By Harry Forbes
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) -- "You're a grown man and you believe in a talking snake?" challenges comedian Bill Maher, the host of HBO's "Real Time" to anyone inclined to take the Adam and Eve story at face value.
Such is the tenor of self-described agnostic Maher's highly personal brand of reportage in "Religulous" (Lionsgate), wherein Christians, Jews and Muslims all come under his sneering ridicule, as he argues that religion "must die so that man can live."
Though Maher doesn't actually deny God's existence, his film, as directed by Larry Charles ("Borat"), which sees Maher traveling the globe interviewing officials and adherents of various faiths, pulls no punches in attacking spiritual beliefs and institutional religion, the heads of which he labels "intellectual slave masters."
Along the way, he tours offbeat venues such as the chapel of Truck Stop Ministries, the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla. (replete with Crucifixion re-enactment), and the Kentucky Creation Museum. He also visits Israel, England, the Netherlands and Italy in his quest to mock what he views as the superstitious beliefs of educated adults who should know better.
He converses with such colorful Christian leaders as dapper Jeremiah Cummings, former Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes singer and now pastor of Amazing Life World Outreach in Raleigh, N.C.; good-natured Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda of Growing in Grace Ministry, who matter-of-factly claims lineage from Jesus; and Pastor John Westcott of Calvary Assembly Exchange Ministries in Winter Park, Fla., a former homosexual who insists, much to Maher's skepticism, that he has truly changed his orientation.
He also talks to rabbis, writers, street preachers and politicians. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark) squirms under Maher's interrogation about the Ten Commandments. ("Bronze Age beliefs," scoffs Maher.) Mormons and Scientologists come in for some particular skewering.
Among the Catholic beliefs Maher explicitly disparages are the virgin birth of Jesus, the Immaculate Conception and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He even questions the historical existence of Jesus.
Born of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, Maher was raised Catholic until the age of 13, when his family suddenly abandoned the church over its position on birth control, much to Maher's delight as he found Mass "boring." Not always a skeptic, Maher remembers that for some time thereafter he was still making "deals" with God in matters of youthful ardor and such.
The principal Catholic voices -- Vatican astronomer Jesuit Father George V. Coyne, who confirms the church's acceptance of evolution, pointing out that there is no science in Scripture, and chatty Carmelite Father Reginald Foster, principal Latinist for the pope, encountered in the piazza outside St. Peter's Basilica, who cheerfully explains the church's figurative interpretation of Bible stories like Jonah and the whale (which comes in for Maher's repeated scorn) -- come off rather well, though Maher is only using them to discredit evangelical literalism.
Maher's conversation with Father Foster, by the way, follows his being unceremoniously booted from the Vatican when he shows up unannounced to interview anyone at hand.
Maher also filmed his late mother, Julie Maher -- who, to her credit, seems reluctant to join her son in equating God to Santa Claus -- and his sister, Kathy Maher, at their former parish, Our Lady of Mercy Church in Park Ridge, N.J.
After a century during which militantly atheist regimes around the globe murdered millions of people in a relatively short span of time, one can only be amazed at the obtuseness with which Maher blames human misery on people of faith. Ignoring all the good done by religious people and institutions, such as charitable works and the promotion of peace, Maher seeks out a parade of extremists who make all-too-easy targets.
He also spares himself the effort of grappling with the fundamental questions about the origins and destiny of the human person and the serious answers provided by the great religions.
At one point in this blatantly irreverent and journalistically spurious documentary, Maher opines that "not having faith is a luxury."
That's one high-ticket item we can do without.
The film contains a consistently irreligious -- sometimes blasphemous -- tone, rough language, crass expressions and some profanity, brief sexual references and imagery, and upper female nudity. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is O -- morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Forbes is director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.
Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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