Bill Maher has made a career out of touching third-rail topics and pissing off large swaths of the population. In his new film, the caustic comedian outdoes himself by going full-bore after organized religion. Religulous, directed by Larry Charles (Borat), follows Maher, an atheist, as he hits the Vatican, the Wailing Wall, and The Holy Land Experience theme park, trying to fathom why his fellow mortals believe in a higher power. “I don’t want to give away the end, but I’m a Jew for Jesus now!” he reports. “No, kidding.” The blasphemy continues on the film’s parody website, disbeliefnet.com.
In 2002, Maher lost his gig hosting Politically Incorrect, his prime-time show on abc, after declaring that flying hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center on 9/11 was “not cowardly.” For the past five years, he’s held forth on Real Time With Bill Maher on hbo, securing his reputation as a repeat offender. (In April, he had to apologize after comparing the Catholic Church to Mormon polygamists and saying Pope Benedict “used to be a Nazi.”) Mother Jones spoke with the pro-drug, pro-death penalty, pro-choice libertarian and former Ralph Nader supporter about his ideological idiosyncrasies and his unrepentant heathenism.
Mother Jones: In Religulous, you go around the world looking for answers to some big questions, asking people what they believe in. Any surprises?
Bill Maher: Yeah, there certainly were surprises. I don’t know if we were asking so much what people believe so much as why they believe. The central question of the film is, “How can otherwise rational people believe in a talking snake?” as there is in the Garden of Eden. That really is the central conceit of the movie because it’s one thing to be living in the Bronze Age when people didn’t know that the earth revolved around the sun and thought that disease is caused by a toad in your stomach, that guilt could be assessed by whether you float or not. That sort of makes sense, but in the 21st century it doesn’t make sense to me that people lead these otherwise quite rational lives, and then one day a week go to someplace and think they’re drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god. That to me was a dissonance I was trying to work out.
MJ: Did people help you out there? Did they offer acceptable rationalizations?
BM: I don’t want to give away the end, but I’m a Jew for Jesus now! No, kidding.
MJ: Were there groups of people who shocked you, or places that were particularly remarkable in some way?
BM: I would say that Jerusalem was an eye-opener. I was raised Catholic but my mother was Jewish. And, I guess, and maybe it’s a liberal East Coast thing, but we have this idea that Jews are less crazy than the Christians and the Muslims. But when you go to Jerusalem they actually look more crazy. I call it the funny-hat capital of the world. Now, the Jews are definitely less warlike, which is a wonderful thing, when you compare them to the Muslims and the Christians. Definitely a more peaceable religion and definitely a more sensible one as far as not using fear—the other two religions seem to rely tremendously on scaring people about what is going to happen to you when you die, and if you don’t follow exactly what we say on earth that you’re going to roast, and you’re going to suffer. But when you go to Jerusalem you notice that there is a lot of craziness going on. Even on the plane over, they were, at a certain point, they all stood up in the aisle of the plane davening; they wrapped their tzitzit around their arms, and they just looked like crazy people, always bowing their head. It’s disconcerting.
MJ: Tibetan Buddhist, Connecticut WASP. So different?
BM: We didn’t really delve into Eastern religions too much. It is such an encyclopedic subject to undertake. We’ve had a few screenings and the audiences love it, but they invariably say, “Why didn’t you cover this or that?” In the 90-hour version we would have put that in. Religion is an endless topic, and it’s hard enough to cover the big three. Also, the Eastern religions aren’t so religiouslike, and we wanted to go after what people think of as religion. You can refer to god and you are really just talking about nature. If you are going to say the universe is god, then everything is god, everything is religion. But when we explore traditional religion we are talking about humanistic gods people pray to, that they think can intervene in our lives, who run sort of a heaven-and-hell operation for the afterworld. That sort of traditional religion is what we’re talking about.
MJ: So are the viewpoints much different overseas than in the US?
BM: We went through the Southeast of the United States for the film. When you’ve talked to enough people in Orlando and Raleigh, you get a flavor. We covered that part of it. I think the heart of Christianity is covered in the film.
MJ: Speaking of Israel, being one of the chosen people, would you ever consider moving there?
BM: No, but I did ask someone about the Messiah, and he said, “If you’re mother’s Jewish, you could be the Messiah.” So that’s nice to know, that that position is open to me.
MJ: Find any kindred spirits? Talk to many atheists?
BM: Sure, we purposely interviewed Richard Dawkins; we interviewed a number of scientists who, from a standpoint of their discipline, were trying to tell us why people are religious. And Dean Hamer, the guy who discovered the gay gene, at MIT, I think. He also believes that there is a god gene. That could be a religion in and of itself.
MJ: How about your own religious evolution. When did you stop seeing the light?
BM: I don’t want people to think that I was someone who was born rational. Because I don’t think any of us are. There’s a section in the movie, in the beginning, where I go back to the church that I attended as a child, and my mother, who was alive at the time, and my sister came with me, and I interviewed them there and asked them some important questions I had never really talked with them about, like we never had a family discussion about why mom never came to church with my sister and father and me. I didn’t really realize that my mother was Jewish until I was a teenager. I just always accepted that she didn’t go to church and the three of us did. After we quit going to church I certainly never became a Christian or Catholic again. But I did believe that there was something. I was constantly, like lots of people do, making deals with God; usually when you are in trouble in some way, you bargain. I was bargaining for quite a bit of my life, and that’s a form of belief.
MJ: What do you do in those moments now, when you used to bargain?
BM: I’m fuck out of luck, lady. I’m telling you. I’ve got nothing. I’ve cast my lot in with this movie and this idea and in a way, I’ve painted myself into a corner.
MJ: Is there a difference between Catholicism or Judaism and Scientology?
BM: It’s interesting you raise that point. There’s a section in the film where I go into Hyde Park in London. There’s a section called Speakers Corner, where what I would consider nuts stand on little soap boxes and rave and rant and people can do it about anything, but a fair number of them are religious. So they put me into a disguise. I looked like a homeless nut, and I went into Hyde Park and I ranted and raved the tenets of Scientology, and Mormonism, and I believe it was Jehovah’s Witness. Which most people are not familiar with, and they do sound like the rantings of a complete maniac. We were trying to make the point that when you take the tenets of religion and put them in mouth of street barker, you see how crazy they are. And then that they are not that different, certainly not that much crazier, than Christianity, mainstream Christianity. It’s just that we’re used to mainstream Christianity. We are used to the story of a man living inside of a whale for three days, we’re used to the idea that a space god impregnated a virgin and had a child who was really him, and sent him on a suicide mission to earth, which he survived. If Christianity were the new religion, we would consider it just as crazy as Scientology.
MJ: Even though you think religion is bunk, are you okay with people whose religious principles help them be better people, i.e., not violent jerks? In other words, do you have a problem with the Golden Rule just because it has a religious origin?
BM: No ethicist has a problem with the Golden Rule, of course, but we don’t know why it has to be attached to ancient myths and superstitions. It’s fabulous on its own; it didn’t have to come down via a burning bush from a god who, if you actually read the Bible, wipes people out randomly and should not serve as anyone’s ethic role model.
MJ: Do you think you’re responsible for many political converts?
BM: Many? No. But occasionally someone will come up to me and say they have been turned around, or at very least, they disagree but still really enjoy the show, which I take to mean they could come around someday. I think this is for two reasons: One, when people laugh, somewhere inside they know it might be true; and two, I’m not entirely peggable as liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.
MJ: Is it easier for people to hear—and believe—the hard facts about politics when they come as humor, than, say, coming from hard news sources?
BM: Yes. Americans are used to being pandered to and spoon-fed everything. In a culture that needs caffeine-free cherry chocolate diet Coke, you’d best deliver information with entertainment.
MJ: Why do you think Americans cling so loyally to conspiracy theories? Is it the hope that there is planning mastery behind what is actually chaos and madness?
BM: Exactly. Many people can’t deal with unanswered questions, which, of course, religion exploits by providing answers, even if they are just made up by someone. This is also why we love TV shows and movies that neatly wrap up everything in exactly an hour or two.
MJ: Name a Republican you admire.
BM: Colin Powell. Chuck Hagel.
MJ: Name a Democrat you despise.
BM: Joe Lieberman.
MJ: Do you socialize with any politicians off camera?
BM: I wouldn’t say socialize. After the show we have a drink, we have a wrap party…There are politicians I do enjoy sitting down after the show and having a drink with. Barney Frank was on recently, a really intelligent guy, fun to talk with. There are plenty of politicians like that, well, maybe not plenty, but a fair number of them. But it’s not wise to push that, to socialize, because you want to maintain a level of objectivity when they’re in the hot seat.
MJ: Anyone you’ve really wanted on the show who wouldn’t do it?
BM: Let me count the hundreds! Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. And those are just the Democrats.
MJ: Have you ever invited Bush or Cheney?
BM: I think they have a restraining order against me, but I’m sure we’ve invited them. Hey, if there is anyone who has gone after this president, it’s me. I’ve called him everything from a retard to…Even when I was on ABC, we almost lost a Houston affiliate in 2000 because I called him a lying sack of shit and called his mother a bitch.
MJ: The Bush administration has offered you an endless flow of rich material. Will you miss him?
BM: As a comedian, you do. But we said that about Clinton. We thought when Clinton went, when all the horny, fucking Monica Lewinsky jokes were out the window, that we would be at a loss, but then we were given a treasure trove in the form of someone who embodied a trait that is even more comedy-friendly than horniness, and that, of course, is rank stupidity. We will miss that, but as a loyal American, and someone who hopes there is a future for the planet, I would gladly give up a treasure trove of humor for the world to be run in a more competent matter.
MJ: Corn syrup or corn-based ethanol?
BM: That’s what I think is called a Hobson’s choice. I am very anti-corn. Corn is the new oil. The lobby that just can’t be stopped. First they replaced sugar. You know, sugar was a pretty powerful lobby in this country, and somehow corn wound up replacing sugar in most of the products that used to have sugar in them. Now they are after oil, out to replace oil. Of course, anyone who thinks that ethanol is an answer to our environmental problems hasn’t been reading very much, because it’s just a huge boondoggle. The amount of deforestation it takes to create biofuels is going to be a bigger disaster for the environment than what we have now.
MJ: The death penalty costs taxpayers millions more than locking up prisoners for life, and it’s not all that humane. What keeps you “pro-death”?
BM: Wait, the death penalty costs more? How can that be? How is that possible?
MJ: The appeals process, largely.
BM:Oh, okay. Well, I guess it’s just a fundamental sense of justice. I don’t believe in a lot of things from the Bronze Age, but an eye for an eye does make a sort of symmetrical sense to me. I know that puts me at odds with most of the liberals in America, and certainly that puts our country at odds with almost every other nation in the world. So maybe I’m doing it to buff up my conservative credentials. No, I’m not. I really believe that if somebody takes a life, that’s what they should get. I also think it’s a lot more humane than keeping people in a cage for the rest of their life. That to me is cruel and unusual. I guess it comes down to, ultimately, that I don’t think all life is precious. I know people say that all the time, “Life is precious.” I think some life is precious, and some life is just a waste of protoplasm. Start over.
MJ: You recently lamented the huge proportion of taxes that come from the rich. Would you say you’re against progressive taxation?
BM: No, I think the rich should be taxed more, I just I think that people who watch our show should know the truth and know the facts. I relish reporting information that people don’t know. Whether it’s the fact that biofuels are going to be bad for environment, or that eating meat causes more global warming than all the cars and the planes, or that Al Qaeda is really only 2 percent of the people we are fighting in Iraq, or the fact that the vast majority of the tax bill is supported by the rich. That’s just a fact. It doesn’t mean I don’t think they should pay more. I do think they should pay more.
MJ: Speaking of the rich and famous…do you think celebrities have an obligation to give back?
MJ: And who does it best?
BM: Well, I think people like the usual gang of suspects, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, are tremendous in what they do. George Clooney goes to Darfur. Don Cheadle. Bono. And there’s the old saying, “Don’t pity the martyr, they enjoy their work.” On a certain level, they enjoy it. I think Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie enjoy going to Third World hellholes. They thrive on adventure. I don’t think they’re miserable when they’re doing it. I think they enjoy it. You know, I hear a lot of people making fun of celebrities for this. And I just don’t understand it. I don’t know how you can make fun of rich celebrities who could be doing nothing with their off time, or something extremely pampered, and who choose to do that. It has my ultimate respect, because you don’t see me going to Darfur.
MJ: What do you read every day? What do you read for fun?
BM: I read the LA Times, New York Times, and USA Today. Online, well, the Huffington Post.
MJ: How about if I sent you Mother Jones?
BM: I read it anyway!
BM: Of course! Come on, do you think someone like me, who does a show called “Real Time” and is always trying to be a little more on the edge than the next guy is not going to read Mother Jones? I read it, and I make my writers read it.
MJ: What’s your take on the future of independent media?
BM: Is it doomed? In America, no. In Russia, yes. I think publications not run by big conglomerates will always be around. The bigger problem is getting people to care. Just like in Russia. The problem isn’t that there aren’t opposition candidates to Vladamir Putin. It’s that when they’re silenced, nobody cares.
MJ: Any regrets?
BM: Oh, every day. I have never understood when people say, “I have no regrets.” It’s like, “Really? Are you human? Do you really think you are going through life just walking on a path of petals?” I think if you are honest with yourself and you’re human you have to be just full of regrets, because otherwise, how do you learn? You make mistakes and you move on.
MJ: How about in your show?
BM: Of course. I never get to sleep on Friday night because I am turning the show over in my mind. It’s funny. I go through a pattern. The show is live from 8 to 9, I go to the little wrap party that ends about 10:30, then there are a couple hours where I am like, “Huh, I don’t think I said anything this week that I regret.” Or, “This is great, I’ll get to sleep tonight.” Then, about one in the morning, it hits me: “I said that to him,” or “that happened.” In some way, that’s part of the perfectionist nightmare; you can never really get to sleep. So yes, I have plenty of regrets, little ones, big ones.
MJ: Libertarian or liberal?
MJ: Are folks like you who pushed for Nader in 2000 responsible at all for George W. Bush?
MJ: Okay, that takes care of my follow-up question: Have you apologized to Gore?
BM: No. Nor would I ask him to apologize, but he’s the one who lost the election. And he could’ve won that election. He should’ve won that election; he was running against a retard. He was running following an administration he was an integral part of that had a pretty good record on peace and prosperity. And he didn’t run a very good campaign, and he backed off of what his core beliefs were. I’ve mentioned before that Al Gore talks a lot about the environment now, and he talked a lot about it when he was vice president. He just didn’t talk about it when he was running for president.
If you look at the campaign of John McCain, you see a campaign where he is basically at odds with American public on the important issues of the day. They don’t agree with him about the war, they don’t think he knows anything about the economy, which is very important to them right now, yet he’s about even in polls. What that tells you is that people like someone who is authentic and someone who sticks to his guns, and says what he believes. That’s what people think about John McCain. That he is at least someone who is telling you truth as he sees it. If Al Gore had done that, I think he would be president. I think it’s very unfair to blame all that on Ralph Nader.
MJ: Do you have a policy on apologies? When you offend someone, you likely get the requisite angry calls. Any way to soften the backlash?
BM: My policy is I am always more than happy to say, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” What I am not willing to do is take back what I said. Unless I am wrong. I’ve been wrong, and I could be wrong again. But in general, even when I was being lambasted for what I said after 9/11, that the terrorists weren’t cowards, I apologized for hurting people’s feelings and I recognized that the country was at a very sensitive time, and okay, maybe we shouldn’t be having a frank discussion—even though the president did say, “Go back to what you used to do”…But I never said what I said was wrong because it wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t wrong on 9/10, it wasn’t wrong on 9/12, and it’s not wrong seven years later.
And I think in general people apologize way too much in this country. And they demand too many apologies. Not a day goes by that I don’t see somebody in the campaign demanding that somebody retract something or disavow something that they didn’t even say, just that somebody they know said something. If you don’t like what someone says, turn the page in the newspaper. This idea that everyone has to apologize all the time, it’s so ridiculous. We have such an overly sensitive society.
MJ: You describe John McCain as someone who Americans support because he’s authentic, he sticks to his guns, and says what he believes. Sounds an awful lot like how people would describe you. I mean, that’s pretty much your bread and butter, saying exactly what you think. So, no chance you’ll enter politics?
BM: What I meant is, McCain’s perceived that way; he’s a straight talker only by the standards of a profession where 90 percent of what they say is complete bullshit. John McCain is a war hero, much braver than I could ever be, but he is not an actual straight talker; I am. Which is why I could never enter politics. I believe religion is bad and drugs are good, and have said so many times. Try starting a campaign with that.