Maher’s stances get him called a bigot. We should thank him instead, for taking a necessary battle to the faithful
Sunday, Apr 26, 2015
Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s “Real Time,” is a shining beacon of the New American Enlightenment, radiant with goodness and hope.
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?