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In God’s Country

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Religulous may not win many converts, but it poses an age-old question in simple, teasing terms: What if the fundamental tenets of Christianity, Judaism and Islam amount to nothing more than artful fiction? It’s a question those of great faith might be loath to consider, but it’s hard to fault comedian and professed agnostic Bill Maher for asking.

For those familiar with “Real Time", Maher’s late-night HBO talk show, his pointed attacks on organized religion (and the Catholic church in particular) are nothing new. Despite his own upbringing – he was born to a Jewish mother but raised Catholic – Maher has often expressed bewilderment with guests who cling to their faith. Could any true adult, much less a purported intellectual, really believe that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale? Maher thinks not.

Maher takes his show on the road with Religulous, venturing into Red State territory to chat up a roadside congregation in Raleigh, N.C., where one true believer takes a less than Christian view of the comedian’s questions. From there, he and Borat director Larry Charles visit the Holy Land theme park in Orlando, Fla., to interrogate Jesus Himself, and then head south to Miami, where the leader of the Growing in Grace ministry explains calmly and in no uncertain terms that he (or should that be He?) is the Messiah reincarnate.

While Maher has irked defenders of the faith worldwide with his caustic commentary on “Real Time,” Religulous finds him in kinder, gentler mode, posing innocent-seeming questions and standing by with a friendly smile as his subjects contradict themselves or worse. Asked to explain how elected officials can dispute the theory of evolution and still claim themselves competent to lead, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas responds that it doesn’t take a high I.Q. to make it in Washington.

Maher doesn’t claim his approach is fair and balanced, or at least he shouldn’t -- he spends most of his energy poking holes in Christian doctrine. It takes him roughly 10 minutes to dispatch Mormonism and the Church of Scientology -- all the time he needs, really – before turning his attention to Muslim fundamentalist violence abroad and an anti-Zionist rabbi in upstate New York who seems to condone future attacks on Israel. (Hinduism and Buddhism escape his scrutiny altogether.)

If Maher’s deconstructions of Judaism and Islam seem less thorough than his guns-blazing assault on Christianity, well, they are. Regardless, his Michael Moore-style ambushes, though staged with less panache than the master’s, are clever and often laugh-out-loud funny, even if his targets tend to be kooks and dimwits rather than serious theologians. That Maher ends with a fire-and-brimstone speech about religion leading, ironically, to the end of days seems a bit heavy-handed -- but give Religulous credit for urging a measure of doubt in an age of false and belligerent certainty.