TORONTO—Bill Maher had to face down protests when he showed up at the premiere of “Religulous” at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago.
The heckling clutch of Christian conservatives hadn’t seen the comic’s documentary denouncing humankind’s systems of belief—Catholicism, Judaism, the Mormons, Islam, Scientology even. But that didn’t stop them from circling the entrance to the big hall, holding candles, and asking God to forgive the wise-guy contrarian of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” for his blasphemy.
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)
Still, this being Canada—a civilized nation if ever there was one—Maher didn’t exactly feel threatened by the demonstration.
“When the Canadians do civil disobedience, it’s very obedient,” Maher deadpans the next morning, breakfasting in a hotel restaurant.
“As I was going in a couple of the protesters asked for my autograph, so how seriously can you take that?” he adds. “You know: ‘Bill Maher is going to hell, pray for Bill Maher, but could you sign?’”
Maher, 52, shot “Religulous” guerrilla-style last year with “Borat” director and “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry Charles. As the title suggests—it’s a conflation of “religion” and “ridiculous”—the political humorist does not tread lightly over sacred terrain. Hopping from Jerusalem to Vatican City to a truckers’ chapel in North Carolina, Maher, an agnostic, questions the faithful’s basic tenets and puts the blame for the world’s troubles squarely on the doorsteps, and doctrines, of religious institutions.
Talking to fundamentalist preachers, a God-fearing U.S. senator (Mark Pryor, Democrat from Arkansas), a pair of self-described gay Muslim activists, theologians, scientists, Mormon outcasts, Orthodox Jews, a Vatican scholar, and even Maher’s own mother (Jewish, but the family was raised Catholic in Park Ridge, N.J.), the comedian probes and provokes, laments and lampoons. The results are blistering, and sometimes brilliant. Ultimately, Maher challenges humanity’s need to find solace, and security, in the idea of an all-powerful spiritual being.
“We were certainly never under the illusion that it wasn’t a controversial film,” says Maher, with considerable understatement. “It is the ultimate taboo and the last taboo, really, when you think about it. So, I just hope it sparks a debate—I think it will at least do that.”
Set to open Friday, “Religulous” couldn’t be more timely. With John McCain’s choice of the evangelical Sarah Palin as his running mate, God has once again become a talking point in the political debate. Maher, who has called both Osama bin Laden and George Bush religious fanatics, couldn’t be happier.
“Yes, I couldn’t help but notice that Ms. Palin was probably going to be pretty good for my movie,” he says, flashing that trademark—and just a tad smug—Maher grin.
“It’s scary that a country that just went through eight years of an anti-intellectual, anti-science, Jesus-freak president, and saw him drive the country into a ditch, still can’t connect the dots.”
(OK, reader, here’s where you can insert your opposing viewpoints. Finished? Now? Let’s resume.)
“But I don’t know if that’s ever going to change,” Maher continues, “because when you look at polls and surveys, something like 60 percent of people say religion will solve our problems. High numbers believe in the devil, in heaven, in prayer. ... When you compare this country to other countries in the world, we have the views of places like Iran or Turkey, more than we have the views of places like France or Denmark.”
Maher says our politics are “retrogressing.” In “Religulous,” he says religion is “detrimental to the progress of humanity.” He notes that the founding fathers—Adams, Franklin, Jefferson—were seriously opposed to mixing God and governance.
“It’s a travesty, I think, that the Republican Party especially has been able to convince the American public—and in part pander to the American public—with the idea that the real America is the heartlands,” Maher grumbles. “Somehow Kansas is where the real America is. And Massachusetts, ‘Taxachusetts,’ you know, the East Coast elite—that’s not the real America. And that’s exactly backwards.
“America was invented in Boston and Philadelphia and northern New Jersey by men who were creatures of the Enlightenment. They were European intellectuals who clearly wanted a separation of church and state.
“As America moved westward, it got dumber and it got further away from the ideals of the founding fathers. And now we find ourselves with two candidates on the Republican ticket from Arizona and Alaska. They’re moving as far West as they can, they keep getting to dumber and dumber, hickier and hickier places, and we’ve finally reached the edge. We’ve gone all the way to friggin’ Alaska and gotten like the ultimate redneck.”
It should be noted here that Maher supported McCain’s candidacy in the 2000 presidential run. The comedian and commentator is not your standard-issue Hollywood liberal, as fans of the debunking, occasionally obnoxious and eyeball-rolling Maher well know.
“I even said on my show the other night that there is a possibility that John McCain could get into office and really be a maverick. He absolutely could go, ‘You know what? I’m 72 years old, I’ve had cancer, I’ve been tortured. ... I don’t really (care) what any of you think, Republicans or Democrats. I’m going to do what I want.’ And he can go back to the McCain we liked, instead of the one who sold himself out for the last eight years to get to this point. ...
“I can see him even going on TV and saying, ‘Yeah, I lied right to your face and that’s what you have to do to get elected president. But I’m going back to my original position on the Bush tax cuts, which was against them.’
“He’s that kind of a riverboat gambler, that kind of a gut player. So, that’s my hope if he gets elected. But I’d rather—I’m just hoping that that doesn’t happen. But who knows? It’s a fight.”