The integral post of social critic and polemicist in contemporary America is often filled by a comedian. That’s because the serious matter of “truth” is difficult to attain directly: facts are invariably mucked by feelings, belief mistaken for reason, and faith confused for logic, so that the search for truth necessarily becomes an exercise in locating un-truth, allowing a keen observer to sight those very hypocrisies that inevitably elicit both disdain and laughter. “Comedians are always looking for that gap between what’s really true and what people say is true,” says long time comedian and late night host Bill Maher. “That’s why politics is such a ripe field, because politicians are always at variance with what the truth is. And when we point that out, hence the comedic goal. With religion it’s even more so.”
Maher was in fact recently assailed by members of the press and various Catholic groups for comments he made on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, in which he compared the Pope to a CEO of a flawed international corporation (i.e. the Catholic Church). A petition was quickly passed around demanding he be fired, and various pundits claimed that his comments qualified as anti-Catholic “hate speech.” Technically, the idea of “hate speech” cannot lawfully co-exist with the First Amendment. But this is hardly the first time controversial statements have tested the mores of this country’s commitment to freedom of speech.
Lenny Bruce, the post McCarthy-era performer who’s incisive commentary on sex, religion, and race was labeled “sick” humor by the mid-century mainstream media, was arrested multiple times on charges of “obscenity” throughout the early Sixties. He was convicted and sentenced in 1964 by a panel of New York judges for what was deemed “word crimes.” A decade later, in 1972, comedian George Carlin would be arrested in Milwaukee and charged with violating obscenity laws after a live performance of his infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” skit, in which he muses on the words shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Apparently, you couldn’t say them on-stage either. Though acquitted, Carlin’s routine was cited in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, in which a 5-4 decision affirmed the government’s right to regulate Carlin’s act, and others like it, on the public airwaves.
Maher is arguably the next step in this lineage of acerbic satirists. Not just because he’s frequently offending networks and newscasters, but because he has honed his act over the last fifteen years into a one-hour program that consistently tests the moral and political elasticity of the American psyche. His measured jocularity and thoughtful lampooning promises to find its full expression in his documentary, Religulous, a comic and critical inquiry into organized religions.
Bill Maher: I’ve been talking about these topics on television for 15 years. This has been a minor obsession of mine. I loved it because I felt that as a comedian on television I had the field to myself. Now, George Carlen always talked about this subject, he should get major props for that. He’s somebody who really is a trailblazer in this area. But as far as a nightly comedian, I really liked having that topic. I wanted to make this movie for a long time. Like a lot of movies, the pieces just had to come together at the right moment with the right director.
How did Larry Charles come on board as director?
Well, the question in my mind is how come I never knew him before? When we finally got together, we would constantly be laughing, because we know all the same people, we’ve traveled in all the same circles, and somehow, for 25 years, we’ve avoided each other. So when we did get together, it was like we knew each other forever. And he had similar views on religion, and had just come off of Borat and was looking to do something guerrilla again. It was just perfect; it was fated; it was God. God is tired, and he wants me to blow his cover, that’s what I think. God wants me to make this movie so he can go, “Oh, good, leave me alone for a while, stop hassling me with these prayers.”
What are your hopes for this film?
We want this film to be entertaining; it is a movie, it’s not an encyclopedia. We don’t want people to look at this movie as, “It’s a documentary, let me go put on my learning hat.” Larry doesn’t even call it a documentary, he calls it an “unscripted comedy,” which is what he called Borat. We want people to know that when you’re looking for a movie on Saturday night, for something to entertain you and laugh hard at, this should be right up there with whatever Owen Wilson has out that week.
What was your religious upbringing?
Well, we try to get into that in the movie. I thought it was important that if people are going to follow me on this journey, that they could relate to me. And to know that, one, I didn’t come to my current views on religion overnight. And two, that I had an upbringing like a lot of people, just a little quirkier maybe, because my mother was Jewish and my father Catholic. They got married in 1951, and it wasn’t a common thing to do then. It was probably more outrageous than an interracial marriage is today. You know, Jews and Catholics didn’t do that in the 1950s.
Your mother actually makes an appearance in the film?
We did an interview with my mother and sister at the old church that I went to—and this is right before my mother recently passed away—because when I was growing up we never had a family discussion about it. So I wanted to get it on camera, me asking my mother, “Why didn’t you ever sit me down and say, ‘The reason I don’t go to church with you, your sister, and your father is because I’m Jewish, and you’re being raised Catholic.” So that was interesting, and we kind of thread through the movie little bits of my past and how I was progressing, or not progressing, spirituality.
Not progressing how?
At one point, I note that I was still making deals with God when I was forty. I certainly hadn’t been religious for years, but I remember when I was quitting smoking, I had some stupid problem in my life, and I said, “Okay God, get me out of this and I will quit smoking.” And it worked.
And you upheld your end of the bargain?
Yeah, and I wouldn’t do that today because I think its silly to bargain with something that I don’t know is really there—or if he’s there, he is certainly not making any bargains. But it worked as a conceit, and I’m sure I knew even at forty that it wasn’t really true. But it helped me get over smoking.
Has there been a time when you actually considered yourself “religious” or “spiritual?”
Well, I don’t know what “spiritual” means. Americans throw around terms like “spiritual” or “Zen,” and they have no idea what Zen means. Zen has just sort of replaced “cool” or “mellow.” You know, this entire Eastern philosophy that I’m sure came from the Buddha and really has a very deep meaning just kind of means “mellow.” And “spiritual” just means “I’m a nice person,” you know, or “I don’t fuck people over.”
Have you ever felt connected to a higher power?
No, I don’t feel like that. I’ve gotten out of that relationship. It wasn’t easy to break up with him, but I did. He’s a bit of a stalker. But no, spirituality, I always say, is on my to-do list. I swear I’m going to get to it. But I think it has to come at a time in your life when you lose the yen to be ambitious, when you’re less about ego, materialism, and sexuality. I think all these things go away when you’re, you know, eighty or something. I hope they do. I don’t want to be on Viagra at eighty and still chasing girls and thinking about my next show. That’s the time in life when you start to think about the next world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But until then, I think all you can do is just be a decent person, live by the Golden Rule, and if you’re doing it because you’re just saving your ass from some God that’s going to send you to Hell, you’re not doing it for the right reasons.
Is there a particular moment that turned you away from the religion of your childhood?
No, it was an evolution; it was just growing up. As a kid I was Catholic, but, I mean, they stuff it in your head before you’re old enough to argue or know what’s right or wrong. As you grow older, you just realize that at some level this stuff doesn’t make sense. And the more you’re intellectually curious and studying religion from a historical or sociological point of view, you come across a lot of material that makes you just throw up your arms and go, “Oh, well, this is obviously bullshit.”
One of the things we put in the movie that blows people’s minds is that the biography of Jesus Christ is a very old one—the god who was born around December 25, born of a virgin, is a miracle worker, is a savior of mankind, is crucified, and then resurrected after three days: Mithra the Persian god, 600 years before Jesus; Krishna the Indian god, a thousand years before Jesus; Horace the Egyptian god, [three] thousand years before Jesus…there are stories that match down to the details. It’s obvious they just totally lifted the biography of these other gods and just gave it to Jesus. That blows people’s mind. It is hard to watch that and then think that the biography of Jesus is true.
When did you begin studying the history of religion?
I remember taking a bible course at Cornell. It was interesting. Once you take a course and start to break it down as a piece of literature, you’re pretty much through the keyhole. I didn’t think that after that there was any going back to believing the stuff literally. And if you read Joseph Campbell, or just watch Bill Moyers once, and you see religions compared to each other, you realize, OK, they all have a flood myth, they’re all going through the same things to explain stuff to a primitive race of men who didn’t understand science, who didn’t understand why the night came, or what the stars were. They needed myths to explain these things. The fact that we still cling to them today, when we do understand science, that’s what makes religion so religulous at this point.
I’ve read that you call yourself an “apatheist.” Is this still an accurate description?
That’s a word I learned from someone in Salt Lake City, an ex-Mormon I believe, and I loved it and stole it from her. It’s a combination of “atheist” and “apathy.” It’s: “I don’t know what happens when you die and I don’t care.” I love that word; I had actually forgotten it, but its great. I should have brought that up to Richard Dawkins when he was on the show. I asked him about his scale of one to seven, one being total certitude there’s a god and seven being total certitude that there’s not, and he says he’s not even a total seven.
That’s what I’m preaching: I Don’t Know. Could it be that God had a son named Jesus who was really him, and went on a suicide mission and survived, and then flew up to heaven bodily? Yeah, it could. Dawkins says there could be a Spaghetti Monster living between us and Alpha Centauri. But I doubt it. What you have to recognize is that you’ll never be able to answer the ultimate question, which is, “Why is there anything?” Not when was the universe born, but why? Why is there anything? Why is there nothing? The human mind will never be able to wrap its head around the notion of void, of nothingness. We’re only human; in our minds, nothingness is still something. So, you know, don’t give yourself a headache.
Does such uncertainty necessitate faith?
No, that’s what I think is the great dividing line between the rationalists and the religious. There’s a way to look at not knowing or uncertainty and get depressed about it, but I don’t know why people do that. It shouldn’t bother people.
Much of science, as the basis of Western rationalism, is based on hypotheses that are testable, but not necessarily provable. Doesn’t science itself then require belief?
That’s one of the arguments of the faithful, that evolution is just your religion. It’s a specious argument because science depends on testing and peer review and constant retesting, and its based on provable, verifiable data. Now, you can’t fill in every gap, so they say, “Well, evolution is just a theory.” Read any book about it. I’m not qualified to give you the explanation, but I’m convinced that [evolution] is certainly the best explanation, and there would have to be a massive conspiracy among scientists all over the world, right, because they’re pretty much in agreement on it. People aren’t all in agreement on it, but scientists are.
I always like to say to people that don’t believe in evolution, “Well, how, then, do you explain, for example, the Superbug—the [drug-resistant] staph infection that’s going through hospitals and kills tens of thousands of Americans every year?” That’s a lot of people! That’s over six 9/11s, and look what our reaction was to that. How did this staph germ get so strong? I think: natural selection. So you may not believe in evolution, but apparently it believes in you.
Do you believe that as human beings, we have a “soul”?
Depends on how you define it.
How would you define it?
I think a “soul” might be something that people think lives on after you do. Which, again, I don’t know. Could be anything. Doesn’t sound right to me. Maybe it’s similar to your conscience? The little voice in your head that tells you to do the right thing? But, I just don’t trouble my pretty head with concepts like that which are just beyond my ability to know, ever, as long as I’m here, tethered to this mundane earthly existence. I feel like if I lead a good life, and I’m decent to people, and try to leave the planet better than I found it, then, if there is a soul, that’ll be taken care of.
So, I guess I shouldn’t ask if you believe in a collective unconscious?
Oh, yeah, like Henry Fonda in Grapes of Wrath: “We’re all part of one big soul.” Yeah, that could be. These are all theories that could be possible. And they could also be the Spaghetti Monster.
So you basically allow for the possibility and fallibility of all ideas?
You can’t rule anything out completely, and I don’t know why people spend so much time worrying about something they will never know. They want to know so badly what happens after they die, which is like on the other side of a wall, so they keep jumping up, but the wall is a million feet tall. So even though they’re jumping up, they’re missing it by about a million feet. And they wont see above that wall until they’re dead. And maybe, when they’re dead, that’s it. That’s why I love the ending of The Sopranos. Everyone went cuckoo because it went to black, but I thought, “What a great comment on something bigger than what the show was about.”
Would you consider yourself especially fearful of death?
No, but I’m sure when I get closer to it, I might be. I think that’s one of the tricks of aging properly and garnering that thing we were talking about before—spirituality—into your life. You want to get to a point when you’re getting very old when you’re not afraid to go, and where passing through into whatever realm doesn’t seem like this giant transition. I’m hoping when I’m old like that, and the time comes to go, it’ll just be like walking into the next room. And I think if you’re conscience is clear, it’s a lot easier.
What, in your mind, is religion good for?
Religion has been used for every possible low-life, mundane, human desire. We obviously see that’s its been used to fuck children; its been used certainly to keep women in their place. That’s something they all have in common: the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians. Even the Eastern religions—and they’re supposed to be cooler—and I think they are, but they keep women in their place with religion, too. That’s the problem: there are no Gods really speaking to us. There’s Jerry Falwell speaking to us, but humans are not Gods and yet, when humans tell their flock that they’re speaking for God, their flock tends to believe them. But, they call them a “flock” for a reason: a flock is sheep. They’re actually telling their people, “You are sheep, you’re my flock,” and people don’t seem to care.
Religion has now become a fundamental part of both Democrat and Republican politicians’ platforms, and is a common element in public discourse. What role has religion played in the current primary race?
As in all recent political races, the candidates’ “faith” is front and center and bragged about, as if suspension of critical thinking and belief in the invisible product was something to brag about. Barack Obama fell into the trap of having to constantly remind the voters how pious he is, and now it has come back to bite him in the ass because it makes Rev. Wright seem all the more central to his life. When you think of the people politicians have had to distance themselves from: Rev. Wright, Rev. Falwell, Rev. Pat Robertson, Rev. Hagee, Rev. Sharpton, Rev. Ted Haggard…see a pattern?
One thing Obama talks about is “reclaiming the American dream.” What is America’s dream?
One reason America is a crumbling empire of avid consumers is because our dreams these days are rather selfish. Of course, there are millions of people who do have more noble dreams, but if a culture is rotten from the inside—and I think ours is—it’s going to be reflected in what those dreams are. And politicians can’t be better than the people. Obama has done a hell of a job of making a lot of people who were cynical less cynical, because he does seem like a really bright, idealistic guy who believes that we can be better than we are. And I think we can be better than we are, certainly, but we can’t get that much better. It’s not all George Bush’s fault. The country is rotten on the inside; it’s just spoiled. Too many generations have passed from the time when people were rugged individuals and had a core value system. I don’t mean a religious value system—I mean actual values.
Why is it important to iterate the values of rationalism?
I think there is a vast amount of people in America who, shall we say, are soft on the subject, and could use just a little bit of education and a little bit of support from the millions of people who are not religious, from the millions of people who are rationalists. Stop calling us “atheist” because it has a connotation that somehow we’re different, we’re weird, we’re somehow less than the rest of the people. We’re rationalists, you’re the crazy ones. The people who believe in the talking snake, you arethe crazy ones.
I want rationalists to come out of the closet and realize that even if we’re a minority, it’s a big minority, and it should be a powerful minority and it should be a minority that holds a lot more sway in the way decisions are made in this country. We cannot afford anymore to have decisions made by people like George W. Bush. I’ve made the point on our show before that he prayed a lot about the Iraq War but he never learned a lot about it. And one reason we’re in such a big mess over there is because he thought it was sufficient to just ask Jesus to have this enterprise go well, but he never really bothered to learn that Iraq was divided between Sunnis and Shiites. That is just an intolerable approach to running the ship of State.
Would you concede that there have been great contributors to culture that were very religious people, who serve as examples of “real” values in action?
Yes, well, I would like to see [religion] wiped out, lets not kid ourselves. But it does probably keep the masses in line, to a degree. But, if you’re a sheep enough to follow a religion and it keeps you in line, then you’re a sheep enough to follow something else that makes more sense and doesn’t have these destructive qualities to it. Of course, I’m not so blinded that I cant see that religion does accomplish good, but there’s no reason you can’t do all these activities without the religion attached. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie go all around the world and they help people, and they don’t do it with Jesus. They don’t bring him into it. They do it just because it’s the right thing and they’re good people.
Has the belief in the power of “celebrity” become, itself, a new religion?
Yeah, the Pope is just a giant, Catholic celebrity. I used to have a routine in which I said, “The reason why I think Western culture is superior to where the Islamic culture is now, is that we both have religious leaders that say ridiculous things. We just don’t believe ours.” They actually take it to a literal degree. When they preach against homosexuality in Saudi Arabia, they actually cut off the heads of homosexuals in a square in Mecca. But when Jerry Falwell says the teletubbies are gay, we don’t really believe him. The Pope says, “Don’t masturbate,” but we don’t really stop masturbating. He’s just a big Catholic celebrity. Except in Mel Gibson’s house, where they still say mass in Latin.
What do you say to those people that claim you’re statements about the Pope qualify as “hate speech?”
Religious leaders always want to shut down the debate whenever someone points out that the man behind the curtain isn’t really a wizard, but just a person like you or me who has no clue where we came from, or if there’s a god or what happens when we die. One of the easiest ways to do that is to shout “hate speech.” Not all criticism is hate, and in this case, I heard a lot of that feeble cry, but not one Catholic voice denying that what I said was true: that if the Pope was not a “religious” figure but merely the CEO of a chain of day care centers where the abuse of thousands of kids had been tolerated, he would have been arrested. That’s not hate, that’s truth.