We nonbelievers have a noted tendency to attack each other for any number of things: being too vocal, being too timid, being vocal in the wrong way, the "No True Atheist" fallacy et cetera (my notion has always been that a group of people united only in the philosophical belief that you should not blithely follow what other people say are a people predisposed towards shunning agreement). I should let you know right up front that this review is going to be pretty much that, because although I suppose that on balance I liked the documentary Religulous (that's "re-lidj-you-lus", despite what you might think, you spelling Nazi), I have no interest in giving writer/star Bill Maher and director Larry Charles a free pass on being lousy rhetoricians.

Forgive me, by the way, for the somewhat clumsy way I wedged that in up there - long-time readers know I'm an atheist, but not everyone is a long-time reader - but it's an important thing to note, right? This is a filmic broadside against organised religion we're looking at, and I'd rather be ethical about my biases than pretend that this is just some random documentary comme une autre, when it is instead something altogether more serious: a comic invective against the irrationality of e.g. Christian fundamentalism released to theaters hardly a month before a most historic election in the United States. No sir, high-minded neutrality is quite out of the question.

Besides, the great truth of Religulous - and among the greatest of its failings - is that it is doomed to an entirely self-selected audience. I doubt very much that many people would actually put the time into the film that don't expect to agree with it from the start, and no matter how much Maher obviously desires to change hearts and minds, the best he's going to do is get some fence-sitting agnostics to shore up their freethinking credentials. Frankly, as you are sitting there at your computer reading a review of Religulous, theoretically of your own free will and desire, I would wager a guess that you are yourself are probably something of a nonbeliever.

So with all these nonbelievers and atheists and freethinkers bobbing about in the audience, the one question that really doesn't need addressing is "Is Religulous offensive?" given that none of us will probably be offended by the very concept that religion is a wrong thing. Although given the atheists I've known who've managed to get offended at the very smart and talented Richard Dawkins, it wouldn't do to make any assumptions like that. The important question is rather, "Is Religulous funny?" and that hasn't got a clear-cut answer. Basically, it is, although much of the humor is extraordinarily cheap and obvious.

The core of the project: Maher and a camera crew would travel the world, interviewing people of faith and nonbelievers, and try to answer the burning question of why obviously intelligent, educated people would happily believe things that cannot possibly be true (such as dating the Earth's creation to 4000 BCE, to take the least-controversial of all the topics Maher addresses). In theory, one might hope this would mean a visit to the best and brightest theologians and freethinkers, as well as a spin through the vast fields of religious moderates to be found in every faith. That would have been an intellectually honest and fair thing to do. It would have also been tremendously unfunny, which is why Maher instead takes dead aim at the lowest-hanging fruit: the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky, an outstandingly tacky Jesus theme park in Orlando,* crappy Mormon cartoons, an anti-Zionist rabbi. Look, I laughed. I'm not going to be so high-minded as to deny that. But it's like laughing at fart joke - intelligence doesn't enter into it.

Still, there are moments that really do work: Maher's interview with Arkansas's Democractic U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, an evangelical Christian who rather weakly tries to dodge Maher's questions about the End Times and creationism, finally trying to win a point with a soundbite that probably ranks among the most ill-considered things ever spoken by a member of the United States government; Maher's visit with a Catholic priest at the Vatican (where Maher and the camera crew have just been thrown out), who very cheerfully agrees that virtually all of his church's dogma is made-up horseshit, and yes it bothers him something awful, but people are going to believe silly crap no matter what you do.

And there are moments that don't work at all: like the sometimes amusing, frequently belligerent Christopher Hitchens, Maher has often been guilty of letting his anti-religiosity serve as a cover for blatant Islamophobia, and while his treatments of Christianity, Mormonism, and Judaism tend towards the "man, these fuckers are crazy!" end of things, his interviews with Muslims feel a bit more "man, these fuckers are evil!" Agree or disagree, it's imbalanced, though to the film's credit, about the same time that the Muslim-baiting begins in earnest, it starts to recycle footage to prove that fundamentalist Christianity is just as anti-Semitic, in its own weird way, as fundamentalist Islam (it's because there must be a stable Jewish state before the End Times can begin. Seriously).

But mostly, the film just revs along, shooting for the atheistic lowest common denominator. All in all, I'd be inclined to blame Larry Charles for the worst of the film's offenses; though I'm no fan of Maher's weekly Real Time on HBO, it has an entirely different tone and intelligence level than Religulous, which often feels like a much less successful retread of the director's Borat, and sometimes just like shitty comedy (in particular, the use of ironic subtitles veers perilously from brilliant to groan-worthy).

Whatever Maher's intentions were, I don't think he met them. Not completely. The film suffers from a lack of arguments that any plugged-in heathen hasn't encountered over and over again, and it's much too snarky and combative to possibly appeal to any theist with more than the very weakest commitment to their religion. It is marred by more than a few obviously doctored interviews (reaction shots that have been edited for their comic timing, and not because any real person in history has ever reacted that way), by an ending that jumps the Good Ship Funny for a very serious & sincere harangue about how dangerous religion is in a post-Enlightenment, post-nuclear world (and hey, no argument from me, so far as that goes...), and perhaps most of all, by the thing that always has wrecked Maher's rationalist satire, the knowledge that the man himself is prone to bigotry and irrationality. You want to make a film praising clear-headed thought, you'd damn well better explain why you oppose vaccinations, sir.

But! I laughed. I laughed a goddamn lot. I'm not proud, but you can't make argue against funny.