In the last few months there have been a chorus of anti-Bill Maher articles in the liberal/left press. For instance Salon has published a series of articles accusing Maher of bigotry. In “7 times Bill Maher was a straight-up bigot” Joanna Rothkopf writes this in Salon:
Bill Maher’s long, illustrious career is perhaps, more than anything else, an excellent example of mass public manipulation. Under the guise of being a liberal comedian, he has managed to build for himself an ultra-successful career predicated on being a massive dick. Maher has been consistently racist, sexist, transphobic and otherwise ignorant throughout his career, and responds to each allegation of hatred with more indignation than before. Let’s set the record straight: Bill Maher is a bigot. A bigot with a HBO show, but a bigot nonetheless.
While the current crop of criticism of Maher stems mostly from his reputed “Islamophobia” to understand Bill Maher we need to go back a bit to his movie Religulous. The fact is that that movie is important and not because Maher made it. The film opened a window into the heart of what is wrong with simplistic atheism, per se.
Evangelical/fundamentalists aren’t the only clan clinging to group-think. Why do atheists write books and other atheists read them, if not to reinforce each other’s faith in no faith? I mean, how many ways are there to say, “There is no God!”?
Speaking of the need to reinforce one’s faith, Bill Maher’s 2008 movie Religulous provided the atheist version of a church-going experience and altar call. Religulous was a blunt (and funny) stripped-down example of the you’re-in-or-out New Atheist method.
When I was watching Religulous in an Upper West Side theater in New York City, it seemed to me that the laughter and shouted comments were just another version of “Amen!” and “Preach it brother!” There were even several screams of “Yes!” after Maher “nailed” this or that particularly asinine religious person. I assume that these cries of joyful affirmation emanated from the more spirit-filled atheists in the audience!
Maher’s documentary built on the foundation laid by Sam Harris in The End of Faith. Harris began his book with a scene of a young Islamic terrorist in Jerusalem smiling enigmatically as he commits suicide by blowing up a bus full of innocent people. In Religulous Maher also included many images of look-how-crazy-God-makes everyone violence. The Harris/Maher message was as clear as it was intolerant: The world would be better off without religious people.
Maher’s movie struck me as similar to Sacha Baron Cohen’s wonderfully mean-spirited and wickedly (if uncomfortably) hilarious Borat. Both movies hit easy religious targets. However, Cohen is an equal opportunity insulter, and he went after everyone from feminists to socialites and movie stars, religious or not. Maher reserved his ridicule— with one brief exception when he interviewed a scientist who is an evangelical—for the dumbest religious believers he could find.
In a series of interviews, Maher set up pastors, imams, evangelists, political leaders, and assorted flakes and actors (these last at a religious theme park) to look their worst. Maher’s questions were those one might expect from a literal-minded, fairly dim-witted ten year-old stuck in Sunday school who was trying to annoy his teacher into throwing him out. The questions ranged from “How can you believe in a talking snake?” to “How could Jonah have lived in a fish?” to “How can God hear the prayers of everyone at once?” (To which one answer might be, if Google can do it, why not God?)
When approaching the biblical narrative through his handpicked interviewees (and how he edited their comments), Maher didn’t seem to “get” allegory, let alone literary imagination or the results of religious faith in ordinary people’s lives—for instance, the fact that religion has provided a means, place, and tradition of forgiveness, charity, and mercy for generations of believers. He also seemed to think that religion, and Christianity in particular, is only about literal belief in the various biblical stories. It’s not. It never has been.
Yes, there have been literalists and fundamentalists shaping religion through a hard-edged fundamentalist “thread” running through Jewish and Christian history. Yes, many Jews and Christians following this literal-minded thread have done terrible things. Yes, the Jewish and Christian faiths are full of such people today. What Maher ignored is that there has been a parallel tradition, another thread, running alongside the literalistic tendency he caricatures.
The open and questioning thread weaves another and more tolerant and nuanced color into the tapestry of faith. This too has been there from the beginning of the Jewish and Christian traditions. It represents the compassionate, mystical approach to faith in God— in other words, enlightenment.
The word enlightenment has become commonplace in the parlance of secular circles, but I would rather not hand it over wholesale without a debate. Enlightenment is not necessarily only a secular version of redemption. In all the major religious traditions, enlightenment is the state of being said to be a “place” from which one is able to see things as they really are, not as we believe them to be, want them to be, or hope they will be. In some Orthodox Christian reckonings, the spiritual life is divided into three stages: purification, enlightenment, and theosis (or “deification” or “divinization”— the process of being united with God). Only in the first stage do we have any control. The last two stages are Divine Gifts bestowed as we are ready.
Back to my threads. Sometimes the competing threads—enlightened verses dogmatic, the mystical versus theological—have even been found in the same people. Individuals may veer one way, then another, are sometimes compassionate and at other times judgmental, merciful and vengeful, literalistic and then nuanced. My father was one such person: compassionate personally, harsh in his early theology. And if you asked me, “What was Francis Schaeffer about?” the only true answer would be for me to ask you what stage of his life, thinking, and work you were talking about. There were several “Francis Schaeffers.” By the way, that’s true of me too, and, I think, of many people.
As I make clear in my book WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace, to ignore the open and questioning tradition and to dwell only on the fundamentalist thread is disingenuous, or in Maher’s case more likely simply ignorant. It’s as if Maher had made a documentary on medicine and concentrated solely on the experiments done on duped prisoners, criminal back-alley abortion doctors, eugenics scientists inventing racist “solutions” for society, and so on, while ignoring Jonas Salk and his discovery of polio vaccine or the early African American leaders in nursing, such as the outstanding Mary Eliza Mahoney, who was the first black professional nurse in America.
If Maher applied his Religulous approach to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, he would have been interviewing actors and asking, “How can Macbeth really see a ghost? What sort of idiot believes in ghosts?”
Nuanced interpretations of religious faith within the Christian tradition are not inventions of modern-era higher critical or Biblical criticism studies that have their origins in the context of the rationalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Rather, some of these subtle and complex approaches hark back to the beginning of the Christian era. In the writings of the Church Fathers in the third to sixth centuries one finds an allegorical, non-literal, what today’s evangelical/fundamentalists would denounce as “liberal” or “touchy-feely,” even “relativistic,” approaches to faith and the Scriptures.
This is to say that if Maher had taken deconstructing religion seriously, he would have at least tried to address the actual tradition that some of the early Christian leaders passed on, a tradition that is still alive and well today in parts of the Christian community. But instead he interviewed the rube element of the American evangelical/ fundamentalist communities and zeroed in on people who wouldn’t know a Church Father if one bit them in the ass.
Ironically, the same historical representatives of the Christian faith that Maher chose to ignore (or has never heard of) are the Church Fathers that evangelical/fundamentalists also ignore for their own ideological reasons. They ignore them (or even denounce them) because the very existence of the early representatives of a more enlightened thread of Christianity undermines the evangelical/fundamentalist claim that somehow only fundamentalism represents the original ancient Christian faith. It does not.
One man whom evangelical/fundamentalists would rather ignore as too “liberal” and who was nevertheless very big deal in the early church was St. Clement. In the third century, Clement became the leader of the Alexandrian School, the center of the highest level of academic learning in the Christian world at that time. Clement included lots of quotations from the Old Testament in his (not to be confused with St. Paul’s) Letter to the Corinthians. Clement said that the literal meaning of Scripture is just a “starting point . . . suitable for the mass of Christians” but that there is always a “deeper meaning.”
Instead of being what today we’d call a literalist spouting off about how the Bible is “inerrant,” Clement used the Bible to illustrate all sorts of ideas. Clement didn’t go on and on about how all the details of various stories were true, without error, or were science or history, but used the stories to extrapolate wisdom about everyday life.
Clement was not alone. St. Ignatius, the second-century bishop of Antioch writing about First Corinthians, took Paul’s words out of context in a way that today’s American evangelical/fundamentalists would denounce as heretical. He applied Paul’s words to his contemporary personal situation as though they were abstractions he could fit into other forms and derive subtle hidden meanings from. Today’s evangelical/fundamentalists would have fired him from their seminaries in a heartbeat.
Even Mr. Big himself, big in the Church’s history—St. Augustine—promoted what today’s fundamentalists would denounce as a “relativistic” approach to the Scriptures. He said that the Bible should be interpreted several ways: as “literal” (some stories might be true), as “allegorical” (made-up stories to illustrate a point), as “moral” (to give us direction on how to live), and as “analogical” (some Bible stories obviously did not happen but are a way of telling a made-up story to make a larger point).
Another one of the important founders of the Church was St. Basil the Great, a bishop in the fourth century. Besides becoming a leader in founding monastic communities, starting orphanages and hospitals, writing a version of the Divine Liturgy, giving away his family inheritance to help the poor, setting up soup kitchens, fighting against the Roman practice of infanticide, and defending the use of secular medicine, Basil said that Scripture and tradition are “equal in value, strength, and validity” and have the “same power where piety is concerned.”
Talk about an idea that drives evangelical/fundamentalists nuts! As for the New Atheists, they don’t much care for people such as Basil either. How do you prepare answers to an oral and therefore evolving tradition that this leading Christian placed on an equal footing with the Bible? You might have to actually have a conversation with believers in a tradition like Basil’s, rather than just trading scripted zingers. That would require thought, because the people you’d be debating might be open to change, to adding to their tradition as time passed, to elevating the human and scientific contribution to the living of faith to equal standing with that faith’s scriptures.
Besides ignoring what historical Christianity actually is and was, Maher also seemed unaware that there are intelligent contemporaries of his who are deeply religious and who have spent lifetimes thinking about faith in God in ways that are far from the absolutist verities of the (mostly) North American evangelical/fundamentalism Maher set up to knock down. For instance, Maher ignored many brilliant intellectuals, writers, and artists who are practicing Christians that he might have talked to, such as the late John Updike. (Updike was alive and well when the movie was being made.) Maher might also have interviewed then Senator, now President, Obama.
Had Maher interviewed Obama, he could have asked him about Obama’s 2006 lecture on religion and public policy, delivered at the “Call to Renewal” event sponsored by the evangelical Sojourners group. On that occasion, Obama described his own faith in Christ and also spoke about how he converted. He talked about how faith should or should not impact policy making. Obama also castigated the elements of the secular community for being short-sighted in their anti-religious views. As he said, “At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.”
I speak with some experience on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household. . . . It wasn’t until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma . . . It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. . . .
That’s a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans—evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values. And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at—to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own—then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.
Or Maher might have asked Updike why he included smart and conflicted people of religious faith as characters in his books, or how the writings of Kierkegaard had inspired Updike’s religious thinking. It’s not as if Updike’s faith was hidden. (His last book, Endpoint and Other Poems, published posthumously in 2009, includes beautiful reflections on religious faith written literally on his deathbed.)
Maher also ignored the inconvenient bits of the history of the twentieth century. Maher ducked some inconvenient facts. Maher never mentioned the violent side of the recent experiment in secularism: the blood-drenched twentieth century and the inhumane barbarity of today’s Chinese rulers, or, say, the greed and bloody brutality of the Castro family.
Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Pol Pot, the scientists who recently led the eugenics movement, and the like did not oppress their people and/or liquidate them in the name of God. The bloodiest of all historical periods is not that of the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades, or even that of today’s Islamic terrorism, but the recent and ongoing history of secularism run amok. “Rational” science has not been blameless either.
People have slaughtered each other in the name of Christ and Muhammad, and Hindus have been killing Christians and Muslims, and vice versa. But people have also—and recently in exponentially greater numbers—been slaughtered in the name of nationalism (World War I), secular political ideology (the Gulag), tribal rivalry (Rwanda), a master race informed by the secular “science” of eugenics (Nazi Germany), consumerism (America’s Middle Eastern oil wars), and state atheism (China’s continuing pogroms against believers from all religions and forced and brutal late-term abortion programs). Science has also created the plethora of earth-destroying and often unnecessary products and provided science-based ways to sell them to consumers.
The truth is that the human primate problem is rooted in our evolutionary past, not our so-called beliefs. Muslims, Christians and Hindus aren’t violent because of religion. Atheists aren’t violent because of atheism. We are who we are because we are vicious semi-evolved primates. We try to justify our actions with religion, philosophy or politics. We label ourselves in order to belong to a tribe or group. But the fault is within ourselves and the twisted tribal evolutionary truth we all share.
As EO Wilson writes in his book The Social Conquest of the Earth “Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species. They are the ‘epigenetic rules,’ which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution that occurred over a long period in deep prehistory.”In other words there are truths “rules” that imply a genetic/evolutionary actual non-subjective way our senses perceive the world. There is such a thing as human nature that trumps our stated beliefs.
I don’t think Bill Maher is a bigot. He’s just another person who can’t admit that humans are violent predators. As for me I’m glad for anything be that religion, atheism or science that can help mitigate and direct our evolving consciousness and capacity for empathy toward tolerance for the “other.”
Maher’s attempt to put religious belief in its place only reinforces the fact that for most people, one belief system is always replaced by another. In an act of unintended self-parody at the end of his movie, Maher preaches a fiery sermon against religion, even begging “moderate religious believers” to abandon their faiths and convert to his point of view. Like some old-time evangelist, Maher wants to save us from his version of hell via his version of a born-again experience. It’s Maher’s way or the Apocalypse. Where have I heard that before?
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book – WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace
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