You know what you call someone who makes sweeping generalizations on billions of people based on the extreme actions of a few? A bigot. Bill Maher, for example, is a bigot. And if you're a fan of his smug, dismissive shtick, you're a bigot too.
On Friday's "Real Time," Maher, who has been openly atheist his whole career but has been increasingly vocal against organized religion in recent years, squared off against Fareed Zakaria, who gave a powerful rebuttal to Maher's reiteration of the "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas" assertion. "My problem with the way you approach it," Zakaria said, "is I don’t think you’re going to reform a religion by telling 1.6 billion people — most of whom are just devout people who get some inspiration from that religion and go about their daily lives — I don’t think you’re going to change religion by saying your religion is the motherlode of bad ideas, it’s a terrible thing. Frankly, you’re going to make a lot of news for yourself and you’re going to get a lot of applause lines and joke lines." Instead, he urged, "Push for reform with some sense of respect for the spiritual values." And on behalf of Muslims, Christians, Jews and anybody else who prays to somebody sometimes, let me just say, thank you.
As the threats of terrorism and right-wing Christianity have risen in the past few years, Maher's aggressive brand of atheism — also popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — has gained a strong following among a certain type of self-professed intellectual. Maher has famously said, "Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do" — which is pretty funny, given the know-it-all arrogance of the anti-religion big leaguers like Maher himself. As Zakaria very eloquently pointed out, that stance has given Maher more power and reach than he's ever had in his long career. But whatever you believe or don't, if you're selling blanket intolerance, you don't get to call yourself one of the good guys. You shouldn't even get to call yourself one of the smart ones.
I'm a Christian, which in my urban, media-centric world is basically equivalent to self-identifying as a hillbilly. It also means that I have to accept that I apply the same word to myself that a lot of hateful morons do. But on Sunday at my little neighborhood church, our priest delivered a sermon in which he said, "I can't understand how in places like Indiana, people are using Christianity as an excuse to close their doors, when we should be welcoming to everyone." Guess what? That's faith too. I am also keenly aware that in other parts of the world, people are being murdered for a faith that I am privileged to practice openly and without fear. And anyone, anywhere, who is openly hateful to others for their religion is part of a culture that permits that kind of persecution to endure.
Here's what I would like Bill Maher and his smug, self-righteous acolytes to understand. There are literally billions of individuals in this world who are not murderous, ignorant, superstitious, hatemongers, who also happen to practice a religion. Billions of people who I swear — to God — have no investment in forcing their beliefs on Bill Maher. Right here in the U.S., there are millions of my fellow Christians who are strongly committed to the ideals of the Constitution, and who don't want to live in a theocracy any more than they do.
I recently had a conversation with an atheist friend who asked why, knowing all I do of the wrongs committed by the Catholic Church, disagreeing as strongly as I do with many of its positions on women's rights, LGBT equality and reproductive justice, I continue to stay within it. And my reply was that this is where I feel I can do the most good. I am not a disinterested party. I'm a citizen of my church and I'm going to continue to demand better of it. I don't, however, want to sell it to anybody else. You don't have to believe in God -- or however else you may define the concept of something else out there. I don't have all the answers to life, the universe and everything; I'm just trying to get through this plane of existence in a manner that's philosophically satisfying and guides me in the direction of not being a selfish jerk. That's it. All I ask — all that many, many, many of us who practice their respective religions ask — is that you conduct yourself with respect and compassion and a spirit of coexistence, and we'll do the same. I ask that you not make assumptions about the vast majority of the world's population based on your own need to feel good about yourself and how smart you are. Like Zakaria says, you're not going to bring about reform that way. And as Maher and his ilk prove, you don't need a religion to be in the business of spreading hate.