When Bill Maher Loses the Storyline

Bill Maher regularly loses his composure over one, and only one, issue: Religion.  Two opening caveats by me: 1) I like Maher’s show, watch it regularly, and secretly long to be invited on as a guest; and 2) I’ve not seen his “documentary,” Religulous.  I’ve got nothing against it, and I’m sure I’ll see it someday.  But I’m disinclined to make time to watch it based on the tepid reviews it received, and because of the way that he talks about religion on his show, as exhibited this weekend (clip is 14:33 long):

I understand that Maher is a blowhard.  That’s what gets him in trouble and what gets him viewers.  I’m down with that.  I’m not easily offended, and his barbs sometime make even my hair stand on end.  But I’m not troubled by his language, his weird aversion to medicine, or his avowed pot-smoking.

But he’s gotten so strident about his antipathy for religion that he literally will not allow his guests to complete a sentence.  He behaves around religion as he does about no other issue.

For instance, in the clip above, he repeatedly interrupts Newark super-Mayor, Cory Booker to tell Booker what Booker believes!  When Booker attempts to articulate the more liberal stance to eternal life, basically stating that there are many ways to heaven, Maher responds by mis-quoting Jesus.  Then Maher tells Booker that Booker doesn’t believe the Bible.  Having misquoted John 14:6 several times, Maher says that he, unlike Booker, “reads the whole book.”  Seriously, Bill?  Talk about redonkulous.

Maher savaged another guest, S.E. Cupp and her book, Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity. Honestly, I thought that she came off looking as stupid as any guest Maher’s ever had on.  Her book clearly sucks, as evidenced by the Amazon reviews.  She’s eye-candy for some publisher who bought her some Ashleigh Banfield glasses and turned a fan to blow on her during her cover photo shoot.  The cover of your first book is not your head shot — especially if you’re a 30-year old who just finished a Master’s degree — unless someone is trying to get you a gig as a FOX News analyst.

But Maher’s evisceration of Cupp was overshadowed by his blathering and nonsensical interruptions of Booker.  My biggest problem with how Maher handles religion isn’t even his atheistic anger — I can handle that.  It’s that it makes for bad TV.  It’s incredibly frustrating to watch.  In fact, the only defender to religion that I’ve seen Maher allow to speak is Andrew Sullivan.  With all others, it seems that Maher is blinded by his own rage at religion.  Here’s what I mean, as evidenced on Friday night:

  1. Maher says that all wars and misery are caused by religion
  2. Cupp responds that the fascist rulers of WWII were not religious
  3. Maher responds that Communism is a state religion, thus stating that religion is a much broader category than most would allow
  4. Booker then tells Maher that Maher’s atheistic zealotry is religious, which, by Maher’s own definition, seems obvious
  5. Maher disagrees, vehemently

This is what I mean by Maher’s usual liberal-libertarian logic being obfuscated by his own hatred of religion.

I like it when religion is talked about on TV.  Most shows — nightly news, Sunday morning political talk shows, etc. — avoid it like the plague for fear of offending someone.  Some — 60 Minutes, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, and Bill Maher — will talk openly and honestly about it and allow guests to do the same.  It’s why I watch their shows and not the others.

But I’m losing patience with Bill Maher.

Bill, if you’re listening, get over it.  We all know you hate religion.  But your hatred of it is starting to interfere with your real job as an entertainer/commentator.

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  • completely agree.

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  • Michael Todd

    I like Maher, too, but I can’t watch his show. The way he moderates a debate reminds me of Sean Hannity. He’s rude. He interrupts. He’s dismissive of arguments which disagree with his, especially on religion. Bill O’Reilly has far more tact than Maher, and that is saying a lot, because O’Reilly is a pompous blow hard.

    His hatred of religion reminds me of George Carlin. Carlin seemed to get worse and worse about this exact issue with each successive year. Sometimes he was funny, but often, it was just so vitriolic that I thought he was expending his capital of decades as funnyman to preach “at” his audience, and they endured it, out of reverence to him, and in hope that he would get back to the telling jokes.

  • Justin Woulard

    I like Maher too, and watch the show fairly regularly. I agree with you on his attitude about religion, after a while it comes off as childish and gets extremely annoying. The movie actually has a few interesting scenes, including one in which he has a conversation with the guy who plays Jesus at “The Holyland Experience” in Orlando.

    Anyway, your right about Andrew Sullivan, Bill usually allows him to talk. The only other guest I’ve seen him regularly allow to push back on him about religion in Cornel West. One of the reasons I’ll always watch if he’s on.

  • I go out of my way to engage in conversations about faith with people other that Christians. Atheists often can give insight into faith that is simply not possible within the context of belief. My own faith has been deepened by my internal resolution of questions brought up by those of other faiths or outside of any faith.

    But there is a segment of the atheist community that go beyond non-belief to an almost simplistic and badgering anti-Christian stance. Based on the experiences of my actual conversations, in my opinion, many that hold that stance are actually former fundamentalist Christians. They ironically seem to still hold as narrow viewpoints and use proof text as exhaustively as they did as a person of faith, but have reversed themselves completely. They also seem as completely sure of themselves now as atheists as they did as fundamentalists.

    One of the most prevalent symptoms does seem to be at least an errant understanding of scripture in it’s proper context. This seems to lead to a tendency to voice their own definitions. I’m actually OK with that as we all do it to some degree. Where I have a problem is that they (as they likely did as fundamentalist) do not tolerate a point of view other than their own as having any validity. Their opinion is the final authority. The irony here is that they are often trying to tell a believer, from the point of view of a non-believer, what is or is not valid as being believable.

    I do truly value varied opinions of, and on, faith. But I get weary of simple bashing.

    Religulous is worth a watch. Amid Maher’s few tirades, there are some productive conversations and revelations of the dangers that come with defending a shallow or simplistic faith.

  • Mike L.

    I like Maher and I loved “Religulous”, but I also have the same awkward reaction to his comments on religion during his show. However, I don’t blame him one bit. In fact, I fully support his criticism. I blame ourselves (progressive religious people) for not expressing our views any better. It’s our fault!

    Here’s the deal from my perspective. Maher’s criticism is fine, but he uses the wrong word. He says “religion”, but I think he means something more like “superstition”. Are most religions superstitious? Yes, very often, but those words are not synonyms even though we tend to blend them. We need to stop doing it. If we could get him to swap the terms in his rhetoric, I don’t think you or I would have a problem with him. Replay the clip and make the mental substitution.

    The reason I blame progressives is because we don’t help him make the switch from words like “religion” to words like “superstition”. In fact, we are afraid of the word superstition. We won’t use it ourselves and we don’t give atheists any reason to assume we see those two concepts as different things. The answer, in my opinion, is that we should bring back the word superstition and make it clear where religion has wrongly fallen victim to superstition, and make it equally clear that there is much more to religion than simply believing one set of superstitions over another. We need to use the “S-word” frequently and harshly, so that religion can then begin to mean something else. If we did that, I think Maher and the rest of the new Atheists would find that we have much room for agreement. I think we’d begin to see Atheists as allies, maybe even important prophetic voices for our own cause. I think Maher’s movie and TV show are a prophetic voice for Christianity. We Christians just haven’t equipped him with the right vocabulary. I think Bill Maher already has a Christ centered message, but we haven’t clearly told the story in any way that he could recognize it as his own story and his own mission.

  • I started watching this same clip a few days ago on HuffPo and couldn’t make it all the way through. I like the show too and I watch it from time to time but Maher is starting to sound more and more like a new atheist.

  • Tony,

    I’ve seen Religulous, and was quite disappointed with the film. I too am not offended by the language, drug use, and atheism of Bill Maher, in fact I think good dialogue with such non-believers could be quite productive. However, the movie accomplishes none of this, quite frustratingly Maher does not seek out quality sparring opponents, but instead chooses to make a movie full of tired critiques of religion.

  • Jim

    Mike L.,

    You’re right, of course, that what these strident atheists criticize is more often superstition than religion. The problem with trying to facilitate a language shift there is that superstition will inevitably and quickly come to mean simply whatever religion whoever’s using the word disagrees with. Is transubstantiation superstition? What about a belief in hell? A literal resurrection? Speaking in tongues? TULIP?

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  • I haven’t found Maher to be a good representation of my atheists friends.

  • shoileygal

    If you hadn’t written this, I would have. I was really disappointed after viewing the Booker/Maher exchange. Maher totally embarassed himself. It’s almost as if some repressed vile act was purpetrated on him as a catholic youth and he is reliving it. I really hope his lack of self-restraint doesn’t negatively impact the show. We don’t need to lose one of the few progressive forums on prime time as we all are aware that the “left” is sadly under represented. But Bill doesn’t want to debate; he wants to argue, and when he argues he loses because he doesn’t use good facts…he just comes across as an insolent child.

  • Jeff Kursonis

    I’m actually a little different on this one. For me, the thing about Maher that I love, is his Mark Twain like funny verbose ability to comment on our society, he has such a roaring talent that it is satisfying to watch him. There is a mental/verbal/humorous wit about him that is often remarkable to experience, and it is that world class talent that is so interesting for me to watch fall apart when religion comes up.

    It’s like watching Tiger Woods suddenly swing like a [insert humorous stereotype] for some strange reason whenever, say, squirrels run by on the golf course. To see him lose control of that talent BECAUSE his passions toward religion overwhelm that towering mental capacity of his, is to me deeply interesting.

    And it’s not because it’s fun to watch someone lose it – a kind of unkind laughing at someone who trips – but rather because I am fully supportive of our current North American atheism and feel the passions behind it are a gift to humanity. And so to see that passion in Bill Maher go beyond his funny boy commentator status, to serious social renegade, is satisfying to me. And I’m not an atheist, but I feel they are an important social movement in our day.

  • Hello Tony Jones,

    I believe you’ve totally misinterpreted Bill Maher. He’s not necessarily “anti-religion”, he’s pro rationalist. I’ve heard him say a few times that he says you can believe in whatever you want because he’s a libertarian who believes in free speech and freedom of expression. His aversion is not so much about religion as about believing in things we can’t prove (talking snakes, parting of seas, superstitious practices) that are then used to justify all sorts of bad behaviour. For example, it’s a fact (you can’t disagree with facts if they’re facts) that religion has been used to justify all sorts of horrible killings, rape, and other acts (the Crusades, 9/11, priests molesting children). It’s also a fact that religious people frequently use faith as a way of justifying their decision making process and I agree with Bill Maher that this is wrong. A president like George W Bush (and he’s not the only one) frequently used God in his speeches (which is insensitive as not everyone believes in a God) to justify invading a country like Iraq or to justify passing certain bills into law. This is dangerous as it removes the responsibility of the law passer – as if the person approving repressive legislation is not responsible because it’s God’s will (ridiculous!).

    I wish you wouldn’t express yourself in extremes in this blog. You say that Bill Maher says that all wars are caused by religion – that’s not what he says or believes. We all know that wars are frequently caused by a variety of factors such as territorial considerations, weapons threats, and violation of treaties or violation of international law. However, Maher would probably agree that many wars are often started, maintained or justified because of religion because religion involves faith and people want to have faith that their side will win.

    Can’t you just enjoy the combination of Bill Maher’s comedic language and the clever points he makes? For example, how he demonstrates the gap between rich and poor with the rich guy just taking the first 80 slices of pizza of an 100 slice pizza and when someone suggests he take only 79, he shouts “your socialist!”. That’s brilliant because it’s true.