Bill Maher vs. the "talking snake"

The HBO host and comedian talks about "Religulous," his onslaught against the religious idiocy that threatens to deliver America to Sarah Palin and her fellow "space god" worshipers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 2, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Bill Maher outside the Vatican City in "Religulous."

What if there was a religion, asks comedian Bill Maher, in which an all-powerful god from outer space decided to send his unborn son on a suicide mission to planet Earth? So this space-god impregnates a human female in some mystical, not-quite-physical fashion, and she gives birth to a baby who is both a human being and a divine incarnation, simultaneously the space god's spawn and the space god himself. (Oh, space god also has a third manifestation, one that's totally invisible.) So space-god junior is born on Earth destined to be killed, even though he's a space god and therefore immortal.

As you've picked up by now, the religion Maher is describing is not imaginary, and in various forms and guises is professed by most people in the United States, including every president we've ever had or are likely to have in the foreseeable future. (I'm sorry, that's right -- one of this year's candidates is a Muslim.) In the acerbic late-night talk-show host's new movie "Religulous," made with "Borat" director Larry Charles, Maher keeps bludgeoning you with stories like these to make the point that the central story behind mainstream Christianity, when considered at face value and taken literally, sounds every bit as loony as the oft-derided tenets of Mormonism or Scientology.

As in his TV work, Maher is best as a wry, outrageous commentator on the idiocy and hypocrisy of the world around him, a sourpuss Will Rogers who'll say things others are thinking. When he meets John Westcott, a Florida pastor and leader of the "ex-gay" Christian evangelical movement, Maher blurts out the obvious: Westcott is a neatly attired, well-groomed, handsome and athletic fellow who would immediately be hit upon by every gay guy in any bar of any major American city. (After they embrace at the end of the interview, Maher says: "Whoa! That wasn't a hard-on, was it?") Later, when interviewing the only two patrons he finds in a Muslim-oriented gay bar in Amsterdam, Maher says: "Well, I hope you guys find each other attractive, because otherwise ..."

In this Borat-meets-Michael Moore world tour of religious extremism, which encompasses Jerusalem, the London Underground, the Hague, an African-American megachurch in North Carolina and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish village in suburban New York, Maher is pretty good at making boobs and fanatics look like boobs and fanatics. He reveals Miami minister José Luis de Jesús Miranda, who has claimed to be both Jesus Christ and the antichrist, as an anti-Semitic moron, and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a middle-of-the-road Arkansas Democrat, as a garden-variety American moron who refuses to commit to believing in either evolution or creationism. (As Pryor himself says, you don't have to pass an I.Q. test to be a senator.)

Maher is kicked out of the Vatican in Rome and the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and prayed for by the worshipers at the Truckers' Chapel in Raleigh, N.C. He avoids eviction at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla., and spends quite a bit of time with the park's Jesus impersonator, a slick bastard who stays with him quip for quip. He himself walks out on Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist Jew who attended Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's so-called Holocaust conference, and pretty much refuses to let British Islamic rapper Aki Nawaz (aka Propa-Gandhi) get a word in edgewise.

Himself raised in a mixed Jewish-Catholic family in suburban New Jersey, Maher has long used religion as a comic target. He used to riff on his family background, joking that the Jewish side compelled him to bring a lawyer into the confession box. ("Bless me, father, for I have sinned. I believe you know Mr. Cohen.") As he once observed during a discussion on "Real Time With Bill Maher," his HBO talk show, he objects to religion "because it makes people do stupid shit." He gets no argument from me on that point, and to the extent that "Religulous" is meant to bemoan the auto-lobotomized mandatory Christianity of American public life (I'd include such honorary Christians as Joe Lieberman), and to encourage atheists, agnostics and other doubters to come out of the closet and claim their share of the debate, it's performing a genuine social mitzvah.

As Maher observes, some 16 percent of the American public claims no religious affiliation, which makes the nonreligious minority a larger group than African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jews, Muslims or gays and lesbians. Yet those groups are recognized as legitimate stakeholders in American society, while nonbelievers pretty much are not. (As Maher says in our interview, he doesn't call himself either an atheist or an agnostic, although the latter term seems to fit.)

It's also arguably true that the most extreme and ludicrous forms of religion have been on the rise, or have at least become understood as normal and respectable. To have a major-party vice-presidential nominee who apparently believes in a literal-minded understanding of Scripture rather than in modern science would not, once upon a time, have been deemed acceptable. (Even three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, although claimed as a hero and role model by modern fundamentalist Christians, did not remotely believe that the Earth was created in six literal days a few thousand years ago.)

But as I gently tried to suggest to Maher during our recent phone call, his scattershot and ad hominem attacks against many different forms of religious hypocrisy don't add up to a coherent critique, and he's not qualified to provide one. Any serious theologian from the mainstream Christian or Jewish traditions would have eaten his lunch for him, and that's why we don't see anybody like that in this film for more than a second or two. During their brief appearances, for instance, Vatican Latinist Reginald Foster and astronomer George Coyne, who are both Roman Catholic priests, make it clear that contemporary Catholic theology resists literal readings of Scripture and is not in the least antiscientific. You can find liberal Christians who will argue that the resurrection of Jesus was somewhere between a con game and a dream sequence, and numerous Jews who treat the Torah as legendary material and God as a distant hypothesis.

It's perfectly legitimate to argue that all such people are putting lipstick on a pig, to coin a phrase -- that they're apologizing for a ruinous and ridiculous body of mythological literature whose influence on human history has been overwhelmingly negative. But Maher's idiots-of-all-nations anthology in "Religulous" doesn't even try to make that case; it's as if he doesn't even know that religion has centuries' worth of high-powered intellection on its side, whether you buy any of it or not. Maher and Charles' film also doesn't engage the value of religious narrative in moral or existential terms, nor does it even try to address the ubiquitous nature of supernatural and spiritual experience in human life.

Instead, like most of Maher's comedy, it's a scabrous, irreverent, hit-and-miss broadside against a society mired in pathological stupidity and mesmerized by faith in a "talking snake." That'll have to do for now. I spoke to Maher by telephone on Tuesday, just before "Religulous" was set to open in New York theaters.

Bill, you're a busy guy right now. You've got a movie and an HBO talk show to promote, and an election and a financial crisis to make fun of. But I wonder whether the current economic situation really lends itself to comedy.

Well, it is funny, if you can laugh through your tears. You've got to make fun of everything, and this is certainly something people are aware of and talking about. I try to talk about it in a kitchen-table way, but one of the difficult things about it is that nobody really understands it.

You know, we've been asked to trust Secretary Paulson. Now I don't know this man, and maybe he's brilliant. What I know about him is that he's a Bush appointee, like Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Miers and Cheney. What I know about him is that he worked for Goldman Sachs, who are part of the problem. And I know that he was on his knees in the Oval Office recently. Maybe he was looking for change under the couch, but I don't think so.

Like everybody else, I guess, I don't quite know what to think. On one level, I understand that Congress was being irresponsible in shooting down the bailout the other day. On the other hand, doesn't everybody want to see those rich bastards get what's coming to them?

I guess the problem is, it's cutting off your nose to spite your face. You get the rich bastards, but our 401K plans are on Wall Street, that's our retirement money. It's all mixed together, and that's the problem.

The root problem, I think, is that Americans stopped making stuff. We used to make cars, houses, furniture. We were a manufacturing country. Now we just push numbers around on a computer screen. It's all about debt and margins and short-selling. Eventually that house of cards is going to come down. You find third-world countries and other nations doing better than us. The Chinese actually make things. OK, they make DVD players full of poisonous materials, lead and mercury, but at least they're making something. We've become a small-print economy. Not even a service economy, a small-print economy.

And, you know, we're such a religious country, at least supposedly. But charging interest is specifically forbidden by the Old Testament.

Right. Don't banks in Islamic countries actually obey that prohibition? Or at least find imaginative ways around it?

That's true. As usual with the Muslims compared to us, we pretend to be religious and don't really follow it. They actually walk the walk and talk the talk. Which of course is not a good thing when it leads to beheading homosexuals. We don't do that, we just dis them with Pat Robertson. But yes -- Muslim banks do not charge interest. They find other ways of making money; it's more about sharing with the customer.

I guess that brings us to the topic of "Religulous," which I read as this effort to get agnostics and atheists out of the closet in American society.

That's certainly one of the goals. I don't use the word "atheist" about myself, because I think it mirrors the certitude I'm so opposed to in religion. What I say in the film is that I don't know. I don't know what happens when you die, and all the religious people who claim they do know are being ridiculous. I know that they don't know any more than I do. They do not have special powers that I don't possess. When they speak about the afterlife with such certainty and so many specifics, it just makes me laugh.

People can tell you, "Oh yes, when you get to Paradise there are 72 virgins, not 70, not 75." Or they say, "Jesus will be there sitting at the right hand of the Father, wearing a white robe with red piping. There will be three angels playing trumpets." Well, how do you know this? It's just so preposterous. So, yes, I would like to say to the atheists and agnostics, the people who I call rationalists, let's stop ceding the moral high ground to the people who believe in the talking snake. Let's have our voices heard and be in the debate. Let's stand up and say we're not ready to let the country be given over to the Sarah Palins of the world.

It seems like your major target in this movie are the religious extremists, those who belong to the fundamentalist camps of various different religions.

That's not really true, that's not really true. I mean, take Sen. Pryor -- I don't think he'd consider himself a fundamentalist. I think he's like a majority of Americans. I mean, 60 percent of Americans believe the Noah's ark story to be literally true. To me, that's mainstream. When people say, "You're going after extremists," I say, well, to be religious at all is to be an extremist. It's to be extremely irrational. Not that everybody believes in Noah's ark, or the guy who lived to be 900 years old. But even to believe the central story of Christianity -- a lot of people would say, "I'm not like those kooks out in Kansas who believe the Earth is 5,000 years old. But I do believe God has a son, who he sent down to earth on a suicide mission, and he said, 'Hey, Jesus, I'm sending you on this suicide mission, but don't worry, they can't kill you because you're really me.' I, God the father -- wink, wink -- let's split up the work! OK? Because there's two of us, but not really! I'll go down to Earth first and I'll see if I can't impregnate a Palestinian woman so she can give birth to you." It's just as silly a story. We're just used to it.

Right, well, it's pretty funny when you argue that that story is every bit as ridiculous as the space-alien gods and billion-year-old beings and volcanoes of Scientology. But you could find liberal theologians, sophisticated intellectuals, who are not fundamentalists and who could argue their way out of any corner you try to paint them into.

I disagree again. This is the idea that people have in their heads, that somehow you can have a person who sounds very rational and can hold his own in a conversation about whether religion is silly or not. And I just disagree with that premise. If you're defending the story I just described, you are going to come out sounding ridiculous no matter who you are and no matter how intelligent you are. We interviewed Francis Collins in the film. He's the man who mapped the human genome, he's a brilliant scientist. But he says some pretty cuckoo things, some things that are just factually wrong and make him look foolish.

I said, "We don't even know for sure whether Jesus lived," and he said, "We have eyewitness accounts." I said, "No, every scholar agrees that the gospels were written from 40 to 70 years after Jesus died." And he said, "Well, that's close." That's close to an eyewitness account? Forty years after somebody dies, 2,000 years ago? This idea that there's somebody out there who can make a case for this and make it sound reasonable, that just doesn't exist.

Well, you've got these two Vatican priests in the film, and one of them, Reginald Foster, is this very funny guy who is totally not defending the most ridiculous aspects of Christianity.

He's actually debunking them! Here's a guy who lives down the hall from the pope. We saw where the pope lives. And he's just saying, "Ah, they're all just stories." It gave us a real insight that perhaps some of these people who are in the hierarchies of the religions -- they don't really believe it. But they understand that you can't tear it all down for the common man, that people need their stories. It's just amazing that he would say it to me publicly, and on camera.

Well, that raises a philosophical question, which maybe a 100-minute comedy film can't deal with. Do these stories serve a purpose in human life that isn't entirely negative, even if it's foolish to take them at face value? It seems to me you're arguing that they don't.

That's a good question, and of course no one can argue that religion hasn't done some good. Even in the world today, the Catholic Church certainly organizes a lot of antipoverty programs. It feeds the poor, runs soup kitchens, and so forth. I would argue that all that can be accomplished without the bells and whistles of religion. People behave ethically all the time without relying on myths. And I would argue that when you bring religion into it, yes, the comfort that religion brings comes at a terrible price. Probably the majority of wars in our history have been fought over religion.

Of course we're now involved in Iraq, and the main reason that conflict has been so difficult to solve is that there are two sects of Islam who have a disagreement about who succeeded the prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. This is the reason they're ethnically cleansing each other! Not to mention the Crusades and, you know, keeping women in their place and the repression of minorities and exorcism and burning witches and honor killings and suicide bombings and having sex with children. I mean, I could go on. Does religion have a place? Yeah, you kind of have to balance that against all the bad it does.

You deal with Christianity and Judaism, and toward the end of the film you wrestle with Islam a little bit. But there's no mention of Hinduism or Buddhism -- a religion that allows for considerable doubt and isn't so sure about the existence of God, for example.

We made the decision early on that in a 90-minute movie we weren't going to be able to delve into the Eastern religions. First of all, Americans -- and I'm one of them -- don't know that much about them. We don't have that intimate lifelong relationship with them, the way we do with Judaism and Christianity and, in recent years, with Islam. We go into Mormonism and Scientology, but people know a little about them because this is America. If we were going to go into Shintoism and Buddhism and Hinduism, that's another movie, and one I'm not going to make.

You've been pretty consistent on TV and in your stand-up routines in criticizing Islam, in arguing that the religion and its followers really have a problem they don't seem to be dealing with. You go after Islam again in this film, and you aren't especially delicate about it.

No, you can't be. You can't pull your punches, and you wouldn't be respected if you did. We show a little of the Theo van Gogh film ["Submission," which apparently led to the Dutch filmmaker's murder by an Islamic radical], which is pretty rough stuff. You see that woman with her face all beat up, saying, "This is what my husband does to me in the name of his religion." And we talk to a number of Muslim people and you hear me saying that I think when they talk amongst each other they're more honest about the predicament of their religion, but they won't say it to a stranger. I'm sure some of this is going to ruffle feathers, but you know what? The Christians don't love what we say about them either.

You've been called anti-Muslim from time to time. How careful are you, do you think, about raising criticisms that don't cross the line into prejudice and stereotype?

I don't think I'm involved with prejudice. Prejudice comes from the words "pre" and "judge," and I don't think I'm prejudging. I'm judging. I reserve the right to make judgments. We all have to make judgments.

"Religulous" is now playing in New York, and opens Oct. 3 in major cities around the country.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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