Bill Maher: Enabler of the Religious Right
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 03:05:33 PM EST
Every Friday night on his HBO series Real Time With Bill Maher Bill Maher helps out the very folks he abhors - the Religious Right and movement conservatism. He does it by mocking people of faith whom he generically paints as delusional.
On the April 8, 2005 edition of Real Time, Maher had Mario Cuomo as a video guest.  He asked the former New York governor how he reconciled his religious beliefs with his intelligence:

MAHER:  If you disagree so much with so many of the rules, why do you need religion at all?  I have a lot of trouble understanding why somebody like yourself who is a brilliant man, I have trouble understanding why brilliant people can even be religious.  Quite frankly, I don't mean that disrespectfully.

CUOMO: [overlapping] Bill-okay. No, Bill, I-

MAHER: [overlapping] But - and it seems like religion is the kind of thing where you either eat the whole wafer or you don't eat it at all. I mean, if you're going to pick all the raisins out, why buy raisin bread?

CUOMO: Well, I'll tell you...Well, for the bread, that's why you buy it.

Cuomo went on to eloquently but effectively school Maher in the concept of the shared values of believers and non-believers alike. Instead of falling into the host's trap of making belief a test of intelligence the pluralistic Catholic offered a more inclusive vision for society.

And apparently Maher was caught off-guard. Since that show aired I have never seen him approach a religiously progressive guest (the recent one-on-one show with Bill Moyers immediately comes to mind) with the same query. Instead he has featured dedicated segments with fellow neo-atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, both of whom who took the occasion parrot Maher's view of belief in a supreme being as a symptom of delusion and that religious Americans are dumb. Nowhere in the four years since Cuomo has there been a similarly dedicated segment discussing the issue faith with anyone of the Religious Left such as Chris Hedges.

The Cuomo exchange reveals that actually Maher doesn't know much about religion or religious people. While his ignorance is a rolling embarrassment - and no doubt why he is unable to engage serious religious intellectuals and political figures, what is worse is that he views religious faith in much the same light as many on the Religious Right - the only true religion is that of contemporary orthodoxy and any deviation from same is somehow less religious. Maher apparently cannot comprehend that most people are in their way, religios dissenters, and that relatively few are fully orthodox. Religious faith is a means, and not an end, no matter what the orthodox may say.

Maher loaded his question to Cuomo by making the desire for bread conditional upon being only able eat one of many varieties.  This is a running theme in the religious world according to Mahar. For example, in his April 11, 2008 dedicated segment with Richard Dawkins the religious were defined as those who believe in talking snakes while those religious who view the Eden story as metaphor are simply "airbrushed  out" of the picture.

In Dawkins's most recent appearance guest and host engaged in a tag-teaming put-down of religious Americans (again, after pigeon-holing them within a fundamentalist framework). They took particular glee in disparaging Mormons, painting them as a politically conservative monolith. Reality is quite different. Take for example Stewart Udall the Secretary of the Interior for both JFK and LBJ. Udall was instrumental in bringing to fruition a plethora of progressive environmental legislation.  His ardent liberalism was on par with that of his late brother, the former Member of Congress and 1976 presidential candidate Morris Udall..  

But perhaps the best example of Maher's botched stereotyping of all Mormons as right-wingers would be Marriner S. Eccles, FDR's Federal Reserve chairman. It was Eccles''s famous quote on credit reliance being akin to the few holding all the chips in a poker game that Maher cited prominently, on his October 17, 2008 show.  (I will give Mahar the benefit of the doubt and assume that Mahar did not know about Eccles' Mormonism.) Perhaps it has never occurred to Maher that these famous Mormon liberals found their moral compass within the framework of their faith, not despite it.

Maher the Enabler

By now you may be asking, yourself, how does this aid and abet the agenda of the Religious Right? Well quite simply it plays directly into one of movement conservatism's two favorite themes: godless liberals believe themselves to be superior than the average American (the other being that government does not work).

Here is what I mean: A constant talking point of the Religious Right and their secular apologists is that only the orthodox practice of faith the only legitimate brand. Anything less - such as that practiced by Reform Jews, Mainline Protestants and Vatican II progressive Catholics - is akin to no belief at all. Such an outlook appears to be designed to skew the neo-atheist argument against faith by trying to paint it as being irreconcilable with science and reason.

But at the same time this approach obscures the liberal agenda Maher supports. While it devalues the legitimacy of a true Religious Left (one that strongly supports the separation of church and state instead of one that all-too-often adopts the Religious Right's frame on biological issues) - and further splinters the Left -- it also builds up the Right's straw-man argument that liberalism is hostile to people of faith.    

His relentless degradation of poor and working class whites compound Maher's counter-productive attack on faith. During any give broadcast of Real Time the host's constant drumbeat of proclaiming "American dumbness" or description of supposed ignorant toothless rubes is ever-present. If anything he risks turning himself into the posterboy for what movement conservatism says is wrong with liberals.  

The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby recently described the upshot of such behavior:

"Big government never did anything well?" As a statement, that's basically false. But as a piece of messaging, that's quite potent, whether we eggheads understand that or not. With great regularity, voters have heard variations on this message for the past fifty years-variations which often fold in the second claim, the one about liberal elites. When George Wallace talked about "those pointy-head government bureaucrats," he was killing two parakeets with one country stone. He was describing a race of people who looked down on average people-and could do nothing well.

Voters have heard those conservative messages for a very long time.

It's easy to be a conservative pundit. In fact, it's the easiest job in the world! You get to work from very clear messaging. And you get to stand opposed by a lazy, inept, careless group-a group which hasn't bothered to develop core messaging in a great many years.

Maher with his continuous insults levied against religious folks and ordinary Americans makes the messaging easier than it should be. And that is in no small part due to Maher's need to kick down at the misled instead of focusing his comic wit solely on the misleaders.

The Issue at Hand

Maher's neo-atheistic pronouncements are of course protected by the First Amendment, and so no matter how bigoted, ignorant or counterproductive, he has every right to say what he says.

But Maher holds himself as being a progressive with a libertarian streak.  And yet he constantly shoots the progressive agenda in the foot by splitting the Left in order pursue a personal war against faith.

This being the case, Maher simply does not know what liberal values are truly about, if in fact he holds them at all. He also does not seem to know liberalism's history. Many of the ordinary folks Maher and others like him deride as dumb, were at one time liberalism's core constituency. It is the folks who may have "one tooth" who need liberalism the most. They are the ones who need universal health care and unions.  They are the ones for whom liberal lions like John, Robert and Ted Kennedy, and for that matter, Martin Luther King fought. Shall we recall that the day before King was assassinated he had marched with sanitation workers, mostly poor and African American, who were on strike?

None of these, and for that matter, FDR and Harry Truman to mention a few more, never insulted any voter's faith but held high the common dreams and aspirations we all share. A core liberal principle is respect for religious difference. Hostility to religion and to religious people is not a liberal principle.

Stating a case for atheism harms no one. But that is not what Maher does. Instead, he tears down the beliefs of others.  Maher should look in the fun house mirror of his own invention to see that in his self-righteous certitude, he mirrors the Religious Rightists who engage in similar behavior towards atheists, agnostics and non-orthodox people of faith.

More of us on the mainstream Left need to remember this is what much of contemporary liberalism is all about.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 03:17:45 PM EST

I view the "Christian" right as a group of political parties better called the "Resentment" right, and, as such, wouldn't change so long as their affluent leaders are able to get rich and powerful denigrating the millions they're encouraged to resent. No enablers are needed. Their anger is self-induced due to its inherent psychological ineffectiveness. dci
by lackawack on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 06:04:28 PM EST
in order to keep the political opposition squabbling and ineffective. The divisions sustained and exacerbated by those moderates and progressives who have been suckered by antireligionism are fairly significant, in my view, as well as playing directly into the hands of the propagandists of the right, as Frank points out.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 06:32:07 PM EST
Hello, Do you think that these right wing Christians listen to M? I doubt it. They are mostly anti-Black in my experience and may need progressive benefits but want to feel superior to Blacks whom they feel get handouts from progressives. I talk to a lot of these people and I have to say they are mostly just ill informed, ignorant, and prejudiced. Thanks, dci
by lackawack on Tue Oct 06, 2009 at 06:40:21 PM EST
it is certainly the case that the propagandists fo the right monitor the media, just like every other element of American politics. Among Frank's points is that sneering, religious bigotry regularly expressed by Maher and people like him can be used against liberals and progressives -- and sometimes is.

More generally, the sneering antireligionism sometimes infects our discourse such that religious and non-religious people cannot even talk with one another. Maher fans the flames of this unfortunate tendency, dividing us from one another, and making a good buck in so doing.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Oct 06, 2009 at 07:00:33 PM EST

Hello again, I find this logic strained but so be it. I know you mean well and respect that. But we'll have to agree to disagree. Thanks for the responses. dci
by lackawack on Wed Oct 07, 2009 at 04:21:50 PM EST

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum made similar points in their book "Unscientific America." The paradox is that instead of agreeing over what they have in common with the Religious Left, the neo-atheists show themselves to be as dogmatic in their denial of religious belief as the Religious Right is in its religious convictions. I doubt whether either side will convince the other of the righteousness of their respective causes, although I have to say I believe the Religious Right has more political and economic clout. As I've noted before "each action has its equal and opposite reaction."

Maher has noted that as a boy, he attended Mass with his parents until they left the Catholic church after Humanae Vitae.

by khughes1963 on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 08:32:05 PM EST

Well, this article puts me in a difficult position.  If I defend Maher's views on religion I am in danger of contravening the board's terms and conditions.  I guess all I can say is that in the eyes of many atheists (and agnostics, and even some deists), religion is delusional.

If you look at the dictionary definition, a delusion is "a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact."  This is what atheists believe, even of those religious people who accommodate some level of rationality and fact in their faith (e.g evolution, gay rights, etc.).

While I will defend Maher's use of the term "delusional" when it comes to describing religion, I'm not in anyway suggesting that the manner he mocks religion on his show shouldn't offend people of faith, but I do question the premise that he's playing into the hands of the religious right by doing so.

Maher is a polemicist.  He's rude, crude, and antagonistic towards right wing politics and religion in general.  It's what he does for a living, and that's essentially the premise for his HBO show.  It seems a little redundant to point out that he's an easy target for the religious right.

(If you have seen his movie, Religulous, you will find that he's not as antagonistic towards people of faith in other settings, and is likely good friends with a number of religious people, like he is with Ann Coulter.)

Let's face it, if Maher and Dawkins weren't up there doing their thing, it's not as though the religious right has any shortage of red paint for putting targets on people's backs.  Any liberal Christian (like Bill Moyers) will do.  So while you are undoubtedly right that they provide fodder to the religious right, I simply question the utility of going after them.

Such an outlook appears to be designed to skew the neo-atheist argument against faith by trying to paint it as being irreconcilable with science and reason.

But that's what atheists believe!  There is no skewing necessary.  However if you talk to Dawkins (and probably even Maher) you will find that they readily agree that people of faith can be both scientists and engage in rational and reasoned debate.  The argument is that it's the religious faith itself that's irrational, not necessarily the way in which many people choose to act because of their faith.

For example, there is nothing about religious people performing charitable work that is irrational.  Now if those religious believed that they will get to Heaven because they do charitable work, atheists would regard that as an irrational belief.

Richard Dawkins attacked the Mormon religion on Maher's show last week -- of being the invention of an opportunistic 19th century American with an excellent imagination.  Many Christians, even liberal ones, have exactly the same opinion.  That doesn't mean that Dawkins believes that a Mormon can't hold entirely rational and reasonable views when it comes to their works in public life.  That's not the same thing at all.

In the end, I suspect that people like Maher and Dawkins are a wash when it comes to the fight against the religious right.  I know you don't like their attacks on all religion (and they say things I would never say to a believer unless they wanted a full debate on the issues), but there is an appetite out there for the things Dawkins is saying.  Richard Dawkins came to the University of Texas a couple of years ago and I tried to get in and see him.  I arrived well over an hour before the doors opened and the line was already a couple of thousand strong.  There was no way I was going to get in and I hear later that hundreds of people weren't able to get in.

If the Religious Right is to be defeated in America, then I can't see it happening without some collateral damage, in the form of many more Americans rejecting religion altogether.  If this is a familiar argument, then it should be, since it is very similar to the claims of the religious right -- that if you waver on, say, the truth of a 6,000 year-old creation, then everything collapses.  Without the Religious Right, the religious landscape in America today would look a lot more like that of much of Europe, with falling church rolls and much more friendly disinterest in all things religious.

All that said, I am happy to make common cause with the people of faith on this board (I have been a commenter for several years now).  I have no desire to disabuse anyone of their religious beliefs around here -- my parents and sister are Christians and would never criticize or attack their faith or rationality.

If I had more time, I would probably have a more well thought out response to this post.  I'm not sure that I have got all the nuances right in my reply, but feel free to respond and I will do my best to clarify.

by tacitus on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 06:36:58 PM EST

not to believe as others do. (Don't we all?)  The problem is not non-belief, it is the aggressive attacking the beliefs of others. In a nation whose very constitutional glue is based on the right of individual conscience and the necessity of a modicum of civility for the views of others, professional anti-religious polemecism is an affront to civility in the broadest sense, and to the paricular values held by progressives in finding common cause with respect the right of individual conscience, including that of atheists, and that of separation of church and state. We see the consequences of such divisiveness play out all the time.

The people who believe and act on antirelgious beliefs are not the kinds of people with whom progressive religious folks can easily find common cause. In my experience, the antireligious folks don't want to even know about such people, let alone work with them.  that said, I know that religious and non-religious have always and will always work together on many things.

Meanwhile, I find no reassurance in the idea that Bill Maher is pals with Ann Coulter.  I think it is worth noting that the church in which Coulter claims membership denies it, and that most people have never even seen her there. I don't care whether Coulter goes to church, but I think it matters that she lies about it.

Regarding people's appetite for Dawkins, I think it is fair to say that there is also a wide appetite for Glenn Beck and such NYT best selling authors as Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and for that matter, Ann Coulter. There is no accounting for taste.  But there is accounting for good political judgment and good values, and that is where I will stake my case. That, and acheiving some clarity about what the religious right is and is not, is helpful.  The crude, and usually misinformed generalizations of the antireligionists, are not helpful and confound effective thought and organizing.

Parenthetically, I don't buy the idea that without the Religious Right, the American experience would be more like Europe, with its established, government funded churches and long and horrendous histories of persecution and religious warfare. I know it is an often invoked thesis, particularly by academics, but history and all available data have shown that European style "secularism theory" is baloney in the American context.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 07:12:29 PM EST

First, while I disagree with several of your conclusions, I sincerely admire how you structured your argument.

With that said, the issue here isn't not faith itself but Maher's behavior.  While I recognize that he is a comedian and does satire, he is needlessly elitist and counter-productive. To use an odd phrase, he is basically preaching to the choir and drives people away from our movement. In truth, he wants an exclusive, not inclusive progressive movement.

As for your statement:

However if you talk to Dawkins (and probably even Maher) you will find that they readily agree that people of faith can be both scientists and engage in rational and reasoned debate.  The argument is that it's the religious faith itself that's irrational, not necessarily the way in which many people choose to act because of their faith.

The record clearly indicates otherwise as proven by Maher's and Dawkin's dismissive view of NIH Director Francis Collins.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 07:31:30 PM EST

If you look at the dictionary definition, a delusion is "a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact."  This is what atheists believe, even of those religious people who accommodate some level of rationality and fact in their faith (e.g evolution, gay rights, etc.).

This is getting pretty close to the old "science disproves religion" argument- but whenever you say that, you're making a religious statement and not a scientific one.  While you may be able to disprove some things, for instance, in the Bible- you CANNOT prove OR disprove the existence of God.  It cannot be tested.  So the part of the statement- "false belief" cannot be ethically used in such a context because it implies some sort of scientific valuation (which it is not).  Nobody can say that WITHOUT making a religious (or if you prefer, philosophical) argument- and thus taking it out of the realm of science.

I've seen the fallout of the "You accept science- you are atheist, or you accept the Bible- you are Christian" false dichotomy.  That's one of the things the dominionists use to keep kids from actually thinking about topics such as evolution.  It's why so many people REJECT evolution these days!  I've had MANY kids come to me (or email me) and thank me for saying (and showing) that you can accept science (including evolution) and still be Christian.  Often their parents- and even more so their preachers- say that this is not possible.  The vocal, militant (and offensive) atheists who have a booth on campus also support that thinking.  Well, it's wrong.  I am an example.  Many of the scientists I know are as well.  Indeed, science informs my faith- and faith has been a support (even motivation) for my scientific investigations.

As long as this "can't be Liberal AND Christian" thinking is also promulgated (it sounds the same of "you can't be Christian and a scientist too!), it will also be a hindrance.  Many thinking people (logical and analytical) are Christian (such as myself), and we don't like being told we have to give up our faith in order to be Liberal.  If you don't believe in God (or a God), that's your business- your right.  Ditto for Maher and Dawkins.  I would also tell Maher and Dawkins that they also have no right trying to tell me (or anyone else for that matter) that if we don't believe as they think we should, we're in the wrong.  That is unethical and bordering on the very behavior I especially have to deal with- the forcing of the false dichotomy between science and religion on students and people.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 08:57:01 PM EST

This is getting pretty close to the old "science disproves religion" argument- but whenever you say that, you're making a religious statement and not a scientific one.  While you may be able to disprove some things, for instance, in the Bible- you CANNOT prove OR disprove the existence of God.  It cannot be tested.

I agree.  I have no proof, and I have never claimed to have proof.  (Nor does Dawkins, or Mahar as far as I know).  That wasn't the point of my argument.  I was merely pointing out that's what atheists believe.  (It's not really a religious statement, but a philosophical one, but it's not scientific, that's true.)

I've seen the fallout of the "You accept science- you are atheist, or you accept the Bible- you are Christian" false dichotomy.  That's one of the things the dominionists use to keep kids from actually thinking about topics such as evolution.  It's why so many people REJECT evolution these days!  I've had MANY kids come to me (or email me) and thank me for saying (and showing) that you can accept science (including evolution) and still be Christian.

Again, I agree.  I have made the exact same argument many times both before and after I became an atheist.  I have actually warned fundamentalists on more than one occasion that they risk losing people to Christianity altogether if they insists on Biblical fundamentalism, and I suspect that while there are many young people kept in line by literalism, there are many others who fall the other way too -- hence the rise in the "nones" during the last two decades.

There is an important distinction to make here.  Most atheists (including many outspoken ones) do accept it's perfectly possible to be a Christian while not believing in Genesis and creationism.  And, in fact, they will say without hesitation that liberal Christianity is far more preferable to the Religious Right.  But they will also maintain, when pressed, that liberal Christianity is just as irrational in its core beliefs (God the Creator, the Resurrection, the Trinity, Heaven and Hell, etc).  Just because you remove the parts of Christianity that have essentially been disproved in the minds of reasonable people (Adam and Eve, Noah's Flood, etc) doesn't make Christianity as a whole more rational.

Now, I don't expect you to agree with this -- but that's not the issue.  I was merely trying to elucidate what many atheists believe -- that there is no conflict between the idea that Christianity as a whole is irrational and the idea that you can be a scientist and a Christian at the same time.  The second is so obviously true that I really don't think it's worth debating.

Remember, an atheists is saying nothing different about Christianity than a large majority of Christians--even liberals--would say about Mormonism or Scientology, or some other religion or religious cult.

I would also tell Maher and Dawkins that they also have no right trying to tell me (or anyone else for that matter) that if we don't believe as they think we should, we're in the wrong.  That is unethical and bordering on the very behavior I especially have to deal with- the forcing of the false dichotomy between science and religion on students and people.

If they were to do it one-on-one with someone they otherwise have no argument with, then I would agree.  I have never personally told any Christian that except on the odd occasion when we are already discussing our religious beliefs.

But Dawkins and Hitchens (and even Maher to some extent) aren't doing that.  They are critical of the role religion plays in society as a whole, and cite many examples of such.  Sure, they also lay the groundwork for their beliefs which is obviously going to be antithetical to what many Christians believe, but I think they have a perfect right to say what they do since they can see the impact (particularly in the States) of those beliefs on different aspects of society.

They may be wrong, atheists may be the ones who are deluded, but it is not unethical to speak out like they do.  Not even close.  

by tacitus on Sat Oct 10, 2009 at 03:21:57 PM EST

There seem to be two types of atheists- those who don't believe but don't put down Christianity, and those who seem to go out of their way to insult Christians and lump Dominionists in with Christianity (and even insist we're out of order if we don't go dominionist).  I've met the former on a few occasions, but I've met more of the latter- and they aren't just trying to distinguish what they DON'T believe- they're insulting and tearing down Christians- just as the root of this thread is saying.  Indeed, most of these latter types will put down other religions IF PRESSED, but their primary target has always seemed to be Christianity.

As I've shared with some of my friends, I suspect this is a reaction to being harmed by P/D/F (Pentecostal/Dominionist/Fundamentalist) churches.  I'd almost bet that is usually the case for the second type.

The arguments I've HEARD is that science disproves religion.  I've heard and have been attacked by atheists too, although I'd admit that the attacks are rare compared to dominionist attacks.  I DO find the "I don't believe in ANY God or "higher being", so I'm superior and more logical than you" argument to be HIGHLY offensive.  Can you predict the breakdown of an unstable atom?  Can you tell me the position and momentum of an electron at the same time?  Can you tell me what comprises a strange attractor- what it is (and not just the definition)???

There are patterns within unpredictable (random) events.  Even chemistry (and from that biology) is tied to quantum physics.  Emergence theory explores how order grows out of chaos and is tied to quantum physics.  Chaos theory has been found to explain many things that other theoretical frameworks cannot- and seems (IMO) to be almost a Newtonian expression of a quantum existence.  So if a miracle happens (and having experienced one, I do accept that they do happen), can you explain it?  In science -especially quantum physics- there is a huge open door for religion and the actions of a "Superior Being"- and that cannot be disproved.  

Science cannot prove OR DISPROVE religion.  All we can say is that we don't know.  Saying that you're more logical because you reject a "higher being" or "God" is not logical, and it is offensive if not somewhat unethical.  YOU CANNOT SAY ONE WAY OR ANOTHER.  You can only believe (that there isn't or that there is).

Now as to our rejecting parts of the Bible- well, this is how a Theologian explained it to me one time, and how I explain it.  I first ask people how scientists would describe the Bible.  If they say (and this is common) that it's a fable or a myth or a book of myths, I would then tell them that they were wrong.  The proper description of the Bible is "The record of the teachings of the early church".  If you look at the Bible as a record of people's experiences and trying to understand their encounters with God, then errors, misunderstandings, cultural definitions, and so on make sense and you realize that you have to do far far more than "Read the Bible" (as the P/D/F churches insist).

Anyway, I was a bit angered by the condescending tone that seemed to go through your response.  Things like I've heard that Maher and Dawkins have said are counterproductive.  If they don't believe, fine.  They should leave it at that.  They shouldn't belittle and insult their allies... that is not only counterproductive, it is harmful (and I'm being nice).  Also, saying that we are not logical because we believe is also a harmful thing to do... and it's wrong.  I've only touched on the logical side of Christianity.  I think we are or can be just as logical (or not logical) as atheists.  

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Oct 10, 2009 at 04:19:07 PM EST

I think perhaps that you're sampling of atheists may be a little skewed in the sense that those are willing to engage in discussions with you are more likely to be militant and outspoken than those who just want to go about their daily lives without talking to anyone about it.  I have a good number of liberal friends who are non-believers of varying types (atheist, agnostic, deist, etc) and I am probably the most outspoken of the lot except for one person who refused to celebrate Christmas (for example), at least until the kids came along!

As I said, I have never attempted to belittle anyone's faith in person, and I would never attempt to "convert" a believer either.  On line it's a little different, of course, but I tend only to engage members of the religious right (on the Crosswalk forum for example -- under another name) and I'm quite happy to play the reasonable liberal (which you really have to under their strict TOS) when debating the issues.  I do not discuss my own religious beliefs at all in fact.

I'm not going to engage in a debate here about why I believe as I do because this is neither the time nor the place.  I was leery about commenting at all on the original post since I wasn't really sure if I could reply succinctly without getting into the weeds and into a fight.  That was never my intent, but I did want to at least try to correct what I thought were some inaccuracies about atheists in general.  If I angered or upset you, then I apologize.

I will finally say that while I can understand why you think the approach Maher and Dawkins take is counterproductive -- it probably is to some extent, though I think the harm is less than most people here believe (I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on that).

I'd rather not have to defend Mahar because his opinions in the area of medical science are not only loony, but they are downright dangerous.

But you have to remember that while the more serious of the so-called "New Atheists" may be allies in the fight against fundamentalism, some of them do not have the same agenda, and they do not all agree that non-fundamentalist religious beliefs are harmless.  Indeed, people like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are quite clear that they think that moderate Christians are enablers of the Religious Right and help to sustain their political dominance of conservatives.

I don't happen to share that strong belief, but it's true that in some cases liberal leaders and politicians bend over backwards to placate the religious right -- like in the health care debate relating to abortion.

Finally, whenever someone throws out the words "deluded" and "irrational" then it is almost certain that those who disagree with you are going to think you believe you are superior or condescending.  If you knew me, and my struggles I have had with confidence, you would quickly realize that I feel anything but superior to just about anyone.  Sure, when you think you're right about something, then you believe you have the more superior position, but that's not different for a Christian sure in their beliefs as it is for an atheist sure in their unbelief.  I would wager that you believe many people of other religious faiths as sorely deluded too (what do you think of Pagans and their Druids, for example?)

Anyway, I would prefer to move on.  I find much common cause with the contributors on this board and I hope it's clear from my past history here that I am not one to stir up a hornets nest over the differences in our beliefs.  I wish you well in your personal battles with the religious right, and no doubt we will chat some more in the future (and likely disagree on some things too!).

by tacitus on Mon Oct 12, 2009 at 05:02:59 AM EST

While I may disagree with some of their tenets, I am generally more friendly with "pagans" than with dominionists- with whom I have even more disagreements.  At least the pagans don't try to force their beliefs on me, or at least they haven't.  I've also found a lot of commonality when you get past the surface stuff.  For instance- with the Wiccan "Do no harm!"  My wife has always said that she could learn much about her own faith by studying the faith of others.  That used to bother me, when I was still largely under dominionist thinking-influence, but now it doesn't at all.  I agree with it- although I don't have the time to explore other faith systems (and it's not really my "cup of tea" anyway!)

Sadly, with only one or two exceptions, all of the atheists I've talked with do come across with the "superior to thou" attitude.  They talk about how irrational or deluded or illogical Christianity is (and how sometimes other religions are)- or words to that effect.  That, to me, is about as offensive as some "Christian" telling an atheist that they're blind or deliberately ignoring truth (and I've heard that- and find comments like that VERY offensive!)  

I also am bothered by this "Liberal giving in to the right" stuff.  We don't empower the religious right.  PERIOD.  Unless by resisting them we're empowering them- in which case I would question if the person claiming that was really wanting us to join something we abhor.

I think the "common grounders" are motivated more by political ideology than faith in that regard.  

You see, this is the core of the problem- atheists point to some of the aberrations and say "Look- they're all like this or deluding themselves".  They turn us off, and then wonder why we have problems working with them.  Yet, we face a DANGEROUS common enemy- the dominionists (or religious right or whatever you want to call them- they are all the same to me!)  Therefore, we ALL need to show a little respect for each other and try to make it easier to work together - and things such as Maher and company are spewing- that demonstrates a total lack of respect for allies.  It is AT BEST counterproductive.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Oct 12, 2009 at 01:03:14 PM EST

I'm not going into a long diatribe, but the reasons you cite as to why Maher is counterproductive is why I count myself as a fan.
Face facts; this country is going to break down, and one of the reasons is because there is a growing breach between religious people and atheists/agnostic/skeptical/etc.
Religion is becoming more and more obsolete, primarily because it tries to sell itself as history as well as a belief system. Liberalism may have started as part of a faith movement, but because religious institutions continually repress progressive ideas and thinking, it will make itself look outdated. It can't be rehabilitated unless the hierarchies decide they will alllow it.
Liberation theology, anyone? Deemed heretical.
No, religion WANTS to control the state and can be evidenced by their actions. That's why there is a 700 Club, Moral Majority, and so on. If you want to be part of a religion, according to their leadership, you have to buy the cow, not just have some milk.
Or do want to deny that there's political organizing in churches?

by Da Rat Bastid on Tue Oct 06, 2009 at 05:39:33 PM EST
The problem is, there are people on the "atheist side" who actually think all Christianity or all religion are like the dominionists, and that is not true at all.  It's all part of the "lump 'em all together" tendency I've noted in certain quarters; when there are many religious people including Christians who are not as you described- not trying to force false history on others, not trying to repress progressive ideas and thinking, not at all like 700 Club and the rest.

Not all churches have political organizing in them.  Some abhor the idea and strongly value the separation of Church and State.

Indeed, there ARE Christians who promote progressive thinking and ideas- many of us.

This is another false dichotomy- that somehow progressive = atheism and outdated/not-progressive = Christianity.  I've encountered people who thought like that- and sad to say, they were just as offensive as the dominionists.  Maybe even worse, because they claimed science was "on their side" when it doesn't "speak" to religion- which reminds me of the claims of the creationists.

This gets back to the central theme of Frank's root to this thread- that things like Maher and the others are putting out are counterproductive and actually harmful to progressive goals.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Oct 06, 2009 at 07:05:25 PM EST

as Tacitus, and I verged on believing as Mr. Bastid does. I slowly came around as I witnessed who it was that truly were fighting for us atheists.

It's far too easy to paint all Christians as the enemy when we see so many people in Congress, Dems and Reps, repeating the religious right's talking points, but that's because they've been working for years to inject their people into positions of power in order to push the fundie agenda, and so many of the lawmakers are frankly, scumbags who are willing to play to whoever they think will advance their careers.

With so many different tacks being taken by the zealots, it does at times seem overwhelming, but I've come to learn that they are not the majority, no matter how many times they proclaim it. And there are a great many people on the right who vigorously disagree with the idea of a "Christian Nation", and believe it or not, they are also aware of the historical revision being attempted by wingnuts like Barton and co. Take a look at some of the religious threads at Little Green Footballs to see how disgusted a great many on the right have become with the very same ideologues we liberals rail against.

The true enemy that we should all be fighting against is apathy. When no one gets involved, the zealots win by default.

by trog69 on Wed Oct 07, 2009 at 03:00:14 AM EST

The same case can be made for those who oppose the idea of divine creation.  They have their right to a belief system, but many of them make it a religion with fervor. They have web sites that claim one cannot be a good MD, historian or computer research scientist etc. unless one adheres to evolution.  I heard reports from church members  of a group of these types who hired an airplane to drive over the creationist museum in Tennessee. The banner they paid for was a mocking, demeaning slogan aimed at those who did not believe in evolution. I would suggest these types need to get a life.  Insulting others who do not share their scientific theory only harms the public discourse on such subjects. And the article is right, they are the best resource for funding the religious right has.

by wilkyjr on Wed Oct 07, 2009 at 03:36:20 PM EST
is that science is not a "belief system" per se.  It may be a way of thinking, but we don't "believe" theories or hypotheses... we accept theories and test hypotheses.  Belief has nothing to do with it.

As far as the creationists- they claim to have scientific foundations for their nonsense, but it's all back to religious belief, and everything they've cooked up (pseudoscience) has been disproved.    When they make scientific claims about faith, they'd better be prepared to have those claims tested, and if the testing fails, the claims are not valid.  

Second, I would tend to agree that if you don't have a good background in evolutionary theory, you aren't going to be very effective or decent as a doctor or scientist.  Having been treated by non-evolution-educated doctors, I never want to have one again (they're real quick to tell you "it's all in your head" and "there's nothing wrong with you- GET BACK TO WORK!"- and then get REALLY mad when someone else diagnoses you and proves them wrong!  In other words, old-school medicine!)  At the same time, the newer medicines are based upon evolutionary theory- and they work.  Medicine is becoming more and more scientific all the time- and for someone who has experienced misdiagnosis and flat-out MALPRACTICE, the elimination of "practice" is GOOD!

I also would have a problem with a historian who is also a creationist- especially if that person was a young-earth creationist.   Human history IS over 6,000 years old.  If you cannot accept that fact, you are going to have problems with many facets of history.  Understanding cultural evolution is also necessary in that branch of science.

I can state unequivocally that the social sciences (especially anthropology) are based on evolutionary theory and evolution.  Thus being an anthropologist/archaeologist/sociologist/whatever is going to be very difficult if you don't accept the theory of evolution.  That's why we have such big problems with "Biblical Archaeologists"... the ones who are creationist are invariably getting into trouble for violating rules, falsifying data, and offending everyone they can- because they try to "prove the Bible".  A "Biblical Archaeologist" without a solid science (EVOLUTION) background is not welcome.  There are good ones who do work in the mideast (and who are welcome)- the archaeologists with a scientific background that instead of believing; formulates hypotheses, tests them, and reports the results- and who looks to see where the evidence points rather than trying to fit everything to what they read in the Bible.  I personally know (or at least have sat and chatted) with a few of the good ones.  There is nothing of "Belief" in what they do... they keep that separate.

As far as the computer sciences- the more recent breakthroughs I've read of were based on evolutionary theory.   The physical component- computer hardware, is getting tied more and more to quantum mechanics and some of the "harder" aspects of physics, same as the physics that disprove young earth.  So there are even problems there if the person rejects "old earth"- problems even if they reject evolutionary theory in the cutting-edge computer science.

So, there are GOOD and VALID reasons to say that one cannot be a MD or a Historian or a Computer Scientist and not accept evolution.

As far as the plane with the banner- I was highly amused to read about that.  Having been insulted by creationists TO MY FACE several times in the classroom (and having heard many horror/"war" stories), I think turnabout is fair play.  They send people in to university-level classes to disrupt the class when evolution (or anything else they dislike for that matter), or they teach their kids to disrupt classes... I can understand people's disgust with the creationists.  As far as I'm concerned- they're deliberately ignorant and proudly stupid.

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Oct 07, 2009 at 07:43:36 PM EST

"MAHER: [overlapping] But - and it seems like religion is the kind of thing where you either eat the whole wafer or you don't eat it at all. I mean, if you're going to pick all the raisins out, why buy raisin bread?

"CUOMO: Well, I'll tell you...Well, for the bread, that's why you buy it.

"Cuomo went on to eloquently but effectively school Maher..."
If claiming that you buy raisin bread only to pick the raisins out so you can eat the bread constitutes the beginning of a "schooling", consider me confounded. The whole point was, why don't you just get your bread without raisins in the first place? Cuomo failed to answer. Who was in need of schooling, again?

"...what is worse is that he views religious faith in much the same light as many on the Religious Right - the only true religion is that of contemporary orthodoxy and any deviation from same is somehow less religious."

Right. And people who criticize MLB players for steroid use while ignoring the problem at the minor league level might as well be sharing needles with them. Gee, could it be that the attention paid to the problem is proportional to its scope, severity, visibility and consequences?

"Maher loaded his question to Cuomo by making the desire for bread conditional upon being only able eat one of many varieties."

Quite the opposite. Again, the point was: why select that kind when what he wanted was already readily available, sans "imperfections?"

Even if this wasn't the case, is the creator of an analogy to be held to the standard that an it must fit perfectly at all levels of scrutiny?

"...the religious were defined as those who believe in talking snakes while those religious who view the Eden story as metaphor are simply "airbrushed  out" of the picture."

When you start picking and choosing which parts of the story are literally true and which parts are figurative, how do you determine which is which? If you're not careful, you can end up in the position that the Ten Commandments are perfect moral guidelines, while other codes listed in the very same book "were true then, but not in the contemporary world." Or that the Christ story is true, but contradictions in the resurrection narratives may be safely ignored. Or that the fact that Paul couldn't keep his story straight about how many times he went to Jerusalem indicates he was influenced by God, and not that God literally wrote the New Testament. (So...God inspired Paul to lie?)

Most people solve the problem by choosing a group of people, mainly on a sociological basis, that they're going to agree with. Then they modify that choice so they can feel comfortable that they're not merely a puppet. An apparent majority of people in America end up calling themselves Christians, many of whom consider stories like the Eden narrative "metaphor" while insisting that the Christ story was literally true.

Without going into the historical reasons for realizing that the probability of the veracity of the Jesus story is negligible, all one really need do is paraphrase John 3:16 with an unvarnished mind to realize that what's being sold makes no sense whatsoever. The real story isn't that Jesus is the most influential person in history; it's that Christians are the most easily influenced people in history.

"Perhaps it has never occurred to Maher that these famous Mormon liberals found their moral compass within the framework of their faith, not despite it."

Finding your moral compass within a framework of falsehood is, to say the least, problematic. It is akin to "building your house upon the sand." Which is worse: having no home but accustomed to it, or having a home that will crumble, leaving its occupants to curse the darkness, completely unprepared for their harsh destiny?

The real answer is to build your house upon a bedrock of truth. And the truth is something to be determined. It cannot be arrived at by a priori decision, spurred by incentive.

by Panglos on Sun Oct 11, 2009 at 05:46:48 PM EST

Good article. However, one line I find objectionable: "Maher doesn't know much about religion or religious people...He views religious faith in much the same light as many on the Religious Right - the only true religion is that of contemporary orthodoxy." What does the Religious Right have to do with orthodoxy? Not much. Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are more genuinely orthodox that Dobson and his clan. It probably wasn't best to accuse Maher of religious ignorance and then perpetuate more of it. The Religious Right is an expression of self-righteous American religious nationalism, not orthodoxy.

by CMWatts on Tue Oct 13, 2009 at 04:56:51 PM EST

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