A response to @BillMaher’s recent comments about God

A response to @BillMaher’s recent comments about God January 24, 2014

I’ve been reading an interview with outspoken atheist comedian Bill Maher in the Atlantic. The interviewer asked him a question about God and his answer was intriguing to me. The question was along the lines of Pascal’s Wager: “What if you’re wrong and you’re dooming yourself to hell? Do you ever worry about that?” Here is Maher’s response:

Of all the reasons to be religious, that is one of the dumber ones. What if I’m wrong? If it’s the God of the Old Testament, I am so f***ed already and so are you and everybody else. A more psychopathic character you will not find in all of fiction. Just the idea that people worshiped the God of this Bible is insane… As far as the question of how do we know? No, we don’t know. Am I a billion percent sure. Nobody is a billion percent sure of anything. But I am pretty sure that it’s not that God had a son. You know, he’s this orb of perfect energy, this powerful beyond imagination, but he’s got kids… So you know we don’t know the answers but the answer to that is not to make up stories. If you don’t know something, just say I don’t know. That’s your gospel right there. The gospel of “I don’t know”… I don’t know what happens when I die, and I don’t care.

Reading this makes me sad because of the way the conversation has been framed. I’m struck first by what he said about the God of the Old Testament. He’s responding to a caricature, but it’s a very widely disseminated caricature. If the God the fundamentalists believe in is the real God, then I agree with Maher: we’re all f***ed (except for the fundamentalists). I wouldn’t make the cut, and I’m a pastor. It doesn’t matter that I’ve prayed Jesus into my heart multiple times and spent every Monday fasting and talking to Him. Because if my conversion were legitimate, then I would zealously agree with all the fundamentalist doctrine and I would rejoice at the thought that God is being glorified by torturing my kind, soft-spoken atheist grandfather in hell forever instead of holding out hope that I’ll somehow see him again.

The thing is I’m suspicious that a lot of fundamentalist belief is driven by the need to one-up each other in how hard-core they are and thus establish their credibility with each other. The meaner your God is, the less possibility there is that anyone can accuse you of being a “worldly liberal,” which is the most dreadful thing that you could possibly be called. The tragic byproduct of this chest-thumping competition is the ammunition it gives to the “fundamentalist” atheist echo chamber who are likewise trying to one-up each other and prove their credibility through their disdain for religion. It’s similar to the relationship between the US and Iran. The Iranian president has to talk tough to play to his conservative base, and the US has to bend over backwards to appease the evangelical Zionist lobby, which is why there will never be peace in the Middle East until the fundamentalists on both sides lose their political power.

In any case, it’s a tragedy to me that this is the way the question of religion is framed for Bill Maher and people like him. Pascal’s Wager is fourth-grade level thinking as is the intelligence-insulting, self-interest-appealing “eternal fire insurance” approach to the gospel. I really get tired of Christians sneering at modern secularism and gleefully celebrating the 20th century demise of the myth of progress with the disasters created by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others like them. As horrible as those tragedies were, they don’t prove that Victorian England at the advent of the industrial age was a better society to be poor in than 21st century America. If we have any integrity, we have to own up to the sober reality that the same forces that secularized the US rapidly in the last half of the 20th century also made things much better for gay people, women, and people of color, and that white evangelical Christians remain an obstacle to the continual improvement of the lives of each of these categories of people, which doesn’t mean that secularism hasn’t also caused a lot of damage. It’s a completely mixed bag.

I don’t mourn the fact that birth control has completely transformed women’s career prospects today over what they were sixty years ago, even though I mourn the hyper-sexualized culture that our monstrous capitalist economy has created and made so much money from. Of course I would probably claim that the Western secularism that has done some good is really a renegade branch of Christianity, rebels who are no more beyond the pale for us than apostate Samaritans and traitorous tax collectors were to faithful 1st century Jews. I’m sure Maher would be irritated by that characterization but he’s built whatever ethical system he follows from the legacy of mostly Judeo-Christian values that continue to permeate within our culture unanchored from their originating story, within which the same values are found in greater potency.

So what about what Maher says about God having a son? How can an “orb of perfect energy powerful beyond imagination” have a child? Good question! Maher’s right. It doesn’t make sense. The reason it’s so easy for many Christians to believe is because they’ve made God into an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere. If Jesus’ story is obviously credible, then there’s nothing incredible about it. If we could actually look at the universe with fresh eyes, it is in-credible to think that whoever made all that was fully incarnated into some guy who was walking around two thousand years ago. I believe it of course, but why should we act like it’s the most simple, obvious thing in the world? It’s a ridiculous claim.

The reason I believe Jesus is the Son of God is not because I think Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, and all the other Christian apologists have made a slam dunk case for Jesus that only idiots wouldn’t agree with. I wish I could say that David Bentley Hart makes a better case with his Experience of God but his mean-spirited snobbery sabotages whatever intellectual sophistication he brings to the table (which makes me think he mostly wrote it to his fawning First Things reader base so they could enjoy scoffing together at the stupid atheists that Hart won’t lower himself to actually engage directly). The reason I believe Jesus is everything the Bible claims about him is simply because I have encountered the living resurrected Christ in my personal life. And His story is the most beautiful way of explaining the world that I have found. I got bullied as a kid; Jesus got bullied as a messiah. His cross and resurrection are vindication for everyone who has ever been picked on. Instead of being the status quo-validating baptism of suburban values that it’s become, Christianity is supposed to be afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I could go on and on, but you’ll just have to read my other posts.

Maher says if you don’t know, don’t make up a story, just admit that you don’t know. He should talk to Greg Boyd, who doesn’t have any problem with doubt. I’ll admit that I don’t know for sure whether I’ll find out when I die that the Buddhists were actually right about the structure of reality. I can’t get my head around how a physically resurrected life after death would work since life and death are so inextricably linked in biology. That kind of hangup might be something to ridicule for simple-minded people who don’t think about details like the whale’s stomach acid in the story of Jonah or the logistical problem Noah would have faced to fit into a boat the size of a football field several million species of animals whose natural existence depends upon a food chain that involves eating each other. In whatever case, it doesn’t matter to me that parts of the story don’t make sense except that I need to have the integrity to admit that they don’t.

Bottom line is that they’re all part of the world’s most beautiful story and I’m all in. I believe in the communion of the saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Most of all, I believe that whoever created all this is a God whose nature is perfect love. If somehow we’re wrong about some detail that the Muslims have right, the God I’ve talked to for the past 36 years is not going to say, “GAR!!! Infidels! Now I will burn you forever.” He told me to seek and I would find and knock and the door would be opened to me, and I’ve sought Him out and knocked on His door with all the sincerity I could muster, so I’m standing on that promise.

I don’t know why God tells a fundamentalist like John Piper what He tells John when John prays sincerely with all of his heart, but I don’t believe John has been talking to a demon all this time just because I find some of his teachings to be harmful and ugly. If God is able to accommodate the vastly different journeys that John Piper and I are on, then maybe He’s also been on a deep undercover mission to atheists like Bill Maher saying, “Fine, you don’t believe in my story, I’m not going to fold my arms and scowl at you; I’m going to sneak in the back door of your hearts with spiritual fruit that has the ‘God’ label scratched off so that I can shape you for coming to my eternal party anyway.”

I don’t have the authority to tell God to let Bill Maher and the atheists into heaven. Neither do the fundamentalists get to tell Him they’ll be mortally offended and do a sit-in at the pearly gates if He operates with a grace that doesn’t abide by their interpretation of its limits. I believe that God is perfectly good, not just in a mechanistic, error-free sense but in the sense of being perfectly benevolent toward each and every one of His creatures. Whatever God does will be right and it will be much wiser and more perfect than the clunky wooden caricatures that fundamentalism puts forward to represent “divine justice” or anything I could come up with either, for that matter. God’s justice is infinitely nuanced beyond our comprehension, not just infinitely picky.

So I’m just going to keep listening to God and keep telling the beautiful story He gives me to tell. It’s okay with me for God to give the fundamentalists a different version of His story if what I’ve heard from Him simply doesn’t work for the way they’re wired, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let their gospel be the only one that atheists like Bill Maher get to hear.


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  • Paul Hansen

    Amen. In part, Bill Maher is airing (with his usual rhetorical flamboyance) a “straw man” attack on a concept of God that some believers would reject. Your discussion reminds me of a line in CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity, where—alluding to the importance of surprise or mystery—he says Christianity is “a religion you could not have guessed” and that, on the face of it, the substitutionary atonement story is a “very silly idea.” Lewis, of course, was orthodox in his theology as an Anglican, but he understood the atheistic mind, having been there.

    • MorganGuyton

      If it’s perfectly credible, it’s not incredible. I’m still very pleased with myself for having discovered that nifty little phrase.

  • Joshua Smith

    Beautiful. On my best days, I’m a whole-hearted believer in the Living God and in this Jesus who testified to that God’s power. On my worst, I tend to be obstinate, confused, and a downright unbeliever. Most days I fall into the category of reluctant skepticism.

    You, my friend, are always a source of hope to me that God does indeed exist, and more than that, God loves creation. I really, really appreciate your thoughts.

    • MorganGuyton

      Sweet. Thanks Josh.

  • Gnostic Knight

    Mr. Maher has the guts of a true prophet. He sees problems caused by intolerance and truly speaks to the issue. Most of Christianity is based on Pauline fable and Greco/Roman mythology. I, like T. Jefferson and Marcion expunge the absurdities of the bible and concentrate on the words of Yeshua the Nazarene. Religious idealogues of all faiths pervert human justice, including atheists in the mold of Hitchens. We truly NEED true prophets today. It must be remembered that iniquity = inequity.

    • MorganGuyton

      As you probably were aware, I’m not a Marcionite. But that is an interesting point about iniquity and inequity.

  • tsgIII

    There is something about the language of people. So combative. When what we are really involved with here is a dance. Human dancing implies trying to relate to one another(and there is a dance that doesn’t imply it, if, as has been said, you seek).. My thoughts go to the very beginning and the pluralness of it. You know….Let there be light(and the true light gives light to every human). “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. There is a certain amount of offense here to anyone who has a caricature, or a monism, or oneness of God as a requirement. I agree about the importance of God’s oneness- but that is not the thing. The issue is about that oneness’s inner relationships….one where a dance is an appropriate metaphor.
    This creation shows. in its physical and biological nature, that it allows oneness to have several constituents in relationship. Atoms have protons, neutrons, and electrons( and now we know even that small society has smaller parts that Prigogine shows prove that determinism is a denial of the arrow of time. And I truly believe that the theologies of the neo-reformed are determinative, but that is for another discussion). In biology a living cell is displayed in an array. Some simple celled organisms, are examples of oneness in life, but the inner relationships of processes is very real.
    Some people, in beginnining to understand this mystery of God as us, may talk to God as a friend. Or possibly relate through story imaging. Or begin to understand the divine mystery of God as a unity of relationships by talking as if to a Father. And only later to God as a Son, or a Spirit. The point being understanding God is not a prerequisite for knowing God. But divine love invites every person to enter into fellowship with God. Doing that opened me into a new humanity, and a new creation…may I say a new language of relating.

    • MorganGuyton

      “Understanding God is not a prerequisite for knowing God.” Amen!

  • Nancy R Smith

    Unfortunately, the question was framed, not on God, but on hell, which put a fence around possible answers.

    • MorganGuyton

      Good point.

  • Phillip

    I never watched Bill Mahr’s HBO show. I never connected with him and saw him as one who was speaking to his base just like all of the other players on the world stage try to fire up their respective bases. But one night while flipping the channels I landed on his show. He was interviewing a television pastor whose name alludes me right now. Mahr was firing questions/comments/barbs in the rather snide way that has made him gadfly famous. He was ridiculing a very gerrymandered understanding of Christianity. But all of the sudden, Mahr dropped his gloves. He said something to the effect of, “If I thought Jesus was real, I would want to follow him! I would like him!” – There was something in the person of Jesus that he had observed, admired, and appreciated. I saw that prevenient grace was working on Bill Mahr. As one who has lived in the conservative/fundamental camp, I can see how my attitudes could be hindering what God is doing in Bill’s heart. Bill might be reluctant to admit it; it would not resonate with his base, but God, by grace, IS at work on him.

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      Oh I absolutely believe that! Prevenient grace is one of the most important Christian doctrines I think.

    • MorganGuyton

      I absolutely agree!

  • Susan Irene Fox

    “God’s justice in infinitely nuanced beyond our comprehension.” As is everything else about Him. Isn’t that what makes Him God and us Human? Yes, we can struggle to learn about Him, and we can seek to know Him, but the “incredible” is what makes the mystery. The incredible is what makes us walk by faith, not by sight. And those of us who have had personal experiences in our own relationship with Jesus will never convince anyone until they form their own relationship with Him.

    God’s
    justice is infinitely nuanced beyond our comprehension – See more at:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2014/01/24/response-to-bill-maher/#sthash.j9jk1yON.dpuf
    God’s
    justice is infinitely nuanced beyond our comprehension – See more at:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2014/01/24/response-to-bill-maher/#sthash.j9jk1yON.dpuf

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      That’s right.

  • Funner Dude

    I love Maher’s show “Real Time”, but would never look to him for insightful answers to questions of faith. His atheism is as fundamental as Piper’s Christianity, thus his answers are always explained through a prism of a distorted belief of God. As Maher proves time and time again on his show, his belief is faith is always weak, self-serving and shows evidence of mental problems.

    • MorganGuyton

      Yeah. My hope is that God is working deep underneath the surface.

  • Walter Kovacs

    Bill Maher is hilarious when he does comedy. I love his humour. But it seems that when he talks about almost anything else, especially religion, he’s downright idiotic.

  • stephen fife

    I find it interesting that Christianity is often the fall guy for atheism. Christians seem to take criticism more often than Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or Buddhists. The modern atheists spend far more time attacking Christians than any of these other groups. Do you think it is because we are easier to attack because of the fundamentalists or because there are so many in the West where atheism is trying to advance?

    • MorganGuyton

      Ah see that’s why I would contend that Western atheism is really a renegade, self-disavowing branch of Christianity. It’s a reactionary posture. Hindu atheism probably has a very different form than Christian atheism. To be fair, Bill Maher hates on Islam too and gets a lot of flak from other liberals for doing it.

  • Robert E. Hawkins

    As an older Christian, I confess Bill Maher makes little sense to me other than here is a guy itching for one upsmanship and winning some sort of “debate”. I am a Christian, and a retired United Methodist Pastor who has lived a long time and witnessed God’s Presence in the most unlikely places.

    The deceased comedian – the “other” atheist funny guy, George Carlin gave me lots of sermon material. Carlin had depth, Maher comes across to me, at least, as a “Theological bully” who loves to convince others his God is bigger than your God. Maybe a feeling of inadequacy – who knows?

    Its a great life~live it knowing God most likely won’t get mad when we listen, and laugh at the Mahers and Carlins of this world.

    Bob Hawkins

    • JoFlemings

      I think you are right. Maher is mean and derisive. I don’t think his points are valid because he is being a jerk. And instead of Pascal’s wager why not the question, “Of all the religions out there as an option, including the idea that one might be one’s own God- which one is objectively most preferable?” I can’t see how any of them, least of all the one where Bill Maher is God, compares with one where the deity indiscriminately implicates Himself in the plight of His fallen and corrupted creation because He is the essence of Love itself, in order to save redeem, restore, and reunite it unto Himself. All of this as an act of total self-donation for the sake of HIs Beloved, when it is of no necessity or benefit to Himself. I can’t see how the religion of ‘me living for me, and oh by the way I hope life turns out ok for you too’, can even come close to desirable compared to this. We can’t explain a lot of bad things that happen- true, why God does or allows what He does- but that does not mean He is not God, that His path is not one of love- it means we can’t explain it. If you tell me your suffering is so overwhelmingly miserable that there is no justification for it, and that the only response is to curse God and die- what can I say? I can beg you not to, but I can’t discount your heartache or misery- I have not suffered your pain. But Jesus Christ has– He has, that is the fundamental truth of Christianity- He has felt it all, more, harder, faster- and for a purpose and He can make sense of it even when we can’t- that is the hope we have as Christians. AND this is not the end- as bad as this might be or get, this 70 years or so IS NOT THE END. And Maher might blah, blah, blah, about that but when the time comes- I would wager the world he will sing a very different tune- he will hope there is a God of love mercy and forgiveness on the back side of this life waiting personally for him like the father of the Prodigal Son.

  • Robert Reppert

    Maher is right about god of OT there are several views of God as shaped thru time from various cobbled ancient stories. That’s what makes Him look frankly nuts to Maher. It’s the religious who wear blinders and fail to see this is NOT one linear accurate view of truth. They are missing out on the. Beauty and yes wisdom contained in those narratives by taking it literally and failing to see the compiled separate myths cobbled together.

  • Daniel

    When I was honest with an elder from my fundamentalist church about my doubts, at the end of the discussion he brought up pascal’s wager as perhaps the final reason to have faith in Christ. Funny thing is that this was a very Calvanist church. Rather than resenting him, I actually appreciated his honesty and it made me feel less alone in my doubts. I think sometimes the ridiculous nature of some doctrines should be a wake up call. Sometimes that voice in my head starts to whisper “maybe the fundamentalists from your childhood really are right about God’s nature.” I remind myself, “those people had to have theological debates about whether God sent babies who died to a lake of fire for eternity.” It’s like a splash of cold water on my face. I may not be a theologian. But if being a theologian would lead me to a place where I even have to entertain such horrific concepts, than I’ll just pursue a child like faith that says, “I don’t know ancient greek, but that is absurd in any language.”

    • MorganGuyton

      Pascal’s wager? Wow. It seems so ridiculous when you’re out of that world looking back. I hear you about the haunting fundamentalist voices in the back of our minds.

  • Edward Wilcock

    Are you contented person ? I direct my thoughts to those who were born into religious families and
    were brain-washed with the dogma that their god is without sin and is therfore good. This ghost
    ‘oversees’ the rampant atrocious act beng carried on this planet and yet allows it to perssawist.
    Greed, Lust, Violence, Terrorism is widespread. It beggars belief that people are not stopped with
    the magic ‘available’ No way can the ghost be a christian. BC saw individuals and heirarchies
    severly punished for their sins with disease and death dealt out by your God. The miracles were
    reserved for the few. You MAY try and defend your ‘G0D’ but it will land on deaf ears as being
    irrational and abstract thinking.

  • Edward Wilcock

    A ‘god’ that oversees and endures Greed, Lust, Terrorism, Jealousy etc. on earth, on such a scale
    can be called rampant. ‘god’ has the wherewithall to deal with it by changing minds and yet accepts
    it. The inaction is sinful and ‘unchristian’ BC saw ‘god’ performing miracles on the few and causing
    disease and death to wrongdoers both in Politcal and Religious sectors. These actions have ceased. Those born into Religious families and brain-washed and have the ‘god is good’ dogma
    cemented on their minds, without flexibility, is simply irrational. Best wishes to all.