"Grow up or die," Bill Maher admonishes viewers at the end of "Religulous," which is kind of an odd statement for a guy to make on wrapping up a cinematic assault on religion: mocking, jesting, wise-guying to beat the band.
But we've only just found out at this point where the movie was going all along. Past the staged crucifixion at Orlando, Fla.'s, Holy Land theme park; past the entrepreneurial rabbi with the technological rationales for getting past Sabbath restrictions; past the zingers at fundamentalists and end-timers and the momentary bemusements of well-meaning believers unsure what the guy could be getting at in his frontal assault on belief. Past all this, Brother Bill brushes on the way to affirming the destructive equivalence of all religions.
He's got the notion, from talking to Muslim spokesmen, and pointing to acts of Muslim terrorism, that attachment to the supernatural dimension of life leads to bigotry at best, war at worst. It's the modern style you know -- fire both barrels, take no prisoners, disclaim interest in nuances, laugh your opponent out of the room.
Brother Bill seems to be one of these ex-Catholics -- he quit the church at 13 -- who never got over Sister Intractable ruler raps on his young knuckles. He has no faith in Faith, no belief in Belief. As for those who actually do -- hmmpphf! Dr. Frances Collins, the Nobel laureate and Christian, gets only seconds to defend in scientific terms the truth of Christianity. The head of the Vatican Observatory is there merely to affirm evolutionary theory (quoting Pope John Paul II), with no corresponding chance to suggest that God might, you know, be at the bottom and the top of the whole thing.
On and on with the Dutchman who runs a church -- I guess it's a church -- that affirms the beneficent effects of cannabis. Oooohhh, those bad Mormons run Maher and crew off when they try to film in front of the Salt Lake City temple. "Talking to a burning bush" -- it's "kind of cuckoo," man.
Yawn. The atheist/agnostic/unbeliever game has such long white whiskers that it's hard to get worked up when a new player -- howsoever gifted, like Maher, in the arts of entertainment -- reports and suits up. The Catholic philosopher, Michael Novak, in a fine new book ("No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Unbelievers") calls atheism "a leap in the dark" and urges "prolonged, intelligent and respectful conversation" among humans who differ on the eternal questions.