We need to grow up or die."