As an ex-barman, I am used to a golden rule when it comes to harmless, time-wasting conversation. Don't talk about politics, don't talk about any sport that involves local teams/rivalries and don't talk about religion. Above all other things, never talk about religion. It's a contentious subject that only those unfettered by the restrictions of some organised belief system seem able to discuss calmly. I believe that someone once said that the worst thing to ever happen to religion was when it became organised. This doesn't mean that I'm against personal beliefs. No sir. But I am against people believing in those things as if all other beliefs are wrong, unacceptable and/or downright unworthy. And let's not get started on the levels of tolerance shown by the more extreme believers. I have many friends who are religious and believe in their own god and they are wonderful people. I am well aware that the worst examples are the extreme examples, so let's not cover everyone under the same Turin Shroud.
I guess the following exchange that I genuinely, and I swear to it, had with a young girl outside a nightclub one night may better illustrate my point.
"I'm a vegetarian," she said.
"Oh, really?" I replied. "Any religious reason or just moral ones?" *Vegetarianism is something I respect if people are doing it properly, even if I don't agree with it but there's one kind of vegetarian I hate*
"No. I'm just a vegetarian. I only eat vegetables, fruit, chicken and fish."
*The one kind of "vegetarian" I hate.
"Oh really, yeah. Those well known vegetables known as chicken and fish."
She proceeded to get quite angry and I decided to provoke her more because I am honestly annoyed every time I hear someone say "I'm a vegetarian, but I also eat chicken and fish. Well, I don't eat red meat." That's NOT being a vegetarian.
Anyway, we finally got to the crux of the matter.
"I don't eat any creature that God allowed to smile," she said. She ACTUALLY said that.
"WHAT??? Is this a joke. Chickens and fish were made by God, if you believe in him, surely."
"Yes, but he didn't make them able to smile and that's why it's okay to eat them."
I stopped even being polite at that point and openly laughed in her face, at which point her lovely boyfriend took her away from me while she shouted about how I wouldn't understand if I was a non-believer and he just kept apologising.
But I digress. Ahem. Back to Religulous.
Bill Maher has a clear agenda in this documentary looking at different organised religions and their more extreme "teachings". I like to think that he's like a lot of us, very tolerant of personal beliefs that are not being put forward as absolute truths and placed as influential factors in life. I like to think that but I'm not sure. Bill certainly doesn't pull any punches and he's admirably honest with those he interviews. The editing and cheeky comic interruptions make sure that Bill keeps the whole thing decidedly biased in his favour but there are, sadly, far too many moments when he just leads people to give answers to stupendous in their stupidity that it makes the case far better than 100 little barbed asides ever could. Just witness the senator, Mark Pryor, who somehow thinks he's defending his beliefs by saying "you don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate, though".
Directed by Larry Charles, there's no doubt that this documentary really belongs to Bill Maher and his own voyage of discovery. He doesn't hide his agenda, he doesn't hide his disdain for certain practices and he doesn't hide from the fact that sometimes someone can make him pause for thought. Sadly, that happens very, very rarely (though when it does I must admit that I was as impressed and admiring of the tenacious believer as I had been by Maher himself).
But there's nothing more to Religulous. It's a very good watch but it won't change the thoughts of anyone watching it. Believers will still believe while doubters will still doubt, though perhaps both will do so with a little bit more conviction after watching this. Maybe.
People are horrible. People need anything that offers them hope, reward, peace, etc. People do things they know that other people do. Religulous reminds you of this. But it also reminds you, even if only via the unfailing cynicism of Bill Maher, that every individual can be worth so much more than any homogenous group.