"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.
Not much chance of a conversation like that with Brother Bill, whose unshakeable grip on certainty protects him well enough from cavils, such as that virtually the whole world is religious in one way or another and so, in his own way is Brother Bill himself: religiously committed to the idea of religion as a nullity, a waste of everybody's valuable time.
The irony here is that Brother Bill's absolutist mind-set reveals to him -- more or less accurately -- the absolutist, profoundly non-humorous, ambitions of extremist Muslims. His tone turns from bumptious to serious when these people come on camera. There is next to no kidding; perhaps, really, none at all. He hypothesizes that those who seek to kill their opponents have one style of interpreting the Koran when mosque doors are closed. For outsiders, he suggests, apologists for extremism spin the sacred texts prettily as instruments of peace. Whether he is exactly right about this or not, we need to hear such things said in order to ponder them.
You take away from "Religulous" the sense that, yes, religion is a combustible mass that bears watching. You take away also the sense that religious people are a bunch of yahoos and brain-dead louts who happen -- just imagine! -- to disagree with Bill Maher. On Brother Bill's invitation, we jeer, we sneer, we laugh, we gibe. Having done so, we -- well, I don't know. What do you do when what you believe is a big fat nothing?