By MISSAK ARTINIAN
In Monroe Hall, there’s a restroom that has the following words inscribed on one of the stalls: “Jesus loves you…unless you live in a third world country, then not so much.”
These words came to my mind while watching Bill Maher’s new documentary.
The documentary exposes the “irrational behaviors,” as Maher puts it, of people from different walks of life, with different cultural values and different belief systems who contradict each other, spit out nonsense and stand on weak ground when arguing about what they believe and why. Considering that the documentary is from the same minds that brought you “Borat” and “Fahrenheit 911,” you can be also assured that it is entertaining, funny and certainly controversial.
“Religulous” may very well be offensive to many, but unlike movies like “Borat,” it doesn’t try too hard to be objectionable with over-the-top vulgar content. Instead, Maher simply asks questions to ministers, priests, senators and ordinary people who lend their own ridiculous material to the documentary with their nonsensical, yet hilarious, answers. Maher is on top of his game with his customary wit and cynicism.
There is one memorable interview Maher conducts with a preacher named Jesus Miranda. Mr. Miranda believes that he is the second coming of Christ. Think that’s funny? It gets better. Instead of likening Miranda to Christ, Maher compares him to Carmen Miranda. But, says Maher “instead of having fruits on your head, you have fruits in your head.” Genius. Then we find out that Mr. Miranda has over 100,000 followers. Not so funny anymore.
Even though the documentary is humorous in its execution, it is very serious in its message. Maher takes issue with the connection between religion and nationalism. It makes no sense, he argues, that Americans should believe that they are “under God,” when, in fact, there is no inherent connection between one’s nation and religion besides a few songs and a pledge of allegiance.
It makes even less sense to tie nationalism and religion together when Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among other founding fathers, who were arguably agnostics and atheists themselves, established the principle to separate church and state.
And yet, the documentary replays a clip of President George W. Bush, while campaigning in 2000, saying, “I believe that God wants everyone to be free…that’s part of my foreign policy.” What’s more alarming is that when some of Bush’s supporters were asked why they were planning to vote for him in 2000, many proudly admitted it was because of his faith.
Considering that there are some Americans out there who won’t vote for Senator Obama because they believe that he’s Muslim, even though he’s not and even though there’s nothing wrong with being Muslim, it just goes to show you that a candidate’s faith, rather than his or her policies, unfortunately dictates who some people vote for.
Maher also explores the ties between religion and commercialism. He visits a tourist attraction in Orlando, Fla. called “Holy Land.” Visitors there can buy holy souvenirs, holy food, and can watch a live show where a Jesus surrogate is whipped by surrogate Roman guards. Yes, it’s just as ridiculous as it sounds. Worse still, the audience takes pictures and applauds the supposed suffering of Christ. What do they think they’re watching? “The Lion King” on ice?
“Religulous” only opened in selected theatres, so I had to drive up to Alexandria to watch it. What a shame, because only die-hard fans of Maher’s show on HBO, agnostics and atheists, will make the extra effort to go see it. If the documentary ever airs on HBO, and I suspect it will, I highly recommend watching it. However, it’s important to watch it with an open-mind, no matter what your religion.
As someone who was raised in the Christian faith, and is great friends with people from different religious backgrounds, I do have to say that the people Maher interviewed were what some would call “extremists,” whether they were Christian, Jewish or Muslim (Hindus and Buddhists get a free pass). That is natural, of course, because had Maher interviewed me or any one of my friends, he would have had a pretty boring documentary.
Even though Maher does make some unfair generalizations based on the extreme views of those who he interviewed, I still found Maher’s satirical social commentary persuasive and above all, very entertaining. At the end of the day, if Maher’s goal for making “Religulous” was to engender laughter, he certainly succeeded. But if Maher was hoping to convert people or change their beliefs, like many religions tend to do, then he’s only preaching to the choir.