Maher's 'Religulous' fights to a draw

In "Religulous," Bill Maher calls for the world to be scoured of religious belief in order to prevent its destruction by fanatical, hate-mongering extremists.

And by fanatical, hate-mongering extremists he means just about everyone who's serious about any major religion.

It's an intentionally offensive approach, and Maher, who does not believe in miracles, performs one by managing to make this material funny, if somewhat short of persuasive.

He greases the skids for his anti-religion argument by interviewing religious folk around the world, concentrating on the superstitious, the dim, the credulous, the zealous, and the fraudulent, in one instance wrapping them all together in the person of a U.S. senator.

He meets Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists and finds them equally wanting for reason and usefulness. In almost every case, he's smarter and funnier than his subjects. There is a briefly provocative exchange with a Vatican astronomer, the closest "Religulous" comes to a fair fight. It's an inconclusive draw, and leaves the viewer wondering how much more interesting the movie might have been had Maher picked on more people his own intellectual size.

More interesting, but probably not as funny. And in fairness to Maher, some of the best jokes come at his own expense - he gets bad reviews, and works them right into the narrative.

That's not quite the same as balance, of course, and Maher manages to conclude his examination of religion without mentioning the billions of religious people who do not want the world to end, who give their time and money to charity, and who take the Dogma bypass while driving elderly shut-ins to the supermarket.

Maher hates fanatics, but makes a fanatic's reductive argument by lumping all fidels together in the same basket of delusion, blood-thirstiness and bigotry. And his concluding rant can only be described as fire and brimstone - when religious fanatics have access to apocalyptic weapons, he declares, their end-of- days' fantasies can no longer be ignored or tolerated.

Director Larry Charles illustrates this idea with file shots of rocketing missiles and mushroom clouds.

As far as I know, all of this footage has been obtained from the Archive of Stuff Built and Detonated by Rational Men.

Assuming the world will be a safer and more peaceful without religion - now THAT is an act of faith. *

Produced by Bill Maher, Palmer West, Jonah Smith; directed by Larry Charles; distributed by Lionsgate.


Directed by Larry Charles. With Bill Maher. Distributed by Lionsgate Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 41 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for some language and sexual material).