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Religulous

Bill Maher, like Michael Moore, is someone people either love or hate. And they both invite that. Maher has strong opinions and he's not afraid to share them on cable shows like Politically Incorrect and Real Time , and now in the documentary feature Religulous (you can enter the Kosher or non-Kosher site). & I'm sure calling the film a documentary will make some people wince, squirm or complain but Religulous is a documentary - just a humorous, provocative, opinionated one.

Maher begins at the spot where it's all supposed to end, the place where God will bring an end to the world. But as Maher points out - through images of war and nuclear weapons - man now has the same power to bring the world to an end. As Maher sums up, "if there's anything I hate more than prophecy, it's self fulfilling prophecy." And so begins Maher quest to find out why people believe in god and religion and have faith in something that Maher feels cannot be proven. Maher adheres to the gospel of "I don't know," and he's fascinated and rather annoyed by people who believe in something that he seems to think is about as credible as Santa Claus.

Religulous (Lionsgate)

Maher explains that he began to question faith and religion early on. He was raised by a Jewish mother (who is interviewed in the film and gives us a clue where Maher got his particular brand of humor) and a Catholic father, but the family - minus mom - only attended the Catholic church. But even that stopped, and Maher's mom suggests it was because of the church's stance on birth control. Maher also shows some of his early stand up routines where, as he puts it, he was poking "gentle" fun at religion.

But now the gloves are off and Maher doesn't hesitate to poke more than gentle humor. Maher is not interested in seeking academics or respected religious leaders. He's not really interested in a high level debate about religion. He's more interested in the fringes because his point is that we are letting these fringe elements have too much control in our social and political world. He points out that atheists make up 16% of the population and that many groups much smaller than that have powerful lobbies in congress, so where, he wonders, is the powerful lobby for this sizable chunk of the U.S. population?

Bill Maher in Religulous (Lionsgate)

The films format works pretty much like this: find people who are willing to talk about their faith, question them, challenge them, and sometimes offend them. Then hop in the car and give a scathing evaluation of their opinions. Does he worry about hurting their feelings? No. But then what would you expect from Maher and Borat Director Larry Charles. Their weapon of choice is humor and they make fun of people and ideas that they see as narrow at best and dangerous at worst. So be prepared for some of the comedy to be offensive.

At one point, though, Maher, does try to make a serious point about how our founding fathers were not fans of Christianity, and that's why they were so cautious about the separation of church and state. This is something that should be more widely taught and understood as we debate the role of religion in politics and in the government. But then Maher is off to the Holy Land Experience in Florida to interview an actor playing Jesus and the humor level kicks back up again.

Religulous (unrated) ends with Maher passionately getting up on his soapbox. He makes a call to action, a call to think because he sees faith masquerading as "a virtue of not thinking." So he urges the audience to think before you vote and "not with arrogant certitude but humble doubt." Religulous turns out to be not only the funniest film of the year so far but also one of the most satisfyingly provocative. It's too bad that it's obvious bias will mean that it is preaching to the converted. You may not agree with Maher's tactics and some of his positions but he deserves credit for forcing some important questions to the forefront as we face a presidential election.

Companion viewing: Inherit the Wind (check out the use of hymns in both films), Roger and Me, Jesus of Montreal

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