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.
Up until recently, I didn't realize how few Americans knew about the historical argument against Jesus. As the product of 16 years of Catholic education — from St. Mary's Elementary School in Mentor, Ohio, to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. — I've had more than a casual interest in the pro and con issues. Two years ago, when "The Da Vinci Code" was the big buzz, I was amazed at how many people were shocked when I'd say something like, "Well, there is no historical evidence that Jesus ever existed."
What?! I could expect outrage over the comment but not surprise from sophisticated, educated people, religious or not. Doesn't everybody know that Roman and Jewish writers who were alive during the time that Jesus is said to have lived do not mention him? Contemporary historical accounts record lots of other messiah figures but somehow manage to miss the one who Christian texts claim posed such a huge threat to the powers that be that the Roman leaders had to crucify him. The first historic record of Jesus doesn't come till AD 93 — more than a half century after the date given for Jesus' crucifixion — and that account, allegedly by Josephus, is widely disputed, as is another oft-cited mention of Jesus in 120 by Tacitus. READ MORE
In "Religulous," you can see lots of shocked faces when Bill Maher mentions casually that none of the people who wrote the Bible — including Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, even St. Paul — ever met Jesus. They're flabbergasted. They can't believe what they're hearing.
Many devout Christians who are aware of these facts accept them and continue to practice their religion anyway because their beliefs are based on faith, and that's fine. There is no historical evidence that says Jesus didn't exist, so God bless them, I say.
But I don't think that most Christians know about the lack of historical evidence or some other hot topics that Maher dares to bring up in "Religulous" — like how many of America's Founding Fathers blasted religion. Maher quotes Benjamin Franklin's line "Lighthouses are more useful than churches," and really nasty stuff from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
Most Americans, I've come to learn, really believe that our Founding Fathers were devout Christians. The history books used in our schools somehow fail to quote what Jefferson thought on the subject: "Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man."
"Religulous" not only whips up these subjects but does so in a well-made film that is — God help us all —entertaining. Maher, after all, is a master comedian and satirist.
And he's a savvy media guru too. He's doing lots of PR to push "Religulous" while teaming up with his director, Larry Charles ("Borat"). When "Religulous" opens in theaters in October, and media buzz is cranked up high, it'll certainly cause religious uproar, which will only fuel further interest.
Thus Oscar voters will be forced to pay attention to "Religulous" and, assuming it gets enough good reviews — which I think it will — it will be taken seriously by them as a film. So far it's not a strong year for documentaries, so, barring divine intervention, I think it's in the derby.