Comedian, talk show host and atheist evangelical Bill Maher will perform at the Grove of Anaheim on Sunday, Sept. 13. We got a chance to chat with him on the phone last week, mainly to ask him for his thoughts on all things Orange County and right-wing.
Maher hosts HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, and produced and starred in the 2008 anti-religion documentary Religulous. If you think he's a jerk for saying Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren suffers from a "neurological disorder," consider this: He was nice enough to call the Weekly back when the phone went dead!
OC Weekly: I'm curious, what's your perception of Orange County, homeland of Richard Nixon and Disneyland?
Bill Maher: You know, I always love to come to any place that is a republican bastion, and Orange County has certainly always had that reputation. I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma this year, I was in Greenville, South Carolina... Nashville... I was really in some red-state, redneck places.
But in all those kind of places, there's always a lot of smart, progressive, liberal-thinking people. And they come out of the woodwork when I come to town. [laughs] I'm a really rallying point. I think they're very grateful that I didn't pass them over and say, "Oh, you know what, that's where a lot of right-wingers live, I'm not gonna go there." No, they're there. They're just surrounded by a bunch of right-wingers or rednecks or whatever. But they're marbled into this country, in every nook and cranny of this country. I have a good time in places like that. I always had a good time playing Anaheim.
Great. We've got people here like Rick Warren -- he's our hometown pastor..
He's your what?? He's your town pastor?
Well, you know. He's from here.
I didn't know that.
Yeah. You used to do that bit where you read from his book.
I don't do it anymore, but yes, I used to get huge laughs with that.
What do you think of the guy?
Well, on the bright side, he's an improvement over Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, which is a little like saying nothing at all. But you'll take what you can get in this arena. He is an improvement over those guys. He is not somebody who would say, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, that 9/11 was justified, and was god's retribution for us being such a wicked society full of lesbians and homosexuals and adulterers and what not. He understands global warming and poverty. He's a little closer to what I perceive as the actual message of Jesus.
On the other hand, he is like all religious people -- saddled with a neurological disorder -- and believes in magic and flying gods and the kind of nonsense that's going to cripple humanity as it tries to progress and move forward.
If you could replace all 20 million copies of the Purpose Driven Life with some other book, what would it be?
Probably Sam Harris's The End of Faith.
Ok. Think that'd go over well?
Ha. Of course not. Religious people... you know, they believe what they believe. But as Christopher Hitchens said in his book, the farewell has begun. The farewell to religion. It may be a long goodbye, but it has begun. The march of history is on our side. You see it in this country. The census in 1990 said 7% of people in America had no religious affiliation. By 2000, it said it was 14%. And Chris Hitchens and myself with Religulous and lots of other people are talking up atheism.
We're always surprised at how many people come up to us and say, "Oh, I agree with you, thank God you" --- well, thank God, you know, the expression -- "it's so great that you are talking about this stuff." These people are out there in large numbers. They just aren't organized because by their nature of being individuals and not needing to joining a group like religious people do, they don't seem like they're any sort of group of consequence. But they are.
We tried to point out in Religulous that the number of people in this country that are atheist or agnostic are actually a bigger minority than all the minorities we talk about and hear about every day like blacks and Jews and Hispanics and NRA members and the teacher's union and everybody else who gets a say in this society. But these people are invisible and it's their own fault. It's because we haven't stood up. But I think that's changing.
I also want to talk a little bit about the birthers. Do you know Orly Taitz, does that name mean anything to you?
Oh, the one who started it, that crazy lady?
Yeah, she's from here too.
You wrote that the birthers need to be stopped, back in July. How do we stop them?
Well, by not ignoring them. The point of that editorial that we did was that democrats traditionally don't take crazy right-wing attacks seriously. The examples I cited were Whitewater. They said, "Oh, what's that going to lead to?" And obviously it lead to the impeachment of a president. And the swift boat attacks on John Kerry. John Kerry saw that and said, "Oh my god who's going to believe that? Please. I'm a war hero. I'm running against a draft dodger. How can you turn that around?" Well they can. So I was just saying, don't just laugh off the birthers. They need to be confronted. It needs to be demonstrated how crazy it is.
So how do you demonstrate that? Do you take them on their own terms, talk about their theories? Or do you just keep making fun of them?
Well I think it's the same way you would with the health care debate, which they haven't done a good job of either. In that debate, it got into the body politic that Obama might wanna pull the plug on your grandmother. Again, people in this country will believe anything unless you slap them upside the head and show them no, this is not true. Somehow we live in the information age, when we're supposed to become more intelligent and have more information, but it seems to have just made people more gullible. It seems like anything they read online, if it doesn't have LOL after it, must be true.
You mentioned that progressives are "marbled" throughout the country, including Orange County. Do you think there's any chance that places like this will eventually turn blue?
Well certainly states did that we didn't think so, with the Obama victory in November. I mean who would have thought that North Carolina and Indiana would vote democratic? You know, I would never accuse the American people of being geniuses, but even they...
[At this point, the phone cuts out. Maher calls me back a few minutes later.]
What were talking about?
Red places turning blue.
I can't remember where I was going with that, but...Orange County has already turned a lot bluer because of the Hispanic influx, right?
Yeah, it has.
Which is a microcosm for what's happening in the rest of the country. The Republicans have sort of painted themselves into a deadly electoral corner by becoming the champions only of white people. There are no, I think, Hispanic congress people at all anymore. Mel Martinez in Florida is quitting, and I don't think there's any black congressmen or senators... So they are representing a part of the country that is only dwindling in population. Which is a super smart electoral strategy.
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Well, now they're scaring people with the death panels... and who would wants to vote for a guy that wasn't born here?
Do you think that's tenable -- scare tactics?
Well, scare tactics have always been good for them. But at a certain point, there is diminishing returns on them. Yes, you can always scare people -- to a degree. Can you scare them enough to win elections over and over again? I dunno. Lincoln said you can't fool all the people all the time, but... you know, he didn't live in 21st century America.