09/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Maher's 'Religulous': Oscar Bait?

When I attended a press screening for Bill Maher's "Religulous" in New York on Tuesday, it struck me like a lightning bolt on the road to the Kodak Theatre via Damascus: yeah, "Religulous" will probably be nominated for best docu at the Oscars -- and God help us all after that.

We know that "Religulous" is seriously in the derby for several reasons. First, Lionsgate hired veteran Oscars PR reps to handle its ballyhoo (Michele Robertson in L.A., Jeff Hill in New York). Secondly, the studio is giving the documentary its theatrical runs in L.A. and New York to qualify it for academy consideration, as Jeff Sneider notes at Anne Thompson's blog at Variety.com. Thirdly, the hallelujahs that film critics gave it today at the screening. More disciples are sure to follow.

In order to catch on widely like religion itself, what atheism has needed for a long time is a popular preacher to rally 'round. Maher just volunteered for the job that's been vacant since Madalyn Murray O'Hair vanished in the 1990s (eventually found murdered in 2001). Richard Dawkins has been a fine temporary stand-in, but not flashy like O'Hair. Bill Maher kicks things up a notch. He's a pop culture hipster who already has a large, anti-establishment flock, and he has a bully pulpit that O'Hair didn't: his own HBO show plus vast presence across all media.

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