DALLAS (Reuters) - In Bill Maher's new film "Religulous," the comedian says he wants his fellow non-believers to "come out of the closet" to counter what he views as religion's dangerous influence on the world.
Judging from reviews and audience reaction in some U.S. theaters this past weekend, it may be that all Maher has done with the movie that skewers Christianity, Islam and Judaism is preached to his own choir.
"Because (Maher) wants to be amusing above all else, he takes his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to the assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion just as they do the fringes of atheism," said the LA Times in a review of the film.
"The humor he creates at their expense proves nothing except that dealing from a stacked deck benefits no one but the dealer," the Times said.
The movie, which opened to $3.4 million in ticket sales in about 500 theaters this past weekend, found resonance among the Maher's converted even if it made some believers see red.
At a theater in a suburb north of Dallas Friday evening, the audience erupted into applause when the credits began rolling -- a rare occurrence.
"It was funny but it had a lot of depth and I'm a skeptic," said 23-year-old computer tech Ryan Karakani, who is of Persian descent but who said his grandfather was an Anglican minister.
In Phoenix, an opening-day audience hooted and chortled throughout the film's 101 minute run time, and several viewers said afterward that they found it by turns funny, edifying and something of a consolation.
For human resources director Tracy Ewens, who described herself as "spiritual but not religious," the film "showed what's absurd about the mainstream religions."
"It is very important for Americans to see quite how enmeshed we are in it. We are supposed to be the new country, the innovators, and it seems we're just going backwards."
But others have not been as amused with Maher's surprise questioning of an actor playing Jesus at a Florida Christian theme park, an anti-Zionist rabbi and an Arkansas politician who questions evolution.
Several of his targets are clearly from the fringes of religious life, such as a preacher from Puerto Rico who claims to be an incarnation of Jesus Christ.
"Plugged In," the online entertainment critic arm of the conservative evangelical advocacy group "Focus on the Family," said such easy prey was "like shootin' fish in a barrel." Some of the scenes were clearly edited to make folks look foolish.
In an interview last month at the Toronto International Film Festival where the movie debuted, the film's director Larry Charles said conducting a serious examination of religious issues was not the filmmakers' main intent.
"Our main criteria was to make the movie funny, and funny transcends most beliefs. If we get the audience laughing, that means we've accomplished our goals," he said.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix)
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte