In the opening of his film “Religulous,” Bill Maher says, “If there’s one thing I hate more than prophecy, it’s self-fulfilling prophecy.”
So when Maher, a comedian who equates hearing the voice of God to insanity, finds in his tour of world religions that they’re all just dangerous, nonsensical lies, you’ve got to wonder — what’s new?
At least Maher seems genuinely interested in conversing with the believers he interviews in such strongholds of piety as Jerusalem, Orlando and the office of Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor. Along the way, he does find, and welcomes, a couple of intellectually honest clergymen (in the Vatican, of all places — who knew it maintained an observatory?).
But mostly, he revels in dousing dogma with bucketloads of blunt doubt: “I preach the gospel of ‘I Don’t Know.’ ” Those who admit to hav-ing doubts, he communes with. Those who profess certitude, well, they mostly get whacked. He also — and this is a big one — earns some laughs.
If Maher the wandering philosopher/jester/muckraker doesn’t tickle you, “Religulous” is flippantly peppered with footage of old Bible mov-ies, televangelists, news and cartoons, compounding the blasphemy. The good news is, whatever your least-favorite religion may be, it proba-bly gets insulted here.
Relentlessly cocksure and respectfully combative throughout, Maher is convinced religions are so high on their own fictions that they threaten our very civilization. Director Larry Charles (the “Seinfeld” producer turned “Borat” director) gives us Maher monologues mostly in transit, in a passenger van, as America and its “Hell Is Real” billboards roll past in the window. Half-Jewish and raised Catholic, Maher explains that he doesn’t have anything against God per se; he was, in fact, making deals with the Almighty into his 40s. “Not having faith,” he tells some truck-ers in North Carolina, “is a luxury.”
Unless you’re in prison or a foxhole, though, he wants you to grow up. When one Michigan Christian tells Maher, “You don’t believe in miracles,” Maher replies, “Of course not! I’m not 10!”
Judaism comes off as a bog of superstition, Islam as superficially welcoming but in denial, Scientology and Mormonism as pure kooki-ness.
Sen. Pryor frankly does Arkansas no favors by buttressing his professed belief in creationism with a claim that the jury’s still out on evolu-tion. Maher insists that, no, science is fairly sure about that one, and that to believe in creationism is to believe in a talking snake. Pryor jokes that there’s no IQ test to enter the U.S. Senate. Maher, for once, doesn’t join in the laugh.
“Religulous” mostly plays like thoughtful standup and guerilla filmmaking until its obnoxiously overindulgent final five minutes, in which Maher and Charles melt into screed, insisting that no one looking for the End Times should be allowed near any levers of war. While on a mis-sion to sow doubt, Maher reveals himself to be a borderline atheistic zealot: “Religion must die for mankind to live.” But for what it’s worth, the crowd at the late Sunday showing at Little Rock’s Market Street Cinema applauded as the final credits rolled. Put your hands together, skep-tics, as Brother Maher testifies.