In his office at CBS-TV studios in Hollywood, Bill Maher is busy being Bill Maher. “You’ll never get rid of Christianity in this country because it will reinvent itself, as it always has. Every generation does a Superman movie, every generation does Hamlet, and they do it in a new and different way. Because that’s what a myth is: a living, breathing, mutating thing. So that central bit of, ‘There was a God, he had a son and he died for your sins’? I mean that’s just an entitlement program that no one wants to give up! Why would you? ‘Oh, he died for my sins? That’s fantastic — why, of course I love him! So I can keep sinning now, because he died for me!’”
Somewhere along the way, this half-Catholic, half-Jewish, wholly non-observant stand-up comedian has turned into one of the most visible, vocal atheists in America. He is a ruder, less intellectual, far more foul-mouthed and much funnier teammate of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. This week sees the release of Maher’s own atheist manifesto, the effervescent and provocative documentary feature film Religulous.
Directed by Larry Charles, the former Seinfeld writer who brought us Borat’s cinematic provocations, Religulous is atheism and rationalism washed down with a spoonful of acidic comedy. Maher has traveled the US and the Middle East confronting the craziest and sanest devout figures he can find, inserting himself into situations where religion and ridiculousness naturally and unabashedly band together.
Here he is at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, debating with the handsome actor who plays Jesus in the themepark’s
re-enactments of the Passion, all beneath the local airport’s noisily anachro-
nistic flight path. Or in a converted lorry functioning as a church at a southern truck stop, berating increasingly angry blue-collar worshippers for their credulity. Here he is meeting Pastor John Westcott, an “ex-gay” preacher who insists that, “nobody’s born gay.” Elsewhere a cast of humourless halfwits, minatory prophets, ex-Jews-for-Jesus, homophobic closet queens, and, of course, doubters, are intercut with scenes from every overblown religious epic you have ever seen.
In Europe, one suspects, all this is less controversial than in the US, where just getting to see the movie could be difficult. “It simply wasn’t available in many areas,” says Maher. “I’ve likened it to getting an abortion. People complain all the time that if you want to get an abortion in America, often you have to drive 300 miles [483km] — same with Religulous.”
And yet a recent census found that the fastest-growing “religious minority” is non-believers. Not to mention that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have all topped the bestseller lists. “Yes. 1990: 7 percent of Americans had no religious affiliation; and then the most recent census reported a doubling of that number. But does it level off — or does it grow? And three writers — yes, the more voices we have, the better. But we’re looking for a tipping point and America’s still very far away from that. Before that happens, or doesn’t, rationalism needs to become something ‘cool.’ We need to tell people who believe in mythical space gods, ‘Dude, you are so old-school 20th century!’”
THE PATH TO REDEMPTION
Maher made the biggest splash of his career early in the 21st century, when he was fired by ABC-TV from his round-table show, Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher, for saying of the Sept. 11 hijackers, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles [3,218km] away. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building? Say what you like about it, it’s not cowardly.” As he often asks, “Why was I the only person to lose his job after Sept. 11?” Plenty sympathized with Maher, though, including the Home Box Office channel, which offered him a weekly show featuring guests of his own choosing. Real Time With Bill Maher has since become one of the essential stops for politicians making a name or running for national office, and its eclectic roster of guests offers a lively spectrum of political opinions that puts the cable-news gabfests to shame.