The Richard Dawkins of Hollywood
By JOHN PATTERSON
Added: Tue, 31 Mar 2009 23:00:00 UTC
Thanks to LWS for the link.
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 programme 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. Next 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 travelled 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 anachronistic 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". ("Oh really," rejoins Maher, "have you ever met Little Richard?") 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 (my favourite is a switch from some unassailably rational argument to a sepia Jesus getting brutally knocked out by a Roman legionary).
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 - 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% 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!'"
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 9/11 hijackers, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles 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 9/11?" Plenty sympathised with Maher, though, including HBO, 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.
It has provided YouTube with endless instances of toothsome telly: regular guest Christopher Hitchens giving a hostile audience his rigid middle digit; clueless rightwingers subjected to deafening boos from Maher and fellow guests (Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth, Bush speechwriter David Frum - your medicine is ready!); or Maher himself wading furiously into the audience to eject an invading horde of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. His panelists have included comics such as Roseanne Barr, Robin Williams and Sarah Silverman, novelists (Salman Rushdie), anti-globalisation activists (Naomi Klein), political gadflies (Arianna Huffington), rappers (Mos Def, Will.I.Am), and actors from Kevin Costner (dim) to Ben Affleck (sharp as a tack). The combinations can light a fire or fizzle like a damp squib - either way the show is unmissable.
Maher calls himself, broadly, a "libertarian" but veers mainly left, despite being pro-death penalty, staunch for Israel, and, by his own admission, pretty weird about what he eats. He's also an unabashed pothead, a single bachelor with a wryly self-confessed weakness for strippers and models. A lack of ties to mainstream ideologies nonetheless enables him to call for a plague on both their houses with no sense that he is angling for that chimera of news coverage, "objectivity".
Religulous offers no doubt about his stance on religion, though, and in person he's fiercely articulate and well-versed in rationalist arguments. Fifty-three years old, he was raised in suburban New Jersey by a "proud, bleeding-heart, Irish-American Kennedy-era liberal father", and a mother he didn't learn was Jewish until he was 13. His father stopped the family attending mass in protest against Catholic doctrine on birth control. Religion deserted Bill Maher long ago.
I put it to Maher that none of the religious right's big guns are in the movie. "I've been talking about this on TV for so long that I come pre-advertised. So we didn't get anywhere near Pat Robertson or the Pope. Those guys are so well-rehearsed in their bullshit that you get a more honest picture if you just talk to the rank-and-file. The Jesus guy at the Holy Land Experience was a much more interesting character than Pat Robertson would be."
Did he get a sense that his subjects wished to cast him in the Lake of Fire? "They'd prefer to save me, pray for me. It would have been preferable to have their hostility, because I found their reaction very condescending, like I was a backward child. In their mind if you don't see Jesus Christ as your saviour, then you are profoundly unenlightened. So we are, in a way, mirror-images of each other, because I see them as unenlightened, as being in thrall to a bronze-age myth."
The two perspectives seem unreconcilable. "The problem with us rational people is that we tend not to gather in groups, like religious people. Religious people gather in groups because when you're being told something really fantastical like, 'God had a son, who was really him, and he sent him on a suicide mission, and he survived, and you're eating his flesh when you're eating this bread that was obviously bought at a store' ... If you're gonna swallow all that you need someone standing next to you swallowing it too. If religion does anything it preys on the sheeplike qualities of human beings. And atheists and agnostics aren't joiners, because we celebrate our individualism and our ability to freely think on our own."
Is he hopeful that we'll soon stop Seeing The Light, so to speak? "Well, look at American TV now: interracial couples are everywhere. They're in reality shows, sitcoms, scripted shows, everywhere. Turn on the news and you'll see a story about a typical couple and often it'll be a black and white couple, and they make no comment about it. Which is great because it's become completely mainstream. Same thing with gay people. The new generation doesn't look at race when they date, or at homosexuality as anything to be judged. If we can get that sort of feel with the rationalist movement then I think we could see good growth."
Bill Maher's not holding his breath for it, though. Not yet.
â¢ Religulous goes on general release on Friday
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