ORLANDO, Fla.—Never let it be said that Bill Maher ran away from a fight. The comic and cultural critic is famous for questioning and ridiculing America’s sacred cows. With his new film, “Religulous,” which opens Friday, he’s taking his shot at the biggest sacred cow of all: religion. And he fully expects to take hits for a documentary that mocks and attacks religion for what Maher sees as its dangerous excesses and its fundamental absurdity.
“To me, it’s the last taboo,” he says. “I don’t like it when anybody says ‘You can’t talk about this.’ It makes me want to talk about it.”
Bill Maher, Andrew Newberg, John Westcott, Sen. Mark Pryor, José Luis de Jesús Miranda, Steve Berg, Ken Ham, Jeremiah Cummings, Mohammad Hourani, Rabbi Dovid Weiss, Propa-Gandhi, Ray Suarez, Geert Wilders, Fatima Elatik, Father George Coyne
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (General release); 2008)
His “talking about it” has drawn fire from, among others, The Jewish Journal, which complains that it “casts a negative pall over all religion.” And Judaism gets off lightly in the movie.
“We were in Jerusalem for a week, the funny hat capital of the world,” Maher jokes. “Everybody in that city has a funny hat, because they’re all part of this sect or that one ... But really, the Jews are not warlike. They’re not trying to spread their religion, like the Christians and the Muslims. The religion is not based on fear, that you’re going to get poked in the (bottom) by the devil if you don’t do this.”
Some of the people interviewed for the film aren’t crazy about Maher’s methods. John Westcott, director of the “gays can change” Exchange Ministries of Winter Park, Fla., said he didn’t realize Maher would be doing the interview until the comic came in “guns blazing,” didn’t realize it was for a movie “until my phone started ringing, last week.” He’s been a bit anxious about the film, he says. But Westcott also says that “God’s going to use it to His purpose, and hopefully, people who see it will find us and know that we’re here.”
We reached Maher, 52, by phone in New York.
Q: You came to Orlando, you didn’t call, you didn’t write.
A: Well, I had a date with Jesus. A date with Jesus at The Holy Land Experience! And boy, we had quite the experience, let me tell you.
We had just come from the real Holy Land. Directly, almost, from Jerusalem. And my first thought was, ‘Boy, we could’ve saved ourselves a boatload of money and a lotta grief.’ It was a grueling shoot, in Jerusalem ... And I didn’t like the eggs at the hotel. We could’ve done the whole bit in Orlando, where they know how to cook eggs.
And when you see them re-enact the Via Dolorosa at The Holy Land Experience, having just come from the Holy Land? I’ve gotta tell you. The real Via Dolorosa is even cheesier. Tacky and touristy, shops selling T-shirts. And this is supposedly the road Jesus took his final walk down on his way to You Know Where.
Q: In the film, you seemed quite charmed with Jesus at The Holy Land Experience.
A: I like Jesus a lot. The REAL one. And the Jesus at (The Holy Land Experience) was a nice guy. I’m not crazy about all the people who say they work for Jesus, who talk in his name. But the message of Jesus is as fantastic as it’s ever been.
You know, most of the people that we met in our travels making this movie were nice people.
We came to like them. And that’s Ok, because you can disagree with people and wish they thought differently and still like them.
The fact of the matter is, when we’ve shown this movie to preview audiences, doing a Q&A afterward, the first question I ask the audience is ‘How many people here are religious?’ Most of them applaud. These are the people who’ve just given your movie, which is bashing religion, a standing ovation. That says something interesting about where we are as Americans.
Q: Religion really is, as you point out, a taboo subject. What possessed you to take it on?
A: As a comedian, I just realized that here was a pot of gold in the middle of the room. When you’re talking about people who believe in ‘magic underwear,’ for instance, as the Mormons do, I mean, come on! If you can’t make some comic hay out of that, hang it up. Any of the myths, the silly things that people believe that we only accept because we’re used to them, are great comic material.
We thought, ‘If we can just get people to stand back and see them all as if it were the first time, it would be kind of funny.’ And it was.
The Scientologists and the Mormons I think should merge. Call it ‘Mormontology.’ But they’re just funnier because they’re newer ... If you didn’t know the first thing about Christianity and somebody told you, for the first time, this story that God is all powerful, better than us in any way. But he has a son. He’s a single parent. And he tells the son, ‘Son, you’re going on a suicide mission down to Earth. Don’t worry. They can’t kill you because you’re really me. So here’s the plan. I, God the Father, wink wink, I’ll come down to Earth first. Easy because we’re two people. God the Father, God the son.. And I’ll see if I can’t find a Palestinian woman to impregnate so she can give birth to you. I mean ME. Oh, you know what I mean!’ The silliest story I’ve ever heard.
Q: The movie’s a jeremiad about religion and you become a kind of Jeremiah yourself.
A: Crazy, isn’t it? It’s just too much fun to dress up as a crazy street-corner preacher, talking Scientology ... Nobody knew all those tenets of Scientology. I don’t know how many people have gone through the whole religion and seen what it is they believe. It is so laugh-out-loud funny.
And the idea that when you’re watching Tom Cruise or John Travolta, you realize when they get home behind closed doors they believe in the galactic warrior Xenu, who 12 trillion years ago came to Earth and planted bodies around volcanoes and blew them up with atom bombs, this whole incredibly nonsensical story.
And this is the central conceit of our whole movie. Otherwise rational people wall off a part of their mind and convince themselves to believe something that is so positively, obviously ridiculous.
Q: The movie was supposed to come out last summer, but you held it. Because of the election?
A: You know, Sarah Palin, I have to say, probably not good for the country. But if she gets people thinking about how dangerous religion is in our political leaders, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Because this is a person who has gone to many different churches ... At every one of these churches they take the Bible literally ... She believes Jesus gave pony rides on dinosaurs because the world is only 5,000 years old. And she could be a heartbeat away from the presidency. She’s a person who is rooting for the end of the world! They believe in this end-times stuff, think it’s gonna happen in her lifetime. And that it’s a good thing. They call it ‘The Rapture.’ That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But it’s the end of the world.
People should go see this movie if for no other reason than to be alarmed that people who think like her, who want the world to end, want to be in charge of seeing to it that the world doesn’t come to an end.