Bill Maher is on his soapbox, looking like a lunatic and holding court in London's Hyde Park. A crowd forms around the American talk show host, who is disguised in glasses and a funny hat as he preaches that aliens have infected our souls and only Scientology provides the answer.
"Xenu brought us here 75 million years ago, stacked us around volcanoes and blew them up with an H-bomb. You have to rid yourself of the implants from the extraterrestrial dictators," Maher says, imploring folks to use an e-meter, Scientology's primary tool, to measure their Thetan level and determine the imprint of these aliens.
This scene appears in Maher's new documentary, "Religulous," and it prompted roars of laughter from an audience at a screening last month. But it is just the setup. Maher's punch line, which comes from a comedy club clip, has nothing to do with the 55-year-old religion -- often called a cult -- that's turned Tom Cruise into such a weirdo.
"Jesus with the virgin birth and dove and snake who talks in a garden -- that's cool," Maher says. "But the Scientologists, they're the crazy ones."
Comedian and political commentator Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" and before that "Politically Incorrect" on ABC and Comedy Central, has become known for attacking drug laws, organized religion and PC sensibilities.
On Oct. 3, his biggest battle -- Maher v. God -- will hit theaters.
It's not a mockumentary, but some of the real-life religious folks in "Religulous" could well have been in "This Is Spinal Tap."
The film is a series of interviews, often more debates than conversations, tied together with Maher's reflections as he travels between locations. With a talk show host's benefit of always getting the last word, Maher outwits, outquips, outthinks and outperforms his victims. And his subjects -- the evangelical Christian who directs the Human Genome Project, a U.S. senator, an anti-Zionist rabbi and a Muslim rapper who loves suicide bombers -- are the victims here.
Maher's bias is clear even in his title's marriage of "religious" and "ridiculous."
"What I am saying is if you are religious at all, you are an extremist," Maher said in a phone interview last week, later adding, "There is no doubting that there are brilliant people who are religious.... People find ways to wall off areas of their mind -- that is why I use that phrase, 'neurological disorder.'"
So why did Maher's subjects sit down with him? It's difficult to imagine any religious person familiar with his politics and godlessness actually agreeing to an interview.
The fact is, nobody knew whom they were dealing with until it was too late.
"We never, ever used my name," Maher told the L.A. Times' Patrick Goldstein of how the interviews were arranged. "We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it 'A Spiritual Journey.'"
This art of deception is only one of the very evident fingerprints of director Larry Charles, who mastered this skill as director of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." "Religulous" avoids Eastern religions, worrying only about fanaticism in the Abrahamic faiths -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Maher considers himself a former member of two of the three.
His father was Irish Catholic, and that was how Maher was raised as a child. "It wasn't relevant to my life," Maher says in the film, "Superman was relevant, and baseball cards." In his teens, Maher discovered why his mother never joined the rest of the family at church: She was Jewish.
"I never even knew I was half-Jewish until I was a teenager," he said on "Larry King Live" in 2002. "I was just so frightened about the Catholics and everything that was going on there in the church -- and I was never, you know, molested or anything. And I'm a little insulted. I guess they never found me attractive. And that's really their loss."
Irreverence is Maher's trademark. In the film, he calls Jesus "nuts" and Moses "cuckoo." He considers himself a contemporary, though much younger, of the late George Carlin, founder of frisbeeterianism. (When I asked readers of The God Blog for any questions they had for Maher, a career church leader wanted to know whether "he's always been a douche bag, or is this a new look and feel for him.")
"I always felt religion was a giant elephant in the room of comedy gold and that people don't laugh at it simply because they are used to it," he said.
This is what could make "Religulous" so difficult for the God-fearing: It is positively entertaining.
Maher visits the Creation Museum in Hebron, Ky., and Orlando's Holy Land Experience; he tongue-ties the brilliant geneticist Francis Collins and walks out of an interview with Rabbi Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta International -- "Never again, rabbi."
His religious journey takes him from the Valley of Armageddon in Israel to the Trucker's Chapel in Raleigh, N.C. An interview with a Muslim minister in Amsterdam is interrupted by the imam's cellphone ringtone, which is Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."
When Maher asks Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) how people who believe in the Bible's creation story could be helping to run the most powerful country in the world, the senator plays into his hand: "You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate, though," Pryor responds.
At times, Maher's interviews are frightening, like when the Muslim rapper Propa-Ghandi defends the 19-year-old fatwa against Salman Rushdie for "The Satanic Verses" and argues that his music, which praises suicide bombers, shouldn't be censored.
The so-called New Atheists -- bestselling authors who appeal to science, logic and intellectual elitism -- typically preach only to the choir.
"I don't like the term atheist because, to me, that is as rigid as religion is," Maher said. "I preach the doctrine of 'I don't know.' I don't know and I don't think it should matter. I don't think people should be so obsessed. Give yourself a break. You don't have to worship something, you don't have to worship something that is really just in your head, that you made up."
But Maher avoids two of these major trappings -- he can't help the high-minded snobbery -- and sticks to what he is good at: comedy.
"I think Jesus was probably an awkward teen -- big Jewfro, bad at sports," he says in the film, at which point a clip of Jonah Hill from "Superbad" flashes on the screen: "Here I am!"
And what better way to discredit something than to make belief in it laughable?
With his Catholic and Jewish backgrounds, Maher should feel guiltier than anyone about such heathen humor. But instead, the religious moviegoer is the only one worrying about God's forgiveness.
"Religion comes off as looking at best ridiculous in Bill Maher's new film 'Religulous.' But the early buzz has also been correct: Brilliant," I wrote on The God Blog the day after seeing a screening. "And so I've spent the past 13 hours wondering if there was something wrong with my enjoying the movie."
But quickly my feelings of guilt faded into an understanding that the film is a guilty pleasure. "Religulous" is hilarious and poignant because it pokes fun not just at things that bother Maher, but that bother countless among the faithful: violence in God's name, seeing science as a religious bogeyman, End Times theology.
"The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not arrogant certitude, but doubt," Maher says in the film's closing five-minute monologue, which shifts the tone to dead serious.
"The plain fact is, religion must die for man to live," he says.
For being anti-religious, he sure is preachy.
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