Bill Maher, whose prominent atheism has put him in the news after the anti-blasphemy terrorist attacks in Paris, is a mess of contradictions. He likes to imagine himself a freedom-loving liberal, but all too often he wallows in gross racism and sexism that subtracts from the freedom of everyone who isn’t a white man. He loves to think of himself as a rationalist, but holds a lot of irrational beliefs. Few public figure inspire the “yes, but” reaction like Bill Maher.
Here’s a list of five times he was right on a subject and five times he ruined it all by turning around and being terribly wrong.
1. Bill Maher is right about free speech.
Maher had some interesting things to say about blasphemy and free speech in a recent segment of his show Real Time. He denounced the pope and Bill Donohue for suggesting that people who commit blasphemy are somehow inviting a violent reaction, arguing, “Because whether you’re representing the prince of peace or the religion of peace threatening violence is a great way to drive home the point that you’re secure in your medieval beliefs.” He correctly compared this to blaming rape victims for the clothes they wear.
1A. Bill Maher is wrong about free speech.
In the same segment, Maher tossed out a double standard, whining, “Liberals hate bullying, all right. But they’re not opposed to using it. When they casually throw out words like ‘bigot’ and ‘racist,’ it does cow people into avoiding this debate.” Sorry, Bill, but you don’t get to have it both ways. The same right that allows you to make fun of people’s “medieval beliefs” allows others to use names like “bigot” and “racist” to describe what they believe, for good reason,is your tendency to treat Islam as if it’s uniquely violent, despite the fact that nearly all religions have had believers commit murder in their name. If you can make fun of faith, people should be able to make fun of you. It’s only fair.
2. Bill Maher is right about violence against women.
Maher made headlines recently with his comments in support of the women accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault and denouncing the idea that women come forward because they’re gold-diggers or attention whores. “This is 24 accusers over three or four decades — that’s a lot of smoke. You have to look at motivation. What motivation could Beverly Johnson have?” he said. “There’s no glamour in saying an old creep forced himself on you.” Maher is right. The stereotype of the attention-seeking fake victim is more a product of misogynist thinking than a common real-world occurrence and most women who allege rape are telling the truth.
2A. Bill Maher is wrong about violence against women.
In the same interview, Maher insinuated that the accusations against Woody Allen were likely false, despite the large amount of corroborating evidence. No big surprise there. Maher has an ugly history of sexism under his belt and was recently in the news for writing a gross tweet making light of domestic violence. “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who's trying to kill u —u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her.” Not only was he trafficking in ugly stereotypes, he was also subtly endorsing the excuses all wife beaters like to make, that it was in self-defense when it rarely is in real life.
3. Bill Maher is for science and rationality.
When Maher is talking about religion, he doesn’t hold back when expressing skepticism of supernatural or unscientific claims. In an ad for the Openly Secular campaign, Maher says, “It seems to me the most obvious decision a person could make in their life: do I want to make real-world policy decided on the basis of proven facts and the reaches of what humans have gotten to do in science? Or do I want real-world decisions made based on ancient myths written by men who didn’t know what a germ or an atom was, or where the sun went at night?” It’s an admirable sentiment in support of empiricism of the sort we really need to hear more often.
3A. Bill Maher is against science and rationality.
Too bad Maher’s enthusiasm for science dries up the second the topic switches from religion to healthcare and nutrition. Even though there’s no scientific reason to fear GMOs, for instance, Maher doesn’t hesitate to fear-monger over foods whose genes have been modified in a lab instead of by more traditional cross-breeding methods. Maher also fear-mongers over vaccinations, which made Bill Frist--Bill Frist!--look like the voice of reason in comparison. Indeed, Maher is a veritable cornucopia of anti-science beliefs when it comes to healthcare and food, opposing not just vaccination and GMOs, but even germ theory.
4. Bill Maher is right about controlling other people’s bodies.
Maher, correctly, tends to be skeptical of the American habit of trying to control what other people do in bed. Back in 2012, Maher said, ““Why do we punish sex so much more than anything else? Clinton lied about a blowjob, got impeached. Bush lied about a war, didn’t.” He’s right that America has a prudish streak that tends to blow sex scandals way out of proportion compared to other, more serious scandals that involve loss of life or bankrupting innocent people.
4A. Bill Maher is wrong about controlling other people’s bodies.
Maher is also a big-time prude when it comes to women using their bodies the way they want. In 2007, Maher went on a rant against women who breast-feed in public, “And finally, new rule—and I never thought I'd be the one to say this—but don't show me your tits!” Tits are only for titillating him, not for feeding babies, apparently. He invoked a series of misogynist stereotypes, accusing women of attention-seeking and wanting praise for what he, a man, deemed an easy task of birthing and nourishing a baby. “And by the way, there is a place where breasts and food do go together. It's called Hooters!” he concluded, in case there was any doubt that he’s only against controlling other people’s bodies if hisgratification is threatened.
5. Bill Maher denounces pandering to conservatives.
In a recent episode of Real Time, Maher had some great insights about how the Democrats lose and Republicans win: “It was a simple message for a simple people — screw Obama. And it worked. Because none of the Democrats came out for Obama.” He argued that Republicans are willing to pander and fear-monger while Democrats are afraid to speak out about their actual values. All very true and a wonderful call to avoid pandering to the public’s worst impulses and to demand more of your audiences.
5A. Bill Maher panders to conservatives.
Too bad Maher is not above being like a Republican politician and pushing simple-minded, bigoted beliefs to conservatives when it suits him. Maher joined in the ridiculous conservative panic over Ebola that dried up immediately after the elections, demonstrating that it was little more than an attempt to scare the public into voting Republican. And Maher continues to hammer at the right-wing idea that Islam is somehow uniquely conducive to committing terrorism, even though terrorism committed by Christians and other assorted right-wing extremists is a bigger problem in the United States than Islamic terrorism.
Bill Maher is hardly the only public figure who is a bundle of contradictions. Most of us, pundits included, have a bunch of contradictory beliefs and assorted hypocrisies to contend with. But Maher exceeds in being even less self-aware than most on this front, always portraying an arrogant sense of righteousness even as he says something that completely contradicts what he was just saying a few moments before. That combination of arrogance, self-righteousness and lack of self-reflection makes him a particularly maddening public figure.