Bill Maher, American hero: Laughing at religion is exactly what the world needs

Maher's stances get him called a bigot. We should thank him instead, for taking a necessary battle to the faithful

Published April 26, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

  (HBO/Janet Van Ham)
(HBO/Janet Van Ham)

Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s "Real Time," is a shining beacon of the New American Enlightenment, radiant with goodness and hope.

But first, a bit of background.

No matter what anyone says, religion is a deeply, if darkly, hilarious topic, and the sundry tomes of the sacred canon read more like joke books than anything else, albeit sick joke books.  How can we, in the 21st century, having mapped (and even edited) the human genome, engineered pluripotent stem cells, and discovered the Higgs Boson, be expected to revere the dusty old Bible, for example, with its quarreling goatherds and idolatrous tribesmen, and its golden calves and talking snakes, to say nothing of its revenge-porn (against unbelievers) finale?  How can we not laugh aloud when Genesis declares that Almighty God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, yet had to pilfer a rib from Adam to produce Eve?  What are we to make of Numbers 22:28-30, wherein the Lord intervenes, not to part the sea or still the sun, but to set Balaam’s donkey a-jabbering?  How are we supposed to accept Jesus as an up-to-snuff savior when, in Matthew 21:19 and Mark 11:13-14, he loses his temper and cusses out a fig tree, condemning it to death, for not bearing fruit out of season?  Any second-grade science-class student would have known better, and possibly even exercised more self-control.

“Properly read,” declared the science-fiction author and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov, “the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”  He was right.  The same may be said of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, which the late, dearly missed Christopher Hitchens called “not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require.”

The proper response to religion, riddled as it is with absurdities, is, thus, laughter, either of the belly-slapping, table-pounding kind or the pitying, head-shaking sort.  Laughter, but also outrage.  After all, those who take such absurdities as manifestations of the Godhead have, especially since the Reagan years, hogged the moral high ground and commandeered American politics, polluting public discourse with their reactionary cant and halting progress in reproductive rights, science (think the Bush-era ban on stem cell research) and education (to wit: stubborn attempts to have oxymoronic “Intelligent Design” rubbish taught in schools).  Look abroad, and the panorama of savagery religion must answer for curdles the blood.  No rationalist could contemplate all this entirely unnecessary faith-driven regress and backsliding with anything but anger, tempered with despair.  If we want to do true and lasting good in this world, we are morally obligated to fight faith in the open, and root it out from every nook and cranny in which it hides.

Facing such a task, a desire for comic relief is only natural.  Bill Maher is where anger, outrage and religion meet – in humor.  (This essay will address only his stance on religion.)  There is nothing un-American about his faith-bashing – far from it.  Thomas Jefferson, who denied the divinity of Jesus, wrote that, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions" – and what is religion but a jumble of unintelligible propositions about our cosmos and its origins?  Yet Maher has incited no small amount of ire among both the faith-addled masses (fully two-thirds of Americans believe Jesus actually rose from the dead, and almost half expect him to return in the coming decades) and their muddleheaded sympathizers for his brutal broadsides against religion, and Islam in particular.  Bigot! Racist! Islamophobe! they cry, at times bemoaning the “offense” they purport to have suffered from his words, and illustrating how far the cognitive capacities of so many of us have deteriorated since Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority began meddling in politics.  (This can be no coincidence.)  Their real message to Maher: Shut up!

Name-calling is the last resort of losers -- in this case, losers waging an unwinnable war against the spread of godlessness.  And “shut up!” is the last command of which the Greats of the Enlightenment and their heirs would have approved.  The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, put it best, referring to suppressed speech: “If the opinion is right, [the shutter-uppers] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”  If Maher is really so wrong, why not let him hoist himself by his own petard?

Last fall on "Real Time," Ben Affleck and the journalist Rula Jebreal carried out flagrant, widely publicized sorties of unreason against Maher in defense of Islam.  I’ve already dealt with them in Salon, so I won’t repeat myself here.  But recently the CNN host and journalist Fareed Zakaria appeared on the show and, unfortunately, even surprisingly, launched his own pundit-certified version of their attacks.  It was not a pretty sight.

Commenting on the recent conviction of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Maher muses that sentencing the young terrorist to death would be “giving him what he wants” – paradise.  “Which gets me back to the idea of Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”  With a knowing look, he turns to Zakaria.  “Fareed?”

Zakaria, looking already worked-up, tells Maher that badmouthing Islam isn’t going to “change the religion” and amounts to informing Muslims that their faith “is a terrible thing, so shape it up and change it.”  (Applause breaks out.)  He accuses Maher of pandering to his audience, hoping for “applause lines and joke lines,” but “if you really want to change those people, if you want to change that religion, then you have to push for reform, but also with some sense of respect for . . . the spiritual values that people take.”  He adds that he’s not religious himself, but “I know that world, and if you tell everybody that you suck, that your religion sucks, clean it up, then it’s going to get their backs up against the wall.”

Following this, Zakaria slips off the rails, adducing Indonesia (where female genital mutilation is rife and spreading) as a Muslim land where “women are given respect.”  Then he appears to dispute the (indisputable) 2012 Pew survey showing majority support in the Muslim world for all sorts of divinely mandated illiberal beliefs and violent punishments.  (In fact, one can dispute the data: given that polling could not be conducted in the most hard-line Islamic countries, the results skew toward the moderate.)  He goes on: “All I’m telling is the reality is you’re not changing those [Muslims], you’re not changing an average Egyptian.”

“That’s not my job!” Maher interjects, before being cut off by another panelist.

Later, Zakaria says that Muslims “feel like their religion is being insulted,” and this (incomprehensibly) somehow accounts for Pew’s numbers.

It is indeed not Maher’s job, nor has he ever said or implied that it was, to instruct Muslims on how to go about reforming their faith.  He’s a comedian playing to an American audience, and doing so in Hollywood, not exactly renowned as a citadel of theological erudition.  Zakaria’s entire monologue was, thus, misbegotten and malapropos, the equivalent of pronouncing a eulogy at a wedding.  Why Zakaria chose to treat Maher to it is a mystery.

Be that as it may, Zakaria’s request that Maher “respect” the values of Islam deserves close scrutiny.  It amounts to nothing but a veiled exhortation that he censure himself.  When the religious (or their apologists) start calling for “respect” for their faith, they really aim to curtail free speech and shut the vocally godless up.

It should go without saying that in the constitutionally secular United States, neither Maher nor anyone else should feel obliged to show deference to Islam -- or any other faith.  The First Amendment inseparably links the right to free speech with the right to practice the religion of one’s choosing, or not to practice any religion at all.  Since faith has historically caused so much strife and led to so much repression, unfettered discourse about it is precisely what must be allowed, no matter what people feel, if they are to be free.  Put another way, in a truly civil society the right to free expression trumps the desire of religious folks not to have their feelings hurt.  The “offense” argument is, therefore, no argument at all; it is tantamount to a selfish, adolescent insistence on conformity, nothing more.  The “offended” just have to grin and bear it.  We left high school long ago.  It’s time to grow up.

It should be obvious to the observant that demands that Maher respect faith, whether issued from Muslims or the Catholic League’s president, Bill Donohue, all stem from a single, flagrant insecurity – that once people begin mocking religion, begin meeting its gaga assertions and goofy proclamations with guffaws instead of genuflection, with ridicule instead of reverence, then religion stands naked, puny and shriveled before its peering “flock,” the members of which will soon start wondering, “maybe my whole life as a Muslim or Catholic (or whatever) is built on a lie?  Maybe I’m a fool to believe all these crazy scriptures?  Now that I think about it, I really have so many doubts about them.  Maybe I should dump my holy book and read something for grown-ups?  Maybe I should check out Bertrand Russell’s "Skeptical Essays" or Philip Larkin’s poem "Aubade"?  Maybe, after all, as Larkin wrote, religion is just a “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die?”  Maybe I should just start thinking for myself?  After all, I’m no child!”

Just as the brilliant satirists of Charlie Hebdo skewer the institutions, precepts and potentates of Islam and Christianity, so Maher devastatingly unloads on religion, and with consummate mordancy, even stridency – as is his right.  At this stage in the fight against unreason, against this pernicious attachment we have to wicked old myths in gilt volumes, stridency is necessary, if not sufficient.  Nonbelievers are finally making their voices heard in a society programmed to hum along with the numbing cords of faith.  Make no mistake about it: This stridency, this anger, flows from a deep wellspring of offense -- offense at the utterly groundless pretensions the Abrahamic faiths espouse, chief among which are: I am saved and you are not; I have a hotline to the divine and you do not; I know what the Almighty wants and you do not; I walk with God, and you do not.

All this matters because religion is no mere spiritual matter; it exceeds the realm of personal conscience and infects public life.  If the faith-deranged in the West can no longer treat nonbelievers to thumbscrews and the rack, flaming pyres and breast-rippers, they continue to stamp their ugly imprimatur on policy, both domestic and foreign, and in the U.S. do so tax-free!  Maher has never let us forget this.  If he succeeds in “de-converting” just a few of his believing, or even doubting, audience members a week with his show, he’s doing us all immeasurable good, and sowing hope for the future.  At the very least, he’s furthering the gloriously heathen Zeitgeist, and we should be thankful.

If humor is Maher’s weapon, paradoxically, one of his most significant monologues offered few laughs, but basically called the expanding ranks of the faithless to arms.  He recorded it for the group Openly Secular.

“It’s not OK to make decisions based on myths.  Don’t let it look like in America that the most reasonable, not to mention correct, fact-based argument is really the weird one, the one held by a tiny minority of misguided eggheads. No! Secularists are bigger than that, way bigger.  But you gotta show yourself.  You might find that you have more friends than you think.”

He’s talking to you, fellow rationalists.  Please, show yourselves. 

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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