An Atheist Walks Into a Bar …

Bill Maher’s spiritual journey

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his enormous public from the full force of his opinions, while he drew breath he kept his most God-hostile writing unpublished: the readers who had snapped up Tom Sawyer were not to know that he regarded the Beatitudes as a sequence of “immense sarcasms.”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.

Watch the trailer for Religulous

Director and showboat make a nifty team. Charles is a character: formerly a writer on Seinfeld (the most atheistic show ever broadcast on network television), he tends to dress in the manner of a down-at-heel warlock or a disguised Balkan despot. We glimpse him occasionally at the rim of the action, shrouded in coats and wielding an enormous beard. Maher by contrast is all slickness and centrality—brilliantined, bespoke, with that pampered chuckle and long, connoisseurial nose. Together they are determined to get to the bottom of this religion thing: What is it? Why are we so crazy about it? What the hell? Heavy questions, but my sense is that audiences, having been mentally tenderized over the summer by the bozo profundities of The Dark Knight, are ready for this. (Did you hear the rapturous hush during Heath Ledger’s sermon on chaos?)

The jokes are almost too easy, as Maher acknowledges: barn door—shotgun—kaboom. At Speaker’s Corner, the famous pressure valve of British democracy on the edge of London’s Hyde Park, he dresses up as a bum and rantingly proclaims the truth of Scientology (Thetans! … E-meters!). Medieval scenes ensue as the mob jeers and then crowns him, Feast of Fools–style, with a hat made of balloons. Half the time, all Charles needs to do is point the camera: the Institute for Science and Halacha, in Jerusalem, is a mad nest of creaking, puffing, Sabbath-circumventing machines—no commentary required. José Luis De Jesús Miranda, head of the International Ministry Growing in Grace and direct descendant of Christ, appears in a green suit against a yellow background, showing cocaine-white teeth. At the Holy Land Experience, in Orlando, Florida, a man in a House of Blues T-shirt aims a desultory camcorder at a staggering, bloodied Jesus; George Saunders couldn’t have written it better.

Religulous should make the faithful wince. The average Christian—as if we needed reminding—makes a piss-poor apologist for his own faith. One might expect a doctrine as insolently extraordinary in its claims as Christianity to have produced some tip-top debaters, but oh dear, Maher has them on the ropes in seconds. We can perhaps forgive Steve Berg, ex–Jew for Jesus, for being temporarily unable to instruct Maher on the difference between believing in God and believing in Santa Claus. But what about Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who hazards a half-assed defense of creationism (“Well, I believe the scientific community is still divided on that …”) before clamming up altogether, frozen-­faced at his own idiocy? Even Dr. Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project, appears unprepared for the Maher assault. The nimblest controversialist in the movie, curiously, turns out to be the guy who dresses up as Jesus at the Holy Land Experience. Robed and sandaled in full Redeemer drag, he deals with Maher unflappably. The doctrine of the Trinity? “It’s like water, Bill. It can be ice, steam, or water—three things in one!” (“A brilliant analogy,” Maher later confesses.) Justifying the ways of God to man? “Like trying to explain the workings of a TV set to an ant.” And when this husky Christ with the puppy-dog eyes begins to speak of the “God-sized hole” in Bill Maher, even Bill looks a little worried.

Can an atheist go on a spiritual journey? Maher was raised Catholic, with a Jewish mother. He interviews her for his movie: Religion, she says, “only told you good things. Or so I thought.” “But it’s so shamelessly invented!” he complains. “Well,” she concedes, “we can say that now.” In tantalizing glimpses of autobiography, Maher reveals that as late as age 40 (he is 52), he was still “making deals” with God. So what happened? Standing on the baked stones of Megiddo, snorting at the Second Coming, he seems fully formed—as secure in his American irony as Twain or any of them. But what formed him, exactly?

I like Maher best when he’s bringing his own brand of acidulous biblical witness to bear. Reminding the glossily appareled Jeremiah Cummings, the head of the Worldwide International Campaign for Christ, that Saint Paul traveled with only the shirt on his back, he asks, “Should I assume that this is the only $2,000 suit you own?” To John Westcott, of the gay-conversion outfit Exchange Ministries, he submits the fact that Jesus had precisely nothing to say about homosexuality. Most stirringly, when several large working-class men at a roadside truckers chapel not only decline to beat him up but instead offer a sincere prayer that his questions will be answered, Maher thanks them for being “Christlike, and not just Christian.” After moments like this, the movie’s ending—in which Maher bellows antireligious anathemas (“Grow up or die!”) over mushroom clouds and distant boomings of Nietzschean dynamite—seems a little heavy-metal.

Being a manipulatively liberal sort of polemic, Religulous will doubtless be compared with the work of Michael Moore. The film it’s closest to, however, is the much-scorned Expelled—a work of creationist propaganda, starring Ben Stein, that was released earlier this year and seen primarily by journalists and cranks. Both movies feature a laconic/comedic narrator, a series of unintentionally self-satirizing interviewees, a sprinkling of “experts,” and a concluding sequence that is orchestral and declamatory. Both make use of vintage footage and slapstick sound effects. Maher’s is much better, but formally they differ only in that Expelled operates out of a central, completely loony metaphor—that science and faith have been divided by a “Berlin Wall” of materialist ideology—and Religulous does not. (Its makers, we might say, are constitutionally unmetaphorical.)

Ours is an age between ages, a halfway house whose symptoms are detectable everywhere. The plastic fork, fast food’s chief instrument, has so degenerated that it can no longer perform the stern office of a fork but instead bends like a stage prop when you try to get something on the end of it. The Yellow Pages continues to arrive with a loyal thump on the doorstep, despite the fact that it is going directly into the recycling bin. And what we believe in, generally speaking, is a wishy-washy snooze-button humanism. To this last debility, no sharper corrective currently exists than the American comic atheist. He energizes the secular man, and puts the believer on his mettle. I don’t happen to agree with him—that certain things should modestly withdraw before the peashooter of the intellect is not, to my mind, proof of their nonexistence. I’m for the leap of faith. But I’m grateful that he’s out there, alive and well and pointing a pitiless camera—our aboriginal exploder of idols, bless him.