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Maher Evangelizes Disbelief In ‘Religulous,’ TV Host Questions Idea of Faith

October 2, 2008

By DUANE DUDEK

And on the seventh day, Bill Maher worked the room.

Proving there is no day of rest for the wicked, Maher spent a recent Sunday promoting his new documentary “Religulous,” at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The thesis of his film, which opens Friday, in summary: There is no God, the Bible is fiction and organized religion is not only a con game, but fundamentalists will bring about the very apocalypse they prophesy.

And for good measure, he probably regarded his not being struck dead for these positions as proving this argument.

People of faith will be appalled. But then again, Maher questions the very idea of faith.

“Why is faith good?” he said. “It’s a basic question.

“Politicians never address the idea that faith might not be good. They just . . . say, ‘I’m a person of faith, and my faith guides me,’ and everybody nods along and assumes the conventional wisdom that faith is good. And I ask, why? It means suspending critical thinking. Why is that good? Especially in politicians?

“I have faith in doubt. Doubt is my product. Doubt suits human nature, not certainty.”

Maher’s belief in disbelief has taken a lifetime to develop. He said he had Catholicism “drilled into my head as a small child and slowly had it drilled out of me as an adult.” He made religious jokes when he started out as a stand-up comic and “had a modest proposal” on his TV show “Politically Incorrect”"about putting a warning label on the Bible. And I thought, ‘This is a topic that deserves a broader canvas.’ “

To help him spread this gospel, Maher recruited Larry Charles, director of “Borat.” They traveled to Rome, the Middle East and across the United States, talking to believers of every creed — including a man who claims to be the reincarnated Jesus and one who plays him at a religious theme park — and found in their arguments a defense of “indefensible, mythic thinking.”

“I can’t have intellectual respect for someone who believes in a talking snake,” he said.

It is estimated that 12% to 15% of the world’s population is nonreligious, but Maher and Charles think their film transcends this audience.

“We aren’t interested in reaching those people,” Charles said. “We want it to be a Saturday night movie. There’s ‘Tropic Thunder’ and ‘The Dark Knight,’ and we want ‘Religulous’ to be that kind of choice.”

While most Americans will say that they are religious, “we cherry- pick . . . what we want from the Bible,” Maher said.

“We ignore a lot of stuff because we have to,” he said. “Because the Bible says if your child comes home and says he’s converted to another religion, kill him. If you find out your neighbor is working on a Sunday, kill him. You just have to ignore that. And there are tens of millions who don’t think about religion at all.

“They aren’t anti-religion, and they aren’t pro-religion. And those are the people . . . I want to come to the movie. Because those people can be moved. They are like independent voters,” he said.

But he isn’t out to lecture the audience.

“I want them to laugh first and foremost,” Maher said. “I’d like them to say, ‘They made a funny movie.’

“Laughter is a good weapon to make a point. This is a hard subject. And using comedy makes it more palatable.”

TALKING POINTS

Shorewood’s David Zucker is a rare creature: a Hollywood Republican. Now, the co-creator of the “Airplane!” and “Scary Movie” series is putting his humor where his politics are with “An American Carol.” Zucker tells film critic Duane Dudek all about it — and what it’s like to be a conservative in liberal-land — on 1E.

And look for Dudek’s review of “Religulous” in Friday’s Weekend Cue.

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E-mail: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

Read Duane’s blog, Dudek on Film, at blogs.jsonline.com/dudek/.

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