Religulous: Borat-style satire on faith causes outrage

British release for controversial US movie will increase friction between atheists and believers

A Borat-style documentary lampooning the world's religions through interviews with their leaders is to open in Britain next week – and, if the US experience is anything to go, it is certain to spark controversy.

Religulous – the title is a provocative combination of "religion" and "ridiculous" – caused outrage across the Atlantic, with Catholics complaining they were the main target of the film, directed by Larry Charles. He also directed Borat, the satire on US mores starring Sacha Baron Cohen as the Kazakhstan reporter. The American comedian and satirist Bill Maher takes the Cohen role.

Maher has said that while the film was meant to be funny, it wasn't just meant to poke fun at religion, but demolish it. "I was raised a Catholic," he said, "but by the time I became an adult, scientific thought and rational evidence led me to believe otherwise. You know, when I was a kid and got a cavity, I had mercury drilled into my teeth. Then, when I got older, they drilled it out – and you can do the same with religion."

The film opens shortly after the Pope was condemned for suggesting condoms "aggravate the problem" of Aids, causing a frantic Vatican damage-limitation exercise.

Emboldened atheists have run slogans on the side of buses proclaiming "There is probably no God" – and a campaign by Christians to undermine that attracted record numbers of complaints last week to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Catholics are also under attack from peers and MPs, who are attempting to block plans to elevate Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, to the House of Lords. The move comes after reports that the cardinal may be offered a place in the Lords when he retires from his post as Archbishop of Westminster this year.

Opponents said the proposal to give the cardinal a peerage should be scrapped because of allegations that he "turned a blind eye" to paedophile priests when he was a bishop.

The philosopher AC Grayling, a professor at Birkbeck College in London, says the attacks on religion, especially Christianity, are a secular response to the increased religious "noise" since 9/11.

"There has been an amplification of noise from different religions since 9/11," he said. "And we are seeing a reaction from atheists. They are standing up and being counted because they don't like it. Throughout the world religious observation is diminishing. But after 9/11 the Muslim world had a higher profile and the other religions felt they needed to be as loud. The atheists are saying 'shut up'. What we are seeing is religion under pressure and being defeated.

"I'm tremendously looking forward to seeing Religulous. It comes in the same week that the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, made up of 57 Islamic countries, is trying to include a resolution into the United Nations Human Rights Committee to outlaw the defamation of religion."

Jonny Baker, who works for the Church Mission Society, which has been bringing missionaries from Africa to Britain for 20 years, said the film was just as intolerant as the religions it lampoons. "I saw it in America, and ironically it ended up being very fundamentalist," he said. "Bill Maher was just ranting to the camera, and that undermined the whole point of the film. There is a feeling in Africa that we are godless in the West and they'll come here and help us... Faith is important and transformative. People are interested in more in life than just shopping."

Pope Benedict XVI

Already in trouble for lifting the excommunication of a bishop who denied the Holocaust, the pontiff caused global outrage last week when he suggested on a trip to Africa not only that Aids 'cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms' but that they 'even aggravate the problems'.

The cardinal

MPs and peers are aghast at the prospect of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, being elevated to the House of Lords. They cite allegations that he 'turned a blind eye' to paedophile priests when he was a bishop.

'Religulous'

Larry Charles, the director of Borat, turns his cameras on religion, with the US satirist Bill Maher taking the Sacha Baron Cohen role of asking the world's religious leaders impertinent questions – often after fooling them into agreeing to be quizzed.

Atheist bus

The British Humanist Association raised £100,000 in four days to pay for a slogan on 800 buses across the country that read: 'There's probably no God'. The Advertising Standards Authority received more than 1,000 complaints when a Christian group responded with a slogan proclaiming there is a God.

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