Bill Maher began his career as a stand-up who occasionally inserted some political and religious jokes into his act, but gained fame using those hot topics as a springboard for conversation on Politically Incorrect. True to the show's title, Maher never shied away from speaking his mind on perceived stupidities in the world. On his much more focused HBO show Real Time, Maher finds better guests willing to engage him on the political outrages of the day. An unabashed basher of religion—the root cause of far more harm than good, in his estimation—it's no surprise that Maher has turned his full attention to attacking it in his feature-length documentary Religulous, directed by Borat helmer Larry Charles. Though ostensibly aimed at religion as a whole, the doc focuses on the kooks of every faith—those who believe, with a smug righteousness matched only by Maher's own, that their story is the right one, and all others are wrong. (Maher simply has faith that nobody knows, or can know.) It's a funny, scary look at the fringes, all framed by Maher's blunt, edge-of-irritated questioning. The A.V. Club spoke with Maher about the film, his own beliefs, and what non-believers can do to help.
The A.V. Club: The movie was really funny, but also in its way very depressing. You seemed to come out of these interviews laughing, but were you crying on the inside a little?
Bill Maher: Anything is depressing if you dwell on it. The fact that religion could end the world? Yeah, I guess that could be considered depressing. [Laughs.] But considering that there's also a lot to laugh at, I think it's a good balance. We give people a good laugh ride… I've seen it with audiences two or three times now, and they're laughing all the way through. It gets to the point that the world could end at the very end, but I think we earned that.
AVC: What do you hope people take away from the movie? What can people who share your views on religion actually do?
BM: I think you can stop being so shy. The meek shall inherit the earth… [Laughs.] But we don't believe that, we don't believe in the Bible, so why are we acting so meek? I don't want to start a movement that mirrors religion. I don't want to create the church of the non-believers where I'm the preacher and we're all gathering together and reciting things. That's what we don't like. We're individuals, and because we're individuals, we have a harder time making our voice heard—we don't fall in line like sheep. But it's wrong that we have no representation, for example. Congress has 435 members, and not one of them says he's an atheist or agnostic. That just seems wrong. When they talk about diversity in Congress, because they have blacks and Latinos and women—they all think alike. True diversity would be diversity of thought. And we've had eight years of a faith-based administration, and we saw how well that turned out. I just wish that the people who think like us would stop ceding the moral high ground to the people who drink the space god's blood on Sunday!
AVC: It's all about getting elected, surely, and not necessarily about actual belief.
BM: Certainly every politician has to kiss pious ass in this country. Even somebody like McCain, who never was religious, who never talked about it, who called Falwell an agent of intolerance… You see how he in the last year has had to cozy up to the religious nuts. He went to Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, or ranch, whatever it is. He was asked, "What do we do about evil?" "Defeat it." Really, Senator? Would that take two terms, or could you defeat evil in your first term?
AVC: To play devil's advocate, though, is all religion bad in your eyes? Is there room on a personal level for people where it's actually useful?
BM: You can't deny that religion has done some good. It organizes lots of anti-poverty programs and soup kitchens and missionary work. But I would say that, first of all, all those things can be accomplished without religion. You can be ethical, somebody who does the right thing without feeling that he has to in order to get his ass saved in the next life. He does it because it's the right thing to do. And also, whatever good religion has done, it has come at a terrible price. I would say an analogy would be the Iraq War. People say, "The surge worked now, we got rid of Saddam." But the cost was 4,000 American lives, untold Iraqi lives, ethnic cleansing, four million refugees, a trillion dollars and counting of U.S. money that could've rebuilt every road, bridge, and school in America, started a Manhattan Project for energy alternatives, given health care to everybody… Did the surge work compared to that? I'd say with religion it's the same thing. Yes, it has done some good, it gives people comfort, but most wars have been about religion. The oppression of minorities, the oppression of women, the Crusades, burning witches, honor killings, suicide bombings, fucking children… On a scale, you'd have to say it has not been worth it. People always ask that question and I wanna say, "Delusion on a mass scale. Is that a bad thing?" Seems like it should be obvious, but I know it isn't.
AVC: I just think of people that I know personally who go to church, who are really nice, who are very liberal in their politics. But maybe you're right, maybe they'd be just as nice if they didn't go to church.
BM: People are either good or they're not. Religion doesn't make anybody good, I don't think. In fact, because people are religious, they think they can do bad things. George Bush thinks he can torture people because he's a good person! He knows that Jesus loves him, so whatever we do is okay, because we're the good people. People are just who they are by nature. Somebody said once, and it's a really good quote, I should have the guy's name and I don't, it's probably somebody really famous like Bertrand Russell or somebody I should know… It was something like, "In an average moral universal society, good people will try to do the right thing, and psychotic people will do wicked things. But if you want to make good people do wicked things, you need them to be religious."
AVC: Is there any tiny part of you that believes in some sort of higher consciousness?
BM: I don't say in the movie that I'm an atheist. I don't like that term, because I think it mirrors the certitude of religion. I say I don't know. And if you don't know—and you don't—just man up and say you don't know. Don't turn to silly stories and ancient myths. That should be good enough for people. When these myths were created, when the Bible was written, man didn't know what an atom or a germ was, or where the sun went at night, or why the women got pregnant. [Laughs.] They needed stories to answer the questions. But it's the 21st century now, and there's a tape on YouTube of Sarah Palin with a witch doctor! Someone who's telling her he's curing her of witches! It's our country, for crying out loud. People should be ashamed, appalled, and embarrassed.
AVC: So back to the earlier question, what do people do?
BM: I think they should go see Religulous this coming weekend. [Laughs.] If this movie did really well, it would send the message that this silent minority is out there, this 16 percent [of people who practice no religion] that we cite in the movie. And I think that's just the beginning. I think that's just the people who will tell a pollster that they're agnostic or atheist. I think there's another huge amount of people who were like me for many years. I didn't really think a lot about religion, but I didn't really think a lot against it, either. I was one of those people who didn't go to church, but when I got in trouble I kinda pleaded with God—whoever that was. I didn't really put a face with the name. It was just this imaginary man who lived in my head who, when I was in trouble, I pleaded with or bargained with, or told I'd be a better person. I think those people don't think about it, and if they saw all of this marshaled into one 90-minute movie, they might have a different view of it. That would be a nice result.
AVC: Will you be praying for strong box office?
BM: [Laughs.] You're not gonna get me on that one.