Loves Carrot Top
Join Date: Oct 2004
Bill and god (or not)
This exclusive interview with himself ran in the Chicago Sun Times today, Sunday Oct. 24. It's part of a series, apparently. Last one she did before this was Hef.
Maher: 'I'm spreading the anti-gospel'
October 24, 2004
BY CATHLEEN FALSANI RELIGION WRITER
Like many comedians, when Bill Maher talks, it's difficult to tell where the shtick ends and the truth begins.
Or, for that matter, whether there's any difference between the two.
So when Maher is already riffing on religion as a reporter walks into the Los Angeles offices of his HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher" for an hourlong interview about his spiritual beliefs, it's hard to say if the commentary is spontaneous or part of a routine.
"If there was just one topic I could talk about for the rest of my career, I would pick religion," Maher says, leaning back in his desk chair as if he's settling in for a long yarn. "It's the one that makes me angriest, I think, and it's the one that's least discussed, in my opinion."
Maher's relationship with religion seems to be a complicated affair. An attraction-repulsion kind of thing.
"It's a good subject because it's the most, sort of personal. What could be deeper than what people think about this stuff? And they usually don't talk about it," he says a few minutes after referring to Jesus as an "imaginary friend" and mocking Sen. Joseph Lieberman for strictly observing the Jewish Sabbath.
"I think so much that's wrong with our society stems from religion," Maher announces, launching into a dissection of what religion has to do with New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey's recent announcement that he would resign, in part because he's gay and says he's been living a lie for most of his adult life.
"Why does someone feel they have to hide who they are their whole life?" Maher asks rhetorically. "Where is this coming from? What is the root cause of that? The root of that is all from the Bible, from religion. If we didn't have religion, there wouldn't be this massive problem with gay people."
Maher's no fan of religion. He tries to make that much clear.
What's not clear is why.
Does he believe in God?
"I'm not an atheist, but, if I learned at the moment of my death or before, somehow, that there is no God, it's not like I'd be blown away by it," Maher says. "It's like Michael Jackson and kids. I never made Michael Jackson and little kid jokes because there was no proof, to me. I believed O.J. killed his wife, I had enough proof, you know? But if I found out definitively that Michael Jackson was having sex with little boys, it wouldn't surprise me. So in the same way, I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out there's no God.
"But I also tend to think that there's enough strange phenomenon and coincidences and unanswered questions that I don't dismiss some force in the universe. But I sure as hell don't respect people who make up stories to answer questions they otherwise couldn't," he says, gathering steam.
"That's one of the things that really bugs me about religion. If you don't know the answer, just say, 'I don't know.' Don't make up stories and make people believe them, and then work backwards in everything in life from the dumb little story you made up, you know? We don't know. Be a good person just because it's the right thing to do. How 'bout that?"
There's a lot Maher says he doesn't know about this life and the next. And he's OK with that.
"How did we get here? I don't know. What will happen when you die? I don't know. Is there a heaven? I don't know," he says, repeating his litany of disbelief. "I don't know if you're on the list to get in. I don't know. You don't know. But it's better than making up a story."
LOSING HIS RELIGION
Maher, 48, grew up Roman Catholic, attending weekend catechism classes, and weekly Sunday mass with his father and sister. His father was Catholic, his mother Jewish.
When he was 13, his father pulled everybody out of church.
"It was like V-J Day in my room," Maher says, laughing. "I couldn't have been more thrilled.
"My father, God bless him, became very disillusioned with the pope at the time, which was Pope Paul [VI]. He loved Pope John [XXIII]. He was the liberal pope, 1958 to 1963. So my father, as an Irish-Catholic American, was in his glory in the early 1960s. He had an Irish president. He had a liberal pope, whom he loved. But Pope Paul obviously rubbed him the wrong way."
This explains, at least in part, why today Maher has no religion. And no middle name.
When his family left the Catholic Church, he was preparing for the sacrament of confirmation.
"I was dreading it because that's where you get your middle name, and mine would have been Aloysius," he says. "It's actually a very common, Irish, Catholic, horrible name. So that's why to this day I don't have a middle name. I got off the hook right at that moment."
Aloysius is the patron saint of teens.
Maher's memories of the Catholic portion of his childhood are hardly fond.
"They tried to scare me," he says. "I remember vividly once when I was preparing for my first communion . . . I remember I was sitting, my arms were on the pew in front of me. I was slumped over. And I remember a nun said to me, 'The boy who is slumped over is going to go to hell.' For slouching."
He uses words like "poison" and "stupid" to describe his early religious indoctrination.
And then there are the jokes.
"I believed all this stuff when I was young," Maher begins, smiling wryly. "I believed there was a virgin birth, I believed a man lived inside of a whale, and I believed that the Earth was 5,000 years old. But then something very important happened to me -- I graduated sixth grade."
"It's kind of cruel, I realize," he says of that last punch line, momentarily cringing. "It kind of sticks the knife in and makes people feel. ... But you know what? At a certain point, I just lost patience with the faithful and pretending, pretending that this was something that was OK, to retain childish thought patterns into adulthood."
Religion is like mercury fillings, Maher says.
"That was something else that was drilled into my head when I was a child that I had no control over, into my teeth -- literally. They would fill our cavities up with [mercury]. Five years ago, or whenever it was, I had it drilled out. And I say the same thing about religion.
"As a child, you cannot be held responsible for the dumb things adults do to you. But you do have to take responsibility, I think, when you become an adult, to drill them out, to undo the damage."
ANGRY AND ANNOYED
In person, Bill Maher the man is just like Bill Maher the TV character. Just as snarky, just as opinionated, just as curmudgeonly. Perpetually perturbed.
Few things, though, seem to get his dander up like religious folks.
"One of the many things that annoys me about religion is that it's arrogance masquerading as humility," he says. It's a sentiment he'll repeat on his HBO show a few weeks later. "How arrogant to think you know what happens to you after you die? You don't. That's your guess.
"It's arrogant to think that, if there is a force in the universe, this force, whom most people refer to as 'Him,' has the time and inclination to listen to your stupid, petty laundry list of what you want in this life. Prayer. That's another, silly Santa Claus notion. Pray to Santa, and he'll give you what you want. It's so silly. It's so childish. And so much of the world is getting over this," he says, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Maher pauses and produces a stack of those blue TV note cards, like the kind Dave Letterman reads his top 10 list off of each night. Maher's blue cards contain factoids and statistics about religious beliefs and practices. He's searching for one particular statistic and, after a few moments of shuffling and flipping, he finds it.
In 1990, about 7 percent of the American population said they had "no religion," and in 2000, that number had doubled to 14 percent, he says.
"So, in 10 years, we've doubled the amount of people who say they don't have a religion," he says. "I find that incredibly encouraging."
The world would be much more "sane" without religion, Maher argues.
"So many of these born-agains, these evangelicals, when you hear them speaking, no matter what the question is, they can't leave Jesus out of it for two seconds," he says, his voice rising. "It's OK when you're a child. Children have an imaginary friend. When you get to be an adult, no more imaginary friends. But Jesus is their imaginary friend. Everywhere they go, everything they do, Jesus is along. Oh, Christ."
THE ROOT OF HIS DISDAIN
Why does this bother him so much?
"Because it's childish!" he snaps.
"Childish things retard the progress of society as a whole! As a society, we cannot move forward if there is a huge drag at the back of the parade!"
Has he always felt this way about religion?
"No, I was Catholic," he says, adding that he's not sure when his vitriol hit the boiling point.
"I don't remember. I guess my stand-up act is a better indication of where my thinking was. I don't remember in my stand-up act, for example, in the '80s, having a lot about religion.
"When I was first a comedian, it was about being half-Jewish and half-Catholic. But those were just jokes. That was just a comedy routine. It didn't really have a point of view about religion."
Maher's professional attention shifted to religion when he began working on his former TV chatfest, "Politically Incorrect," in 1993.
"I started having to cover issues where religion was prominent," he says. "The more I covered it, the more it angered me."
Despite his bellicose relationship with Christians -- and believers of any religious persuasion, for that matter -- Maher does have an odd appreciation for a kind of basic morality that just happens to be rooted in the Gospel.
"Morality is mostly the Golden Rule, treating other people the way you would like other people to treat you," he says. "I mean, the teachings of Jesus are a great moral guide. Jesus is one of the greatest role models I can think of. It's a shame that Christianity has gone so far from the teachings of Jesus. I don't know anyone less Jesus-like than most Christians.
"And, by the way, the Bible does have wisdom in it, but it's written in parables," he continues passionately. "It's the idiots today who take it literally. And the first parable that is in the Bible is the story of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge.
"What I believe that writer was trying to tell mankind was, 'You can't know. Don't try to eat from the tree of knowledge. You can't know. That's for God to know, not for you to know.' . . . And I believe that is a fairly wise story. You can't know."
Maher, who is single and has no children, says he believes in an afterlife, just not the kind that most religious people might describe.
SQUARING THE CIRCLE
"One way you could perceive the afterlife, and the difference from this life, is life on Earth is filled with all sorts of dualities," he explains. "It's fractured. Everything is fractured. There's man and woman. There's past and present. There's good and bad, heaven and hell, what you have and what you want. Everything is a duality, and that causes all the tension and pain in life.
"And, once in a while in life, when you kind of square that circle and make it something unified, when giving is receiving, when you feel like, 'Oh, the greatest gift is that I gave to you,' that is sort of touching the edge of heaven there," he says. "When lust and love are completely aligned, when your work is your play. Whenever you're squaring these dualities, that, to me, is a little taste of what a successful bridging of the afterlife might be."
Asked how what he does for a living is affected by his spiritual beliefs, Maher is ready with a provocative answer: "Well, I'm spreading the anti-gospel, aren't I?"
Like any polished preacher, his anti-gospel message, based on the premise that religion is "dangerous," can be summed up in three clear points.
"It wastes energy -- so much time and energy that could be spent on more important things, more-constructive things. It stops people from thinking. And it justifies insanity," he says, laughing. "Flying planes into buildings was a faith-based initiative. Other than that, I love it."
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