There's nothing like a Bill Maher sneer to puncture the pieties and moral certainty of the deeply religious. In his documentary Religulous, which came out in October and will be released on DVD this week, Maher deploys the sneer in a series of interviews with a gamut of religious believers to convey the following message: You don't know what you say you know, and deep down, you know it.
"I'm here promoting doubt -- that's my product," Maher says near the beginning of the movie. "The other guys are selling certainty. Not me. I'm on the corner with doubt."
The film was the seventh highest grossing documentary of all time, a tribute to the way it utilizes Maher's ability to think on his feet and produce comic rejoinders and cut-downs. Maher has been cultivating this talent since he found his niche with Politically Incorrect in 1993, and continues to do so with Real Time with Bill Maher, the new season of which premieres tonight.
His religious interview subjects on his world-tour range from the brilliant (Dr. Francis Collins, a scientist on the human genome project and an evangelical Christian), the bizarre (the actor who plays Jesus at The Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando), the quackish (Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, who claims to be a reincarnation of Christ), and the downright frightening (Aki Nawaz, aka Propa-Gandhi, a Muslim British rapper who glorifies suicide bombing).
Most of the time, they come out on the butt-end of a Maher quip, their religious certainly no match for Maher's wit. With their certainty momentarily punctured, the film moves on and the viewer is left to revel in yet another victory for Maher, agnosticism, and comedy.
Maher is funny, but as always, he borders on contemptuous and dismissive, qualities that have long turned some people off to him. Needless to say, those who don't like Maher will not like this movie.
Critics say Maher's anger-tinged condescension undermines the ostensibly earnest purpose of his interviews: to find out why people believe. They also point out that, with a few exceptions, Maher's interview subjects are easy targets -- many of them are outlandish characters, and many of them just aren't as smart as he.
In an interview with me for HuffPost, Maher called this "a bogus criticism. We don't pick on the mentally infirm. There are a bunch of fringe characters who are very funny, but the majority of the movie is mainstream religious people."
He added: "What these [critics] fail to understand is that no matter who you are, no matter how quote-unquote intelligent you are, when you are defending religion, you sound like an idiot. That's the point: Anybody who defends the nonsense in religion is going to sound like a fool."
He was not finished: "If you believe in the core beliefs of the religion, that means you are tethered to the bible. You get your beliefs out of a book that condones slavery and says a man lived inside of a whale for 300 years. The religion comes from the book, and the book is full of nonsense and fucked-up ethics."
But Maher's contempt for religion is more than about making people look stupid. At the very end of the movie, the comedy gives way to a scathing monologue about religion and a call to political action. Maher cites a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life saying that 16 percent of Americans classified themselves as unaffiliated with a major religion. This represents a greater percentage of Americans than blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or NRA members. Why, then, Maher wonders, has religious faith become a prerequisite for political life in America?
"Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking," he says, concluding the movie.
"It's nothing to brag about, and those who preach faith, and enable it and elevate it are our intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction."
Editor's Note: The first 10 HuffPosters to email their name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org will receive a copy of the Religulous DVD signed by Bill Maher.