TORONTO (Reuters) - You won’t find the word “religulous” in a dictionary but it’s a good bet it will be on protest signs when the documentary of that name, a jab-in-the-eye at Western religion, hits movie theaters in October.
The title melds the words “religious” and “ridiculous” and the film, the brainchild of humorist Bill Maher and “Borat” director Larry Charles, pulls no punches in its attack on organized religions and their cultural impact.
“Just to question why is faith good, I think is a question never contemplated by most people” in the United States, Maher told Reuters at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the documentary debuted this week.
He and Charles said their goals are modest — make people laugh first and generate discussion second — and Maher added the movie culminates his 15 years of poking fun at religion in talk shows “Politically Incorrect” and “Real Time.”
Born to a Jewish mother but raised Catholic, Maher counts himself among a minority of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.
“What I’m constantly saying is I’m preaching the doctrine of ‘I don’t know.’ That’s what I’m selling,” he said.
With Charles behind the camera, Maher questions unsuspecting Christians, Jews and Muslims on their beliefs, at sites ranging from religious theme parks in Florida, to the Vatican and Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, are not addressed, due to the time constraints of a movie and the lack of relevance to U.S. audiences, the filmmakers said.
Particularly grating to the pair is the mixing of religion and politics in the United States. “You can’t get elected in America without having a religious affiliation. And it wasn’t always that way,” says Charles.
Charles uses tactics honed from directing 2006 hit comedy “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” in which comedian Sasha Baron Cohen’s profane Kazakh journalist character asked unsuspecting citizens off-color questions about race, politics and sex.
What emerged from “Borat” was a satirical jab-in-the-ribs to Americans and many of them loved it. The movie rang up $129 million in ticket sales at U.S. and Canadian box offices.
In “Religulous,” Charles obtained consent from would-be subjects before Maher strolled onto the scene and started asking uncomfortable questions.
Scenes are edited to generally leave people looking foolish. But the more revealing moments seem to require little embellishment, such as conversations that show two Vatican priests to be among the most moderate voices in the film.
They profess, for instance, a belief in evolution rather than in the Creation story of Adam and Eve, which many religious and political leaders say they take literally.
The film seems sure to draw criticism from religious groups, particularly during a U.S. presidential race that includes Sarah Palin, Alaska governor and religious conservative, as Republican candidate John McCain’s running mate.
“I think if we can create some sort of debate before the election it may actually help defeat McCain and Palin,” Charles said in a separate Toronto news conference. “Tens of millions of us don’t think a lot about religion either way.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Mohammad Zargham