Maher, who has been picking on organized religion for years on his TV shows ``Politically Incorrect'' and ``Real Time,'' zealously traveled the world for ``Religulous,'' his documentary challenging the validity and value of Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths.
Raised in a Roman Catholic household by a Catholic father and Jewish mother, Maher decided at an early age that the trappings and mythology of the world's religions were preposterous, outdated and even dangerous.
``Religulous,'' directed by fellow doubter Larry Charles (``Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan''), is intended to inspire similar skepticism in others _ and perhaps get nonbelievers to talk more openly about their lack of faith.
``I'm not looking to form an anti-religion religion. That would defeat the purpose,'' Maher said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where ``Religulous'' played in advance of its theatrical release Friday. ``It's the nature of the people who are not believers that they're individuals, they're individualistic. They don't join and all lock arms and say, `We all believe this and so it must be true because we have strength in numbers.'''
The numbers Maher and Charles really hope to grab are general audiences simply looking for a fun night at the movies.
Maher, 52, who started mocking religion back in his early standup comedy days, has no misconceptions that ``Religulous'' will shake people's lifelong convictions to the core. He's mainly looking for laughs such as those the film elicited from the enthusiastic crowd at its Toronto premiere.
``I was so gratified to finally go to a screening with people last night and hear how big the laughs are,'' Maher said. ``Because we set out to make a comedy. I always said, my primary motivation was I'm a comedian, and this is comedy gold.
``When you're talking about a man living to 900 years old, and drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old god, and that Creation Museum where they put a saddle on the dinosaur because people rode dinosaurs. It's just a pile of comedy that was waiting for someone to exploit.''
Charles shot 400 to 500 hours of material around the world as Maher visited a Christian chapel for truckers in North Carolina, a gay Muslim bar in the Netherlands, the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, and Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places in Israel.
Maher meets with priests at the Vatican, chats with rabbis and Muslim scholars in Jerusalem, encounters street preachers in London, and hangs out with the performer who plays Christ in a crucifixion enactment at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida.
They left Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism alone largely for budgetary reasons, saying the extra travel and expanded scope would have made the film too unwieldy.
They also figured that Christianity, Islam and Judaism were the trinity of faiths at the heart of Western conflict.
Charles grew up Jewish and once considered becoming a rabbi but was discouraged by his parents, who told him to ``get bar-mitzvahed, get the checks and then get the hell out,'' he said. He said he now shares Maher's position: Heavy on doubt about the existence of a supreme being, even heavier on certainty that organized religion is hazardous to humanity's health.
``If I believe that Jesus is God and you believe Mohammed is God, then no matter how tolerant we are, we are never going to meet,'' Charles said. ``All you have to do is push that one more step, then somebody's like, `You're in the way of people believing in Jesus,' and `You're in the way of people believing in Mohammed,' and the only answer is to kill you.
``Unfortunately, that sort of thing dominates the religious landscape, not the Mother Teresas of the world. She becomes the aberration. ... The altruistic wing of religion has been minimized and this militaristic, warmongering fundamentalism has become the dominant presence.''
Charles said he assembled the 100-minute film from 14 hours of prime material. He has suggested to distributor Lionsgate that the 14-hour cut could be edited into half-hour segments and sold to television as a series.
Never one to soft-pedal his own opinions, Maher openly scorns remarks made by Christians, Jews and Muslims he interviews. He hopes audiences will laugh with him, and that ``Religulous'' will stand as a testament for people who share his scorn.
``It is a sobering thought to think that the U.S. Congress has 535 members and there's not one who represents this point of view, and yet there are tens of millions of Americans who feel this way,'' Maher said.
``Comedians have always made jokes about religion. It's a rich topic. I did when I was a young comedian, but they weren't jokes that got right to the essence of it, which is, this is dangerous and this is silly.''