With one of the key men behind Borat and Curb Your Enthusiasm calling the shots, it should come as no surprise that Religulous is edgy and thought-provoking satire.

Stand-up comic Bill Maher has a bee in his bonnet about organised religion – and Religulous sees him getting it off his chest. Like Borat, Religulous attempts to use comedy to challenge and poke fun at society’s social conditioning and attitudes, but here Maher is hunting big game.

Convinced that organised religion is massively flawed and founded on fables of immense ridiculousness, Maher goes off on a global mission to show how man’s dedication to religion is screwing up the planet. From Christians to Muslims via Mormons and plenty in between, nobody escapes Maher’s ire.

Butting heads with everyone from devout truckers to religious figures, Maher meets them all - and proceeds to tear strips off them. Devoid of the crazed subversion of Sacha Baron Cohen, Maher’s project ends up more like a Louis Theroux effort, where he seeks out the freaks and oddballs for weighty chuckles. But while Theroux uses himself as bait to draw out the craziness in others, Maher favours brazen leg-pulling and ridicule.

Understandably unshakable in his belief that TV evangelists and Scientologists are nuts, and that biblical stories don’t stand up to the rigours of logic and science, Maher takes on anyone who favours doctrine over common sense. He does hit the bullseye often enough, as where he effortlessly allows a soul singer-come-preacher to expose how little he knows about his own religion.

Maher certainly takes a bold approach, and he tackles the difficulties created by religion in a world post-9/11, but despite the worthiness of his cause, the entire affair is hampered by Maher himself. Far too convinced of his own beliefs on the subject and his resultant moral superiority, the only reasoned discussion takes place with those who already agree with him, while everyone else is virtually bullied and mocked into submission.

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And maybe I’ve missed something, but the idea that the improbable stories in the bible that he’s mocking may meant to be allegorical seemingly never occurs to him, which kind of undermines much of his argument.

That, plus ignoring more humanistic religions like Buddhism, and deciding not to pick a fight with the aggressively litigious Church of Scientology mean that Maher’s entire approach the documentary is limited in scope and weakened as a result.

Intriguing and brave as an idea, Maher’s dictatorial approach sadly means Religulous is instead an ineffective smug-fest.

Starring: Bill Maher
Directed by: Larry Charles

Extras: Trailer

Sections TV