Bill Maher: ‘I Think the Pope’s an Atheist’

On last night’s Real Time, Bill Maher talked about the flap between the Pope and the Vatican over whether atheists can be “redeemed.”

(To be fair, both sides are pretty much on the same page, believing that atheists are going to Hell unless they repent, that Jesus died for all of us, and that even the Godless are capable of doing great things.)

Still, Maher said he believed that, like Obama, the Pope must secretly be an atheist, which led to this soundbyte:

“I remember when I was making Religulous,” Maher said, “we talked to a lot of priests, and we found out that a lot of priests really aren’t believers. They do it because — now, some of them do it for the sex. But there’s a lot of good ones, they do it because it’s a way to help people. They know they can’t tell the masses that it’s all a crock, but they themselves don’t believe it.”

“Pope Frank,” Maher said, “he’s a sophisticated guy from that era, and — I’m telling you, I think the Pope’s an atheist.

Personally, I’d say the Pope is just doing anything he can to fix some of the damage the Church has inflicted on the world over the past couple of decades, he knows he has the ultimate pulpit with which to do it, and he’s taking advantage of that while he can. If that means speaking up for the poor or speaking positively about atheists, so be it. Let’s hope he eventually tackles the social issues and sex abuse scandals, too.

It won’t be the last time he says something the rest of the Vatican doesn’t like.

Maher also brought up Rebecca Vitsmun‘s exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer — a conversation that closed with playwright Paul Rudnick asking “And who made the tornado?”

(via Mediaite)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • SeekerLancer

    I agree that the Pope is just on damage control. They’ve been billing him as a public relations first-aid package since selecting him.

    It’s hilarious watching the rest of the Vatican defeat the purpose though.

  • Alconnolly

    The whole “I think the pope (or Obama) is an atheist” way of thinking. Just goes to show how even people who prize logic, are vulnerable to the whole “I decided that what I would like to be true is true, and I will ignore mountains of evidence against my conclusion and cling to tiny strands of evidence that with enough leaps in logic might support my preference just a little”.

  • Machintelligence

    Here is Daniel Dennett’s take on whether the Pope is an atheist (he was talking about the previous one). It begins at 26:15 with some observations about other notables in the RCC.

  • C Peterson

    Intelligence and theism are fundamentally incompatible in today’s world, assuming access to education and modern ideas. Of course, the brain is quite good at compartmentalization, and the power of false ideas implanted at a young age is indisputable. Nevertheless, there is a powerful correlation between high intelligence and atheism, and highly intelligent people tend to end up in powerful positions. I have no doubt at all that many U.S. presidents, and many popes have been atheists. But it can be awfully hard to tell which, since achieving positions of power is also characterized by good skills of persuasion (i.e. these people tend to be good actors).

  • Houndentenor

    The RCC was more concerned about bad publicity and lawsuits from children who were raped by priest and not at all concerned at god’s wrath. What does that tell you? I’m not sure they all admit to themselves that they don’t believe, but based on people’s actions rather than their words (which imho is what matters most) it’s clear that most believers don’t quite believe what they claim.

  • trivialknot

    This seems like a wild misinterpretation of the events. When the pope said everyone is redeemed, that’s long been in Catholic doctrine. When Catholic officials said not everyone is saved, they were clarifying the difference between redemption and salvation.

    Remember that time that news sources were *shocked* that Richard Dawkins wasn’t 100% sure that god doesn’t exist. Even though this was a big point in his book, and has been expressed in the popular ad campaign, “There’s probably no god”? That sure was stupid, wasn’t it? Now it’s the same thing, except Maher is being stupid.

  • JET

    I can’t conjecture whether the Pope and the President or many Catholic priests are actually atheists because I can’t see into their minds. I do think, however, that it’s probably impossible for any reasonably thinking human being to not have doubts at some point in their lives and it’s what one does with those doubts that dictates their general belief system. It comes down to a person’s ability to accept reality, self-dependence and human mortality.
    I don’t think this is necessarily based on intelligence. However you choose to measure intelligence (and we could argue about these methods forever), some people are better at things than others. Few as they are, there are people who understand math and science much better than I do yet still believe in some deity. And I personally know people who (by any measurement) are dumb as the proverbial box of rocks and they are atheists. I’m willing to concede that there may be some correlation between intelligence and non-belief, but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite.
    I also think that there is a big difference between what one actually thinks and what one is willing to say out loud. As long as most of the world believes (or says they believe) in some god, it can be political or social suicide for a non-believer to honestly and publicly come out as an atheist. Bill Maher can do so because it’s actually part of his identity. The Pope and the President may be closet atheists, but will never come out as such because they think is is beneficial to the world or to themselves to not do so. (Please note that I’m not saying there is an ACTUAL benefit, but only that they think so.) I’m happy to see a more liberal Pope because, like it or not, he has many followers. I’m also willing to overlook the President saying “God Bless America” at the end of every speech as long as his actions are secular.

  • Jacob Senz

    Unfortunately for you, there are theists that are a lot more intelligent than you, and they would disagree with your idea that theism and intelligence are incompatible. I guess it comes down to your argument against theirs, and in the absence of any kind of complete thought, we should probably side with the more intelligent person, not with you. Ironically, highly intelligent and powerful people also do not spend time checking websites like this one, responding to these stories every day and patting themselves and other like minded people on the back on a daily basis.

  • C Peterson

    I don’t think there are any theists more intelligent than I am, except in a very limited sense. A highly intelligent person who is both educated and reflective cannot be a theist unless they are somehow mentally damaged.

  • SphericalBunny

    I do not like C Peterson’s reply, because it’s full of shit; compartmentalism is not the same as ‘mental damage’ in the slightest (in the broader sense), and fucking insulting in the specific sense (show me the studies that prove brain damage results in woo-belief. Really. If you have an issue; clarify your terms).

    Having said that, Jacob, let me ask you to Google ‘argument from authority’. Then Google ‘compartmentalization’. Here’s a clue; ‘highly intelligent’ and ‘powerful’ are not synonymous, and no-one here will have a clue what ‘complete thought’ means unless you specify a definition. Either sort your garble out, or don’t bother; if it’s the latter, why the hell did you bother posting?

  • TCC

    No, we should side with the position that has more evidence to support it (or with the null hypothesis in the absence of evidence for an alternative one). Focusing on the intelligence or power of the person holding the position is simply an ad hominem (in the actual sense of the term).

  • C Peterson

    It may or may not be an ad hominem, but as I applied it, it most certainly isn’t an ad hominem fallacy.

    There is no real difference between being intelligent and educated and believing in gods than being intelligent and educated and believing the Earth is flat.

    If you believe in that for which there is no evidence, something is wrong. It may be a lack of intellect, it may be a lack of education, or it may be some sort of deficit. But something is wrong.

  • Jacob Senz

    Mine is not an argument from authority as I did not say that any one argument is right strictly because it comes from an authority. It is an argument from probability due to the complete lack of argumentation on both sides. Due to the fact that 1. C Peterson is full of shit (like you stated) 2. he is so delluded that he believes he is more intelligent than all of theists on this planet 3. there are more intelligent scientists and philosophers that disagree with him, once again, based on a lack of argumentation from both sides, it is a lot more probable that he is wrong and that more intelligent theists are right.

  • C Peterson

    Your argument is, however, not based on any evidence. You have no concrete way of comparing my intelligence and education to that of other people who might hold different opinions.

    The comment simply demonstrates a lack of tolerance towards my opinion, with no effort at all to rationally discuss my premise.

  • Jacob Senz

    Neither is yours, and if you think it is, you havent brought anything forth. However, considering you are deluded into thinking that you are more intelligent than every theist on this planet and the fact that there are more qualified and esteemed thinkers whose forum is not limited to responding in the comment section of a blog, i think it is fair to make the probabilistic determination that you are wrong. Especially when there is evidence that you are deluded since you stated your intelectual superiority over all theists when it is pretty much a given that no form of quantifiable scientific study could prove your statement right, on the contrary, you would probably be proven wrong.

  • Jacob Senz

    “If you believe in that for which there is no evidence, something is wrong”

    You have the philosophical understanding of the average layman and therefore cannot possibly be as intelligent as you think you are.

    Take Plato’ Law of Identity as an example, this is something we all believe and yet it is impossible to prove this with evidence without begging the question.

    Sorry C Peterson, you are a very deluded unsophisticated thinker (this comment IS based on evidence).

  • C Peterson

    I define intelligence as including the ability to apply reason, and actually using that ability. As it is impossible to apply reason and remain a theist, I conclude that intelligence (as I use the term) is incompatible with theism (assuming sufficient knowledge is available to apply reasoning).

    Sorry, I fail to see how that isn’t a reasonable assertion. Open to debate, certainly, but not something that can be casually dismissed.

  • Jacob Senz

    See my response to your response to TCC and you will find concrete evidence that your ability to apply reason is very limited.

  • Heathen Mike

    OK, C Peterson, but I think you stirred up this little hornets’ nest of dissent because you made some strident claims using your terms indiscriminately. “Intelligence” is multi-faceted. One can be intelligent in some ways–communication skills or mathematical skills or creativity, for example, and at the same time have poor ability to discern social cues or to pick up on others’ emotions. That’s just an example.
    Also, “Intelligence” is not quite the same thing as “knowledge.” There is overlap, but they are not the same. I have met many intelligent people I considered ignorant in certain specific ways. “Intelligence” implies a more permanent, more ingrained state of being or characteristic of a person. “Ignorance” can be corrected a bit more directly. Back when I was a devout fundamentalist teenager, I believe I was a generally smart kid, but I was raised steeped in a religious paradigm that took some time to untangle myself from. Calling people “Stupid” because they see the world from a different (and yes, sometimes ignorant) vantage point does not help to encourage them to work through their cognitive dissonance; rather, it tends to provoke a defensive reaction, e.g. Jacob Senz.

  • Heathen Mike

    I Love Bill Maher! As carefully diplomatic as I try to be most of the time in my day to day face to face interactions with religious people, it’s just a refreshing tonic for my “soul” (that’s a figure of speech) to hear him bluntly skewer religion for the sake of humor. As for the Pope observation, I’ve worked with many hospital chaplains in my line of work and have met several who admitted to my their own surprisingly non-religious thinking on the subject of “God.” It makes a certain amount of sense that so many people spending years of effort analyzing scriptures and doctrines would eventually discern problems with their faith organizations’ doctrinal codes.
    Incidentally, I like Pope Francis the more I hear of him. Hey, if someone’s got to occupy that position of prominence in such a huge organization as the Catholic church, it is all still going to seem kind of a waste of time to me, but at least its nicer to have someone in that role who appears thoughtful and genuinely concerned with helping people rather than the hard-nosed legalistic Ratzlinger (sp?) character they had previously. It just makes me smile a little to be able to think of the pope as a bit of a heretic. : )

  • C Peterson

    Heathen Mike- absolutely. Intelligence is complex. And in previous discussions (in more depth) regarding this subject, I’ve made it clear that “not intelligent” by my criteria does not mean a person can’t be very functional in some areas. I am not now, nor have I ever called somebody “stupid” simply for being a theist. “Stupid” is not the opposite of lacking a well developed intellect.

    I don’t mind provoking a reaction in this area. I think we have to spread the word that theism (and most certainly religion) are not supportable ideas by intelligent people. Atheists like to dodge this (even though many believe it privately). But it’s a truth that should not be disguised.

    Of course, in this particular discussion, I merely stated this opinion as an aside, supporting my contention that the actual rate of atheism is very high among people that we tend to recognize as intelligent. That many popes, presidents, and powerful people are, in reality, atheists, because they are too smart to be anything else.

  • Heathen Mike

    Point taken. And yes, I see I’m a dodger, too, sometimes. : /
    I think it’s the nature of blogs like this to have people commenting on the most recent posts they’ve read, but not take into account the entire blog thread, which can drag on so long that readers don’t always have the time. And sometimes, a point that the poster thinks is central to his or her post gets skipped over by respondents, because they are focused more on other points. Of course, I’d never do that myself. (note hint of irony.)

  • TCC

    Well, first of all, I was replying to Jacob Senz, but in either case, it doesn’t matter whether theists or atheists are more intelligent or have more power.

    I also think that your example is faulty – in the case of a flat earth, we not only have no evidence for it but actually contrary evidence. Gods are the kind of thing that people can define such that there can be no contrary evidence, and then your point about believing in things with no evidence still applies. Insofar as we have contrary evidence – for instance, a god that created the earth 6000-10,000 years ago – those gods have been falsified.

  • TCC

    Are you seriously comparing a fundamental law of logic to the existence of a divine being? Because if you can’t see a difference between those two, then C Peterson is right that “something is wrong.”

  • Anna

    I kind of worry that having a “nice” Pope will just encourage liberal and moderate Catholics (to say nothing of the general population) to ignore all the problems with the church as a whole. It’s not easy to see the church as a threat when the guy in charge is washing prisoners’ feet and talking about poverty all the time. But no matter how much nicer Francis might seem on the surface, he has the exact same belief system as the previous Pope. I worry that people won’t look past the surface to see all of the problems lurking underneath.

  • Jacob Senz

    Now, the problem seems to be reading comprehension. There is no evidence for the law of identity, there cant be, yet we are completely justified in holding this belief. Forget the divine being, the fact that that we are epistemically justified in holding a belief without evidence means that C Peterson’s claim that “If you believe in that for which there is no evidence, something is wrong” is a stupid one and therefore, the guy cannot be as intelligent as he claims to be for the simple reason that he has the philosophical understanding of a layman.

  • C Peterson

    You’re right, the example isn’t ideal. A better one would be that there is no intellectual difference between believing in a god and believing in Santa Claus.

    That said, there is contrary evidence for most of the actual gods people believe in, since we can demonstrate that much of their dogma is factually wrong- as I think you are saying. The number of people who believe in non-interventionist gods that come with no baggage in terms of miracles or describing how nature works is very, very small.

  • TCC

    I think you’re making too much out of that statement and being far too uncharitable. Yes, there are clearly things that have to be assumed without evidence, like the reliability of our senses or the laws of logic, but surely you know that those are the exceptions, not the rules. For most everything else, it is reasonable to require evidence, and that includes god claims. I can’t claim to speak for C Peterson, but I doubt that would be objectionable.

  • CultOfReason

    I pretty much agree with most of what you have to say. The only thing I would say/do differently is replace “intelligent” with “rational thinker”. Intelligence is far too complex and can easily be misunderstood by the casual reader in the context in which you are using it. Saying “rational thinking” is incompatible with theism might convey the same message you’re trying to get across, but with less ambiguity.

  • Heathen Mike

    If we assume that we both think it would be good for as many Catholics as possible to abandon their faith to adopt a more humanist view of the world, I guess it comes down to what approach we believe best furthers that aim. I can’t imagine the Catholic church withering away in my lifetime. Given that assumption, I support any movement in the church toward loosening up of orthodoxy and encouragement of Catholics to think about whether and how their doctrinal beliefs make any sense. I believe the more people get used to picking and choosing which doctrinal points they personally want to believe, the closer they are to rejecting ultimate authority of the church.

    On the other hand, if atheists just choose to attack all things Catholic in hopes of winning the whole “war” on faith, I think we run the risk of triggering the defensive reaction of Catholics (Christians, for that matter) reacting defensively and digging in their heels to defend their faith regardless of the gaps in logic.

    History is full of examples of religious people responding to too-blunt attacks on their faith and religious identity by clinging all the more tightly to that faith. Rational? No. But it seems to be how humans operate, emotional animals that we are. You’ll never win a debate with a devout believer simply by picking apart their beliefs with logic. They are likely to simply choose not to consider your argument; to ignore your logic. That is because faith is inherently not about logic. It is about things like identity and emotional needs and people’s understanding of how to best meet those needs.

    I’d love to see most people espouse no religious doctrine and instead to embrace reason, but in the big scheme, what really matters is stopping radical “fascist” religious adherents from being able to influence important social institutions and social rules, such as laws, to push their theocratic ideas, that the rest of us would have to live with.

  • Anna

    But the problem is that the new Pope isn’t any less orthodox than the old Pope. He’s a hardcore social conservative when it comes to issues like homosexuality, reproductive rights, and the role of women within the church. He seems nicer on the surface because he’s not foaming at the mouth over those things, but he’s not going to attempt to reform the church by changing any of the doctrine.

    The liberal and moderate Catholics already ignore the Vatican when it comes to those issues. I’m not as worried about them because I think they have a better sense of morality than the church does. My worry is just that Pope Francis give the Catholic church a better public image than it deserves, and that people are going to be more willing to buy in to the idea that since the Pope is a “nice guy,” then maybe the Catholic church isn’t so bad after all.

  • Heathen Mike

    Anna, I think your concerns make some sense, so I don’t want to sound to testy or contentious. I just think that nothing the Pope says can fully white-wash the image of the Catholic church to make it look too good. That’s because the deeply entrenched conservative power elites won’t cooperate with him. Look how the spokesman for the Vatican came out immediately after the Pope’s heretical and wonderful statements and completely contradicted him. My jaw was on the floor. I thought the Pope was supposed to be regarded as infallible. For him to come out and say something so progressive just ran smack up against the other power players in the church, and they could not abide it. Delicious!
    Yes, in some ways, I agree with you, that many people will hear the Pope and think “Oh how nice of him, Praise the Lord!” But in the ways that matter, the church’s policies remain just as draconian and regressive as ever, What the Pope’s words do, in my opinion, is to give encouragement to more progressive-minded Catholics to speak with their conscience, even when it defies the establishment.
    Anything that encourages Christians to voice disagreement with each other is good, because it diminishes the political power the church otherwise has when its members march in goose-step-fascist unison. Free-thinking Catholics, even when I don’t agree with all their perspectives, show that Catholics are rejecting the notion of infallible authority of the church. Especially when his own cardinals speak out against his statements. Those conservative faithfuls are going to have to work their brains a little harder to reconcile the notion of an infallible church with the fact of Pope and Vatican officials openly disagreeing with each other.

  • Heathen Mike

    Oh look! Mr. Mehta seems to have addressed this very issue in a way with this new blog post below.

    The Christian Church Won’t Become More Inclusive… and That’s Good for All of Us
    June 5, 2013 By Hemant Mehta
    He says it does not serve the humanist aims of atheists to totally reject progressive Christians. When it comes to progressive social causes that make a difference in people’s lives, we are better served finding a way to work respectfully with progressive religious folks against the truly vicious hateful fundies who try to impose their theocratic ideas on the rest of us.

  • Anna

    I admire your optimism! I suppose I’m just much more of a pessimist on this issue. I can’t see any way that the new-and-improved Pope could be good for atheists and secularists. He’s good for the reputation of the Catholic church, and he’s good for liberal Catholics, but ultimately those Catholics (dissidents though they may be) prop up the enormous power of the church as a whole. I’d like to be proven wrong on this. Maybe somewhere down the road, we’ll see a positive effect brought about by more liberal Catholics. The power structure of the church certainly won’t make it easy, but I do support their efforts to try to reform Catholicism.

  • babby660

    It apparently doesn’t require a lot of intelligence to be president. George W. Bush is a prime example.