The funnyman talks about his new documentary on organized religion
Bill Maher has been a source of comedy on the small screen for many years with his hit series Politically Incorrect and Real Time with Bill Maher, but now he's taking his irreverent brand of comedy to the film world. Maher wrote and produced and appears in the new documentary Religulous, which hits the shelves on DVD on February 17. I was in on a conference call with Maher to discuss his new documentary and here's what he had to say.
One of the things that tripped up Barack Obama during his campaign was his various religious relations. Do you have any advice for the new President?
Bill Maher: You mean Reverend Wright?
Reverend Wright and his selections for speakers at the inauguration.
Bill Maher: Rick Warren, yeah. Well, I think so many times you see Reverend Wright, Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell, these are the people who get you in trouble, and they always seem to have Reverend in front of their name. Maybe that should be a hint. Look, Barack Obama is the President of the United States, a politician in America, a very religious country, so I understand why he has to pretend to be a religious person himself. I say pretend because, I can only hope that someone as bright as he, wouldn't really believe that people can walk on water and ride a winged horse and rain frogs and you can change water into wine. I can only hope, but I don't know. I thought it was pretty interesting in his inauguration, for the first time ever, he gave a shout-out to non-believers. I mean, it was only two words, but it was a revolutionary two words and I'm surprised more people didn't take note of it. He did say, in his inauguration speech, something about Christians and Jews and Hindus... and non-believers. I almost fell out of my chair. I was like, 'Yes! Thank you!' So there we go. Progress. Baby steps, brother, baby steps.
Some of my favorite parts of Religulous were the biographical parts where you and (director) Larry Clark explored your own personal backgrounds and both your religious and non-religious identities. I was wondering, do you feel that the process of filming was cathartic as a learning experience for you in that way?
Bill Maher: Well, no, if I understand your question correctly. It certainly was cathartic to get this subject out of my system. I felt that, after I made this movie, quite frankly, if I had to retire from working, from show business, I could do it now. This was my Moby Dick. I felt that I harpooned that motherf*&$er and that was tremendously cathartic. If you're asking if there was some spiritual revelation that I had making the movie, then no. I came to the movie at the age of 51 so I had already had my evolution, and you're correct. We tried to show, in the movie, we thought it was very important to show that it was an evolution that brought me to the thinking I have now. I just didn't, overnight, go, 'Oh, this is all a crock and now I'm an atheist.' No. I was brought up Catholic and we show my mom, my mother, my sister and then I take pains to explain on camera, that there were years after that where I wasn't really religious. I certainly wasn't a Catholic anymore, but I still lived with some mythical man in my head. I didn't really put a name to a face, but I just knew that if I was in trouble or scared I would go, 'Oh God, please help me get out of this one.' I only rarely talked to him when I was in some sort of trouble or some sort of bargaining mode. It really wasn't until I was over 40 where I was like, 'Oh, stop bargaining. Stop pretending there's some man who lives in your head and just suck it up and say, 'You're here alone on this Earth. You enter alone, you're going to leave alone and nobody knows what happens when it's over, but it's probably going to be like the ending of The Sopranos. It just goes to black.
You say in the movie that the idea of religion is like selling an invisible product. Is there an argument out there or is there some part of you that embraces the possibility that there could be at least some foundation for religious truth?
Bill Maher: You invoke the phrase 'religious truth' which I think is an oxymoron. How would you define 'religious truth,' and then I can answer that.
I guess my question would be is there any part of you that has any faith or believes there is a legitimate argument for the existence of, certainly not the Catholic God, but a God?
Bill Maher: Well, if you read the Old Testament, it's really one of the most wickedest books you'll ever come across. God is an insecure, rage-filled hybrid of Bobby Knight and Suge Knight. He's got these anger issues that you can't believe. He's like John McCain if McCain could fart hail. He's pro-slavery, he's pro-polygamy, he's homophobic, he'll kill you for masturbating. More people get stoned in that book than in my house. If this is what you call a religious truth, then no. I think I can say definitively, that no, that's not possible. But what is possible? What is the answer? Yes, it could be anything. It could be Jesus and it could be the Furby and it could be the lint that lives in my navel, but it's probably not. Whatever it is, I doubt we as humans on Earth could have any perception of it while we're here. So, why give yourself a headache thinking about it. Just be a good person. That's what an ethicist is. There is evidence that ethicists, people who are not religious people but simply live by ethics, are more ethical because they don't have that fallback position of, 'Yeah I f&$%ed up and I sinned but, you know what, I went to confessions every Sunday and got rid of my sins and on my deathbed I said I loved Jesus so he came in and saved me at the last second. There's an awful lot of leeway, to behave like a complete schmuck as a religious person, because it's not really about how you act, it's really about how much you love Jesus and how much faith you have. You can, they'll tell you this straight to your face, you can live a horrible life and then on your death bed go, 'OK Jesus. I believe in you now and it's all cool, it's all forgiven.' It's all silly. Come on.
There seems to be some similarity of how some zealous people are about the Obama movement and how crazy people get about religion. Do you see the same thing?
Bill Maher: You mean that they're positioning Obama as some sort of chocolate Jesus who is infallible?
Bill Maher: Well, that's ridiculous. That's not Obama, that's Kanye West. No, well there always is a tendency in human nature to deify. I don't understand it because I don't do it myself, but I was talking to somebody the other day about this yoga class. I say, 'Who goes?' and they say, 'You know, very cool, hip people. You'd like them. They were talking about your movie. They love your movie.' But its ironic because a number of them have already sort of made the yoga teacher into a god. He's up at the front of the room and he's teaching them and they talk about him after the session as if he's some other-worldly being. I was just laughing because, yeah, it just seems to be human nature to seem to want to posit in another human being, qualities that you must know, in part of your mind, that human being couldn't possess because you don't possess. This is what I'm trying to say in the movie. Do I know what the answer is? No, but you don't either, these people who talk about the next world in such detail. Listen to Rick Warren. 'Oh, when you get to heaven you'll meet Jesus and he's sitting at the right hand of the father, not the left, the right. He's wearing a gold robe and there's piping on the sleeve and there's 12 angels there, three of them are playing trumpets..." How do you know this shit?? Are you kidding me? You don't know. How do I know you don't know? Because I don't know and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. There you go.
You had a great routine a couple of years ago where you were comparing our religious nuts in this country to some of the more radical Muslims who wanted to kill Americans. You made it clear that one was definitely crazier than the other, so I was wondering that, while you were putting this movie together, if you came to any ranking of the five craziest that were out there? Is there a scale, or are they all in the same boat?
Bill Maher: As far as crazy goes, I think they're all in the same boat. I think they all believe in crazy shit. A minute ago we were talking about the Old Testament. When you read the Old Testament and you read that God, the Jewish God, the old man God, he is just a vicious, horrible character. He just wipes people out for no apparent reason, and those are the Jews who are, among the big three in the West, the peaceful religion, but they're also crazy. Then, of course, when you get to people like the Mormons and the Scientologists, who I think should combine and make a Mormontologist because what they believe is just so out there it's just laughable, but I think it only strikes us as laughable because it's newer. The idea that Jesus partied with the Indians in the New World, in 400 A.D., as the Mormons believe, or that when you die, you and your wife will rule over a new planet in the universe, or that you can baptize the dead, some of this stuff is just so outrageous. It's just people selling the invisible product. It's just people making shit up, 'Oh I found the old Book of Mormon in a field, and here's what it says,' and other people believe it. It's just astounding that other people will follow anything. The difference, I think, that matters is which of the religions are dangerous. They're all crazy, but which ones have the potential to turn that into death. In that area, I think we have to worry the most about the Muslims and the Christians. The routine that you were citing was saying that our civilization is more advanced, yes, I believe more advanced then were Islamic civilization is because its 600 years older and in that 600 years, we have learned the most fundamental thing about religion, which is to ignore it. The difference is when we talk about homosexuality, when Pat Robertson or Jerry Fallwell talks about homosexuality, they absolutely condemned it. But they didn't take the Bible so literally that they don't actually stone homosexuals to death, but that's what they do in Saudi Arabia. They'll actually cut your f&^*ing head off if you're gay. The key to me, in religion, is just to treat it like it doesn't really matter. We have a Pope, we don't really believe him, we don't really listen to what he says, we don't really take him seriously. That's what has to happen with religion. It has to be marginalized and in the Islamic world, it's not marginalized, it's taken literally.
I was just wondering, after the movie has been shown, have you gotten the response from both believers and non-believers that you hoped for, and have you heard of anyone actually taking a step back from their religious views after watching the film?
Bill Maher: Yes, on both occasions. The people at the movie company suggested that, about a month before the movie opened, that I should get on MySpace, as a way to promote the movie. They said this was a great tool and I said, 'Oh come on. I don't want to be on MySpace.' So, I got on MySpace because I wanted to promote the movie and I really was so busy promoting it and trying to do Real Time at the same time, that I didn't read many of the messages. Then, after the season ended in the middle of November, I went back and read these thousands of messages, or as many of them as I could, and I was amazed that not one person who saw this movie, who didn't send the most positive message. There were literally no negative messages, except, of course, for a few people who were, you know, 'I'm going to kill you. You're going to burn in hell.' Mostly the religious people, didn't see the movie. Very few of the religious people even dared to enter that theater because, of course, they're world is about certainty and they do not want something that is going to upset that apple cart. The people who saw it, the response was overwhelmingly positive and it made me happy that I got on the MySpace.
I was watching the special features and there was a scene where you went into the clothing store and talked to that guy. I just remember the look on his face was grim death. Was there ever a time when you were shooting, and talking to the religious figures, where you felt nervous or unsafe or anything like that?
Bill Maher: Oh, constantly. There was also that time where we were talking to those truckers, which was at the truck stop chapel, and there's that big big guy who balls up his fist and says, 'If you start questioning my God, then you're gonna have a problem with me.' I was at the other end of the trailer and it was a very tiny room and I just thought, 'Oh man, there's no way I can get out of here. This guy is gonna come in and pummel me and that's going to be the end of this movie.' Luckily, he walked out. He turned the other cheek, and it was a sizeable cheek, but yes. We were in the position of confronting people about their cherished beliefs and there's going to be a few hard feelings. But, in general, we did it in a way where we tried to be positive and laughing and happy and not poking fingers at people and belittling them. As I always said from the beginning, I don't have to make fun of religion. It makes fun of itself.
It was such a controversial topic, so what were some of the challenges in making this film, either personal or technical?
Bill Maher: Well, for me, the entire idea of making a movie is a challenge and, for those people who have said to me, 'Oh, is this a new career for you? Are you going to do more documentaries?' No. I had one topic that I thought was the ultimate taboo that I wanted to get out of my system. I think I made my point and I have no desire to ever do another movie because, to answer your question, I'm just not a person who enjoys long travel situations. We were on the road for two and a half months, in foreign countries, staying in crappy hotels. I'm not a person who has ever gotten up early in the morning, with a lot of cheer on my face. I've been able to have a very comfortable life doing a television show for the last 16 years where I didn't have to get up early in the morning and have makeup on my face all day and eat crummy food and the rest of it. For me that was the big challenge, to actually put myself in that uncomfortable situation of being on the road with a movie crew.
If you could smoke a bowl with any religious figure throughout history, who would it be, and why?
Bill Maher: Throughout history? Well, I mean the obvious answer would be God, or Jesus, who is God's son. Or Muhammad. Man, I'd love to get him stoned. I don't know. I guess I'd have to say Jesus because I'm more familiar with him. I grew up with him. They stuffed him into my head when I was a child. I'd love to get at that whole thing where, 'Wait a minute. You're the son of God, but you're also God. God is your dad, but you're also him.' That, to me, is a discussion that really merits discussion over a bowl.
Was there any religious figure that you met that approached religion in a more level-headed way that you could respond to?
Bill Maher: Oh absolutely. The two Catholic priests that we talked to, there was a lot of reaction to those men because I think people were as shocked as we were, that they were talking so rationally about the religion. We talked to one gentleman, his name was Father Foster, he was the bald man, we talked to him right outside the Vatican. He was the one I was asking him questions like, 'Doesn't it strike you odd that this homeless man who started this religion and preached about the poor would bequeath it to this prince of the church who lives in this giant palace?' And he didn't argue with it, he said, 'Of course. If it were up to me, Christ would be living in a barracks outside of the city.' He was saying things that, I hope he's still working there because I wouldn't be surprised if he lost his job over that. Then we talked to another Vatican scholar, Father Coin, who was talking about science that was in a way that was much more rational than you would get from the rank-and-file. I guess what it taught us was that the hierarchy of the church, they don't really believe this shit. They know that the mass is needed, but they themselves don't really buy it, which on one level is just such a tremendous hypocrisy and I guess they justify it by telling themselves that, 'Well, we're brighter than these people and we have to feed them these scraps of nonsense to keep them in line, but we ourselves are not really on board with this.' It was an astounding revelation.
How well do you think the movie and its questions will hold up 30 years from now?
Bill Maher: Well, unfortunately I think it will hold up because, unfortunately, I don't think we will have killed off religion. I mean, these are eternal questions. Why is faith good? I don't think that question will go away. Would it be wonderful if this movie were completely dated in the next 30 years because everyone had become a rationalist in this country? That would be magnificent, but I just don't think that will happen in my lifetime.
You can explore religion in a whole new way when Bill Maher's Religulous hits the shelves on DVD on February 17.