Moving Pictures November 2008

An Atheist Walks Into a Bar …

Bill Maher’s spiritual journey
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He's just another seeker looking for answers. (Pay no attention to the video camera!)
(Photo credit: Courtesy of Lionsgate)

The sea of faith ebbs further. Last year, as you remember, the atheists were philosophers, boffins, and rhetoricians. This year, they’re comedians. In June, the blustery, flustery Lewis Black published his non-apologia, Me of Little Faith; a couple of weeks later, the death of George Carlin reminded everybody what a cranky old infidel he was. And now we have Religulous, an atheist-on-wheels documentary starring Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time. Spoiler alert: God dies at the end of this movie. In fact, he’s dead all the way through. In fact, he was never born! But we’re getting ahead of ourselves …

The compact between unbelief and laughter is not new, of course: the human need for a takedown of the gods might even be comedy’s most ancient warrant. I’d argue, though, that the higher atheist comedy was perfected only within the past 150 years, and right here in America. Indeed, if the first wave of 21st-century nonbelief, led by penetrative Oxonians like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, had a distinctly mid-Victorian flavor to it, then this year’s New Atheism has arrived at the era of Mark Twain.

Twain’s atheism was famously posthumous. Electing to preserve his enormous public from the full force of his opinions, while he drew breath he kept his most God-hostile writing unpublished: the readers who had snapped up Tom Sawyer were not to know that he regarded the Beatitudes as a sequence of “immense sarcasms.” But even as early as The Innocents Abroad (1869), in which Twain pleasure-cruises to the Holy Land in the company of religious tourists, his boisterous American philistinism was becoming a sort of metaphysic. The clueless pilgrims were innocents, of course, but innocent too after his fashion was the keen-eyed narrator—innocent of piety, innocent of cant, innocent (when you get right down to it) like Axl Rose in Guns N’ Roses’ “Out ta Get Me”: “They’re out ta get meee! / They won’t catch meee! / Cuz I’m fuckin’ innocent!”

Close behind Twain came Ambrose Bierce, with the lethal compressions of his Devil’s Dictionary (“Grave, n. A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student”), and the rhetorical wrecking ball that was H.L. Mencken. The unearthing of Twain’s hidden writings was a particular delight to the latter: “The true man emerges,” he crowed in a 1917 piece for the New York Evening Mail. Twain’s unbelief, for Mencken, was almost the fulfillment of his Americanness. “Mark was wholly of the soil,” he proclaimed. Here the American comic atheist rises up: unencumbered, disenthralled, in rude existential health, not huddled palely in some priest-ridden twilight but soaking up the UV of reality. Fuckin’ innocent, in a word.

So how do the new atheist comedians stack up against their predecessors? Lewis Black isn’t nearly mean enough. He’s too addled and dispersed onstage, his center of gravity is too high—his celebrated angry-ness vibrates out of his upper rib cage, rising to make his cheeks quake before flapping off loosely through the wrists. Worse, he confesses in Me of Little Faith to severe New Age tendencies: frequenting psychics, indulging in meditational mindblows. (“The vague shapes and shadowy figures I had been seeing turned into a mandala of spectacularly vivid colors.”) George Carlin, on the other hand—now, he was a bit more like it. Casting, like Twain at his most cosmic, what might be called the satanic eye upon humanity, he reveled coldly in all manner of earthly weakness. And he got meaner as he got older: Life Is Worth Losing, one of his last specials for HBO, found him prowling in front of gravestones, with fake snow like dandruff all over the stage, eliciting from his audience not belly laughs but wary croaks of intellectual assent.

And then there’s Bill Maher. Religulous takes the form of a travelogue, a grand tour of human folly; if the video camera had existed when Mencken was reporting on the Scopes trial, this is how he would have covered it. The style is similar to that of director Larry Charles’s previous escapade, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, with Maher replacing Sacha Baron Cohen as the provocateur. Like Borat, it thrives on instability and confrontation, with many of the scenes having that special about-to-be-bounced feel to them—heavy breathing at the edge of the frame, as we sense the impending intervention of the guard, the goon, the aggrieved citizen. Maher and Charles are ejected from the Vatican and denounced at the Dome of the Rock. In Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Mormon enforcers loom even as a passing freethinker cries out in solidarity (“Tell it like it is, Bill!”). All good clean seat-of-the-pants stuff. And the legwork is impressive too—in Amsterdam alone, Maher interviews two politicians, a Franciscan monk, a brace of Muslim homosexuals, and a man who has founded, though he seems a little unclear on its basic tenets, his own private cannabis-based religion.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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