Sure, Bill Maher can mock religion, but its hardly blessed art

The good news about “Religulous,” Bill Maher’s profoundly skeptical and generally amusing pseudo-documentary about faith and religion, is that Jews get off easy.

It helps, of course, that we don’t wage wars in God’s name, undermine the separation of government and religion enshrined by the Founding Fathers or raise millions over the airwaves for God’s work. At least not on the scale of Christians.

And as much as the Old Testament occasionally stretches credulity — Maher makes fun of Jonah and the “big fish,” and the story of Eve and the snake — it reads like a financial statement compared to the official origin mythologies of the Mormons or Scientologists.

(You may balk at including the latter group alongside major recognized religions, but Maher doesn’t draw the line. His overriding theme is that all organized religion is a load of hogwash, typically served with a chaser of hypocrisy.)

The bad news is that “Religulous” is so intent on highlighting “irrational beliefs” and taking cheap shots for the sake of a few laughs (and Maher’s ego) that it blows a golden opportunity to do something of real value. Namely, challenge viewers to examine their own faith.

“Religulous” opens Friday, Sept. 26, in a few theaters around the Bay Area, before wide release in a week.

The movie is framed, at least initially, as Maher’s search for answers to questions that have bothered him since he was a boy. His mother is Jewish and his father was Catholic, and he was raised in the Church. But he has never come close to reconciling articles of faith with science, logic and common sense.

He has never trusted people who are both dead certain and resolutely unquestioning of something that he’s adamant cannot be proven, namely the existence of God.

Maher has fun tweaking the rabbis at the Institute for Science and Halacha in Israel, who specialize in making mechanical devices that, thanks to a loophole in the Tanach, can be used on Shabbat to dial a telephone or propel a wheelchair.

Our guide also enjoys giving a little screen time to Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Monsey, N.Y., a motor-mouth Orthodox Jew who does not recognize Israel because a Jewish state can only be brought into existence when the Messiah arrives.

There are countless theologians and religious leaders of all faiths, of course, who can debate thoughtfully and illuminatingly. For some reason, Maher rarely meets those people, or anyone able to reconcile faith and evolution, or articulate their beliefs in an effective, moving way.

After enough of this, we catch on that “Religulous” isn’t really an entertaining quest for real answers to important questions. It’s a stacked deck, propelled by Maher’s glibness and, sad to say, smugness.

Sure, there’s a kind of pleasure in watching Maher expose the people he despises above all, the shysters who prey on the gullible and the poor. Religion, he declares, “is selling an invisible product. It’s too easy.”

He revels in making Jeremiah Cummings, the founder and pastor of Amazing Life World Outreach in Raleigh, N.C., and onetime member of the singing group Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, look greedy and ridiculous.

But, as Maher essentially acknowledges in his pedantic assault of a monologue that ends the film, it’s a pyrrhic victory in an age of born-again presidents, suicide bombers, and jihads against novelists and cartoonists.

“Religulous” opens today at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, the California Theatre in Berkeley and the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.