I remember that it was a boy band member or some such, a youth with a room-temperature IQ and the ill-advised confidence of a blind man break-dancing near a cliff, who tried to engage Bill Bailey in a verbal duel on a episode of 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks'.
"He's a stand-up comedian" squawked Simon Amstell incredulously "you can't possibly win!"
It's a piece of advice that the interviewees for 'Religulous' would have done well to take. The 2008 documentary explores the fundamentalist end of the Abrahamic faiths (henceforth, the BIG3) with an a-priori lack of sympathy and incisive wit of US comedian Bill Maher. Maher's autobiographical asides reveal that he grew up Catholic, going regularly to catechism which he describes as "like Hebrew school for Papists. It was like war - vast stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror". His mother's Jewish heritage didn't figure in the family folklore, and neither did Catholicism after the rigorous teaching on birth control tested Maher's father's devotion too far. As an adult, Maher has become known in the US for his political satire on subjects from abortion to animal rights and, perennially, religion.
Maher visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky to interview founder Ken Ham and see the wonderfully executed displays (the saddled baby triceratops was my favourite). Evangelist senator Mark Pryor (D: Arkansas) who looks charmingly like Buzz Lightyear with a good tailor, later defended creationism to Maher in an kindly and insipid few sentences littered with malaprops and appeals to the principal of uncertainty. Pryor's tentative manner suggested he may have been speaking with a lack of true conviction or else that he simply isn't very bright:
"It's worrying that people who run the country believe in a talking snake" probed Maher
"You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate though" replied Pryor, smiling before he realised what he'd said. His face fell as slowly and gracefully as an asphyxiating ballerina.
Since homophobia features so strongly in orthodox strains of the Big3, it was also fruitfully (no pun intended) explored in Religulous. We start with the story of Lot (Genesis 19), the virtuous man of Sodom who offered his daughters to a mob to rape, as misusing a couple of visiting angels was apparently too awful to contemplate. We met Pastor John Westcott of Exchange Ministries who explained how he how used to have gay sex but is definitely not actually gay because it doesn't exist.
"Have you ever seen Little Richard?" countered Maher.
Married for fourteen years to a woman who used to do lesbian stuff but is/was not gay either, Westcott now counsels other people who have gay sex and who usually, he admits, go back to their errant ways.
"Because they're gay?" offered Maher.
Westcott is either a genuinely nice man or someone who has had better PR coaching than Ken Ham. In any case he's not the nasty advert for homophobia that the maverick Westborough Baptist Church is. Peopled by activists who don't hate faggots (God does), the Church has also been covered elsewhere, and thoroughly by Louis Theroux.
Meeting two muslim gay activists (not words you often see grouped together) at an Amsterdam bar Maher tried to keep it light, but there were noticeably only two gays in the village that evening. "I'm hoping you guys find each other attractive" he said at the lack of crowd. Despite their halting English they manage to convey a history of intimidation and violence which may well have accounted for their being the only people to appear on camera.
Muslim gay Night in Amsterdam
The segue to Islam took us to issues of freedom of speech and dissention. Maher visited the murder site of Theo van Gogh, film-maker of 'Submission' and discussed the Danish cartoon furore. Regrettably his interviewees were not the most hardcore: I suspect that Amsterdam councillor Fatima Elatik is more multidimensional than we see in Religulous. Similarly, his conversation with contraversial muslim rapper Propa Gandhi was a battle of wits with a hopelessly unarmed man. The former drummer of ‘The Southern Death Cult’ (precursor to ‘The Cult’) gibbered at the onslaught, as soft a target as an inflatable dartboard. Geert Wilders gave a better account of himself, but then he's had more practice, I expect.
We visited the ‘Institute for Science & Hallacha’ in Israel to see how a group of Orthodox Jews invent technological items which circumvent the thirty-nine specific types of action forbidden on the Sabbath. What Maher calls “outsmarting God” does look from the outside to be an extremely lawerly sense of observance.
Back in the US, our crew visited 'The Holy Land Experience' in Florida to see just how tawdry and mundane a religious experience can get.
If you need an ancient Palestinian puppet to accompany your Spanish wine skins and stuffed donkey, here's your gift shop. Jesus was pleasant (I should hope so), although less so than the public relations lady who stormed in having not been told about his interview in advance. Quite right too - she seemed curiously to be the only one among Religulous's interviewees who had the faintest idea of what she was dealing with. Questioning of THLE's attendees revealed ignorance how the key parts of the Christian myth were widespread about the middle-east a couple of millennia ago, although one young man helpfully added Anakin Skywalker to Mithras, Horus and Krishna.
He's got a point. Crowds cheered as a bloodied Jesus was beaten on his way to calvary, accompanied by an emotive number sung in the off-Broadway style by a lady who probably did something really awful in a past life. A plane flying overhead enhanced the ghastly pornographic banality of it all. Vegas without the class - and that's tough to do, even if you mean to.
Evangelism does not come out well. But despite being summarily evicted from the Vatican, Maher seems to have a little more sympathy for Catholicism. Certainly, Catholicism has a long-in-the-tooth sophistry which stops it doing anything really gauche like competing with science on its own terms. Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne dutifully rejected ideas of a young earth or creationism. Evangelism - young, brash and absolutist - is an easy target for satire. Maher encounters may pleasant old priests, men who are probably too aged and educated to believe in the really silly stuff, but who have to keep it up for the congregation. As Father Reginald Foster said "These are all nice stories you know". I'd quote more but his dismissive snorts sounded like a epileptic sound effects sampler and I can't spell that raspberry noise. Really seemed like nice man.
The film had a limited theatrical release in the US and I can't find a record of a general release in the UK, but it has still done very well, so far grossing around USD13M. Wonderful for a USD2.5M production budget. In any case, movies like this live in their DVD sales unless they're made by Michael Moore and even his star is falling since he has moved from docu-activist to patronising polemicist.
Maher has been compared to Dawkins and certainly, he regards moderate religionists as culpable in that they provide a place of safety for nonsense of an extreme variety. But unlike Dawkins, Maher doesn't seem to have issues with God - he has issues with certainty. We may have guffawed at the idea that ‘end of time’ predictions could be self-fulfilling, but with an evangelist as last tenant of the Whitehouse, you have to wonder:
"I believe that God wants everybody to be free ... and that's one part of my foreign policy".
George W. Bush
Indeed, Religulous opens and closes at Megiddo, the Biblical 'Armageddon', venue for the epic battle between Christ and Satan (dates TBA - but soon, according to many authorities). The modern American pairing of religion and nationalism, Maher points out, would have been alien to the founding fathers, many of whom were hardcore atheists. But it's hard to get far in American public life these days without a loudly declared supernatural affiliation of one variety or another, a fact which affects a great many things from the declaring of wars to the teaching of evolution.
Director Larry Charles, who looks like a cross between an orthodox rabbi and a homeless member of ZZ Top, has created a beautifully story-edited movie. The library footage adds greatly to Religulous's impact and the cutting is funny and effective. Pastor Jeremiah Cummings tells of how he implored a young man to direct his passion from a woman to God at which we cut to suicide bombing footage. "Look at more primitive cultures" says Senator Mark Pryor, "and they were constantly at war" and we cut to modern warheads and militia. The choice of music was also inspired: Apollo Braun's classic 'There's a Party in My Pants and Everybody's Coming' accompanied 50s footage of approved Mormon underwear. ‘I Think You’re Crazy’ played as Maher ranted Scientological dogma at Speakers’ Corner. Masterful.
Overall Religulous is hilarious but, as I suppose it must, glides over detailed analysis of where politics and religion meet and overlap. I suspect that for Maher and Charles the distinction would be a red-herring. They manage instead to highlight the ridiculous: indeed, it’s hard to see how the middle east would be in quite this much trouble without the enduring identities afforded by religion. At the Mount of Olives where many faithful Jews try to be buried, there’s a clear view to the Temple Mount, where the Mosque Dome of the Rock now stands. When the Messiah comes, he will raise them from the dead and march them across the valley to the Temple Mount.
“The muslims have walled up the gate” Maher says, “the better to keep out the Jewish Messiah and his kosher zombies”.
“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking” he concludes. “Doubt is humble and that is what man needs to be”. Is this likely? I don’t think so, but we can hope. In any case we do have to "grow up or die". So if you want to see a man ask a televangelist whether this is his only two thousand dollar suit or refer to the Cerne Abbas giant’s erection as sizeable "for England", this is the DVD for you. You’ll play it twice a year. I promise.