Initially quite funny in its head-on engagement with star-spangled, self-righteous platitudes, Religulous is one small career move for the left-libertarian tele-savant Maher and another, equally modest step toward confronting the migraine-inducing, theocratic With God On Our Side nonsense that defines much American political discourse — John McCain gets a cameo insisting that "the Constitution established the United States as a Christian country," but he's hardly the only public figure out to sever the U.S. from its Enlightenment roots.
Religulous opens with Maher in Israel at fundamentalist ground zero, reporting from Megiddo, the designated spot for the Battle of Armageddon. By way of an alternative vision of the apocalypse, the movie breaks into a comic montage juxtaposing all manner of holy men, true believers and pious pols — then licenses the comedian to spend the rest of its 101 minutes turning his blunderbuss on this barrel of fish.
For some, Religulous might seem to articulate what has been imagined as Hollywood's secret agenda since the 1920s: Is nothing sacred to these heathens? Maher, who explains that he was brought up Catholic by a nonobservant Jewish mother (dragged on camera to proclaim: "Every family is dysfunctional"), seems unambiguously alienated from cosmic consciousness. Recalling his boyhood, he says that God "wasn't relevant to my life — Superman was relevant" and maintains that he would have worshipped any deity that let him jerk off. (The latter is counterintuitive to the max: Radical psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich theorized that it was precisely to keep kids from masturbating that humanity invented the notion of an invisible, all-seeing God.)
Although his antics are directed by Borat showman Larry Charles, Maher is hardly comparable to Sacha Baron Cohen as a trickster performance artist. (His funniest act in Religulous is a brief stint, big glasses on and ear-flaps down, preaching Scientology in Hyde Park, London. A few minutes into his rant, a bystander steps out of the crowd and crowns him King Ding-a-Ling, solemnly placing a garland of balloons on his fevered brow.) Nor is Maher a swashbuckling provocateur like Michael Moore, comforting the afflicted and confronting the infidels with his intimidating bulk. Mainly, Maher is pleased to play devil's advocate; occasionally, he presents himself as celebrity Antichrist.
On a road trip through rural North Carolina, Maher and his unseen entourage pause at a tiny truck-stop chapel for some good-natured joshing with the congregation. Whereas religion sells "an invisible product," Maher explains to them, he's peddling doubt. Sensing what's to come, one believer angrily makes for the door. Maher is always pleased to challenge, debate and laugh at the lumpen faithful, willing as they are to cite "historical facts" to defend any position. Still, as a polemicist, he's hardly fair — more than a few exchanges are recalibrated in the editing, and too many end with Maher flipping Pascal's Wager, rejoining a believer's "What if you're wrong?" with an emphatic "What if you're wrong?"
Such one-sided encounters are more depressing than fun. As a showbiz wise guy, Maher is more effective when hanging with more public personalities. He gets a dapper soul singer turned preacher to insist that "Jesus [also] dressed very well!" and then go on to mangle Matthew 19:24 ("It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God"). He maneuvers Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas into accepting the premise that religion is a remnant of the Bronze Age; unperturbed, Pryor defends his beliefs by lamely pointing out that "you don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate." Maher confounds tourists and an unhappy public-relations woman in Orlando's Holy Land theme park by engaging the starstruck actor who plays Jesus in a theological debate.
These straw men are Maher's more formidable opponents. It's far less enjoyable to watch him bait an anti-Zionist Hasid, a barely coherent Scottish Muslim, a guy who claims to be a descendant of Jesus, the proprietor of a creationist museum of natural history or a Dutch pothead who runs a "cannabis ministry." The latter half of the movie is more or less spent with the freaks on the carnival midway in preparation for Maher's big spiel. Throwing his own brand of snake oil on the fire, he insists that faith makes a virtue of stupidity, identifies religion as dangerous because it encourages people to believe they have all the answers and warns the world to "grow up or die."
Heavy stuff. Freud, who devoted his life to the study of irrational behavior and characterized religion as humanity's "universal obsessional neurosis," concluded The Future of an Illusion on a wistful note — arguing pragmatic, imperfect scientific thinking as the only alternative to the delusional totality of religious faith. Maher more or less short-circuits this line of thought with a fire-and-brimstone crescendo of exploding nuclear bombs and a chorus of the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere." The anthem isn't inappropriate: Religulous doesn't really go anywhere either. It's ultimately a celebration of the old-time religion we call entertainment.