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Maher takes on religion, but some interviewees cry foul

LOS ANGELES — Bill Maher has never been shy about speaking his mind. He doesn't mince words.

In his new film “Religulous,” which opens Friday (Oct. 3), the comedian calls religion “detrimental to the progress of humanity” and portrays believers — especially Christians — as irrational and perhaps even psychotic.

“People otherwise so rational about everything else, (on) Sunday they're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old god,” he says in the film.

He then leads viewers on a whirlwind trek across four countries and five religions. He conducts more than 30 interviews with people of faith, including a Muslim rapper in The Netherlands and a Florida sect leader who preaches he is the second coming of Christ. The film — punctuated with wisecracks, clips from epic religious films, mocking on-screen text and sarcastic monologues — focuses mostly on Christians.

The problem, according to some people in the film, is that Maher's fast-paced, edited versions of exchanges don't truly reflect the complex beliefs they shared with him.

“Bill Maher was quite aggressive in pursuing his atheist agenda,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, which successfully mapped human DNA.

Collins filmed lengthy conversations with Maher about the relationship between faith and science, making “the case that acceptance of evolution is entirely consistent with belief in God,” he said. That conversation apparently ended up on the cutting room floor; Collins appears briefly in the film, discussing a non-science related topic.

“Religulous” is directed by Larry Charles, the man who teamed up with Sacha Baron Cohen to create “Borat,” which drew criticism from its subjects for some of the same deceptive tactics and creative editing.

Maher declined requests for an interview, but explained his tactics to the Los Angeles Times:

“It was simple: We never, ever, used my name,” he told the newspaper. “We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it `A Spiritual Journey.' … At the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they'd be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they'd have to talk to me.”

Some of Maher's subjects appear to be saying things they never intended. At the Vatican, Maher interviewed the Rev. Reginald Foster, a gregarious Wisconsin native who's the pope's unofficial Latinist. Foster genially agrees with Maher's argument that Jesus' birthday is not on Dec. 25, saying, “Yeah, yeah, we don't know when it is.”

The implication is that the church has been lying about the truth of Christmas for 2,000 years. In reality, the church concedes Dec. 25 is never mentioned in the Bible, and says the actual date in history is less important than the historic event it commemorates.

The Rev. George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican observatory, was interviewed to rebut assertions made by Ken Ham, a proponent of Intelligent Design and curator of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Coyne tells Maher that “the Bible is not a book of science,” but leaves out his belief that evolution nonetheless represents a “continuous creation” by God that the Catholic Church believes need not contradict science.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a research neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Why We Believe What We Believe” was interviewed about his studies that show unique brain activity associated with religious belief or practice.

“People would look at the scans that we did and somebody like Bill Maher would say, `There it is. It proves that (religion is) just a manifestation of your brain and that's it.' And somebody (else) would say, `Wow. This is how God interfaces with me, interacts with me and affects me and changes who I am.“'

Newberg said he disagrees with — and never implied in his talk with Maher — the idea that religious people are somehow delusional. “Certainly he's going to spin it how he wants,” Newberg said.

Which is not to say all those featured in the film were left uneasy by their portrayal on screen. Joe Copeland of Truck Stop Ministries, an organization that places chapels at truck stops throughout the country, said he enjoyed his encounter with Maher “tremendously.”

“They didn't tell me it would be Bill Maher,” Copeland said by phone from North Carolina. “They told me they were doing a story about different types of religious services in our area.”

After a sometimes heated exchange, Maher thanks Copeland for “being Christ-like, and not just Christian.”

For Copeland, responding gently to Maher was all in a day's work as a pastor and volunteer.

“We're not going to get far if we're trying to badger, beat you, belittle, put you down. We gotta move to where we say, `You know, regardless of what you believe, we still love you.' We still love him. Regardless of whatever his beef is, he's still him. He's still a child of God.”