Maher on Religion

Bill Maher showed up on Scarborough Country yesterday to explain his problems with organized religion. Since I can’t improve on his eloquent and spot-on comments, I will simply reproduce them beneath the fold. Enjoy!

BILL MAHER, HOST, “REAL TIME”: I’ve always had it out for religion, for very good reasons. It’s mostly destructive. I don’t know what happens after you die, but to believe what another person tells me just makes me want to say to that person, “How do you know?” So that’s what I would ask you. How do you know what happens after you die?

It’s only, Joe, because somebody in this long game of telephone from 2000 years ago told you what it was. But if some person hadn’t told you, and a person just came up to you on the street and says, “Yes, there’s a God, and he had a son, and he sent him on a suicide mission to Earth. And then, on Easter, he flies bodily up to Heaven.” I mean, what would you think of a person in the 21st century who believed that somebody could fly bodily up to Heaven?

SCARBOROUGH: But Mr. Maher wasn’t finished with that. He went on to talk about religion’s effect on politics in America and around the world.

MAHER: It’s extremely dangerous. It warps people’s thinking. The Bush administration has 150 graduates of Pat Robertson’s law school. That’s right, Pat Robertson, the man who believes that hurricanes are caused by gay people.

Monica Goodling, who was a very high official in the Justice Department, she was 33 years old, and she was given the job of evaluating all of the U.S. attorneys, all people who are older than her, with more experience, who really know what they’re doing. She graduates from Pat Robertson’s law school and, at the age of 33, is given this job. Why? Because she and her boss, Alberto Gonzales, and his boss, George Bush, belong to the same cult.

Yes, it’s the same cult, but basically what qualified her for this was that they all believe that this space God flew up bodily to Heaven and that’s going to save their ass, OK? These are not qualifications for high government office, and that’s just one example. Religion warps…

SCARBOROUGH: So are you saying that Christians that believe, as I believe, that there was a Jesus, that he was born, that he died, and he rose again, should we be disqualified from public service because we belong to this cult?

MAHER: You shouldn’t be disqualified from public service, but it shouldn’t be the most important qualification. And it is, apparently, in the Bush administration.

SCARBOROUGH: Of course not. But that’s about George Bush; that’s not about Jesus Christ.

MAHER: OK, but George Bush…

SCARBOROUGH: Come on. You and I both know it’s not about Jesus. It’s about loyalty to George Bush. That’s the number-one qualification for working in the Bush administration.

MAHER: You asked me what I had against religion. I’m telling you. It warps the opinions of people who run the world and the people who believe it enable those people to run the world so badly. Why is it going so badly in Iraq? Basically, because there are two sects, the Shiites and the Sunnis, and they have a quarrel over who succeeded Muhammad in the seventh century. That’s why…

SCARBOROUGH: Take that up with Shiites and Sunnis. You don’t see Christians going around shooting each other in America, do you?

MAHER: I’m just making the point, Joe, that religion warps people’s thinking. Until we get over these, I’m sorry, yes, childhood myths, we can’t think straight and we can’t solve our problems in a functional way, in a way that involves rational thinking. We are steering the ship of state by cutting open a chicken and reading the entrails, like the Romans did, instead of using a compass, which would be science.

Comments

  1. #1 quork
    April 26, 2007

    Best-selling Author Will ‘Prove’ God’s Existence

    ABC to Air LIVE Atheist Debate with Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort

  2. #2 PC
    April 26, 2007

    I’m with Maher to a certain extent. People who think they have God all figured out and try to force their views on other people are very dangerous to this world…Yet on the other hand, during my time I was homeless it was the Christians who helped me the most without asking anything in return. So I can see both sides

  3. #3 Russell Miller
    April 26, 2007

    PC:

    It’s not the size of your God, but what you do with it.

  4. #4 Beren
    April 26, 2007

    Interesting. As Maher pointed out, in order to believe in most religions one has to accept an argument from authority. This tome, that holy figure, a priest or pastor. Even if the authority is only your own intuition, that is clearly subjective, error prone, and in need of external verification. Once you have conceded that a given authority is correct, regardless of any apparent counter-evidence, the road to your credulity is paved. A strong emotional attachment is built to the religion, a strong sense of kinship is felt for those others who hold it, and the decision becomes: continue to believe your oracle, or reject something you hold dear.

    It’s a bit more complicated, of course. The oracular messages are seldom clear and consistent. There’s a whole lot of wiggle room. Too, many individuals don’t actually buy the whole religion; they treat it as a social club, or believe just a subset of what it offers. Given all of that, I don’t agree that religion necessarily warps minds. Just that it can, and sometimes does.

  5. #5 realpc
    April 26, 2007

    Maher makes the same mistakes as most atheists. He confuses religious intolerance with general human intolerance. Everyone thinks their group is better than the others. Atheists themselves practice the same kind of intolerance they blame on religion.

    The other mistake is thinking there is a scientific, rational, way to run the world that works better than our current irrational methods. Rationality has been tried many times, always resulting in new heights of insanity.

  6. #6 Kevin
    April 26, 2007

    “And then, on Easter, he flies bodily up to Heaven”

    actually that supposed to be on Ascension Island, er Thursday, 40 days after easter.

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    April 26, 2007

    “The other mistake is thinking there is a scientific, rational, way to run the world that works better than our current irrational methods. Rationality has been tried many times, always resulting in new heights of insanity.”

    Please tell me you are not this stupid.

  8. #8 Science Avenger
    April 26, 2007

    He is that stupid, to wit:

    Atheists themselves practice the same kind of intolerance they blame on religion.

    Do let us know when a group of atheists flies jets into buildings killing thousands, or shoots abortion protestors, or executes people for questioning the prevalent opinions on religion. Calling stupidity such as yours what it is is hardly the same thing. Neither are examples of citizens in officially atheistic authoritarian societies with a quasi-religous adherence to the ruling party (Communists) or figure (Pol Pot).

    What I love about Maher’s approach is he shows how absurd mainstream religious beliefs are that too many of us have gotten into a habit of overlooking. I recall when David Koresh did his thing in Waco, and a fundamentalist coworker was opining about how absurd the things Koresh was preaching to his followers were. She wondered aloud how intelligent people could believe such things. I quipped “well, you believe in talking burning bushes, virgins giving birth, and dead people coming back to life. What’s so reasonable about that?”

    Maher’s right, and he made the most powerful point on Scarborough’s show one night that Joe could not deal with at all. This is the incredibly high correlation of people’s religious views to that of their parents, and more generally, the culture in which they were raised. Every pompous Christian who is so sure he has The Truth ™ has to face the fact that he would most likely have been a Hindu if born in India, or a Muslim if born in Iran, and likely would be just as sure he had The Truth ™. The pattern of religious opinion in the world looks a lot more similar to fashion trends than it does to knowledge about the universe and our place in it.

  9. #9 JasonR
    April 26, 2007

    realpc,

    Maher makes the same mistakes as most atheists. He confuses religious intolerance with general human intolerance.

    No he doesn’t. If intolerance were merely a characteristic of human beings in general then we would expect all large human populations to exhibit similar levels of intolerance. We don’t find that. The type and degree of intolerance varies dramatically across different human groups and nations, indicating that it is substantially a product of culture. Different cultures produce dramatically different levels of intolerance. Religion is a major component of culture, and religion is a major cause of intolerance.

  10. #10 Pseudonym
    April 26, 2007

    Tyler: I’m not sure if this is quite the point that realpc was trying to make or not, but any method of running the world which doesn’t acknowledge and work with the fact that humans (including those attempting to run the world) are basically irrational is doomed to fail.

    I’m ashamed for you guys (I’m not an American myself) that it’s hard for an atheist to get elected, but I’m glad that the ones that try aren’t like Bill Maher. A world run by him would be horrible.

  11. #11 Pseudonym
    April 26, 2007

    JasonR:

    If intolerance were merely a characteristic of human beings in general then we would expect all large human populations to exhibit similar levels of intolerance. We don’t find that. The type and degree of intolerance varies dramatically across different human groups and nations, indicating that it is substantially a product of culture. Different cultures produce dramatically different levels of intolerance. Religion is a major component of culture, and religion is a major cause of intolerance.

    I’m sure you have statistics to back all that up.

  12. #12 JasonR
    April 26, 2007

    The only part to which statistical data would seem to be relevant is the variation in the type and degree of intolerance between different cultures. Do you really dispute that these differences exist? Do you really believe that there is no significant difference in the type and degree of intolerance that exists in, say, Sweden vs. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan?

  13. #13 JasonR
    April 26, 2007

    Never mind. I just remembered you’re the “knowledge = ‘valid derivations’” clown.

  14. #14 Pseudonym
    April 26, 2007

    JasonR: Oh, yeah, you’re the one who agreed with me and then claimed that I said the exact opposite. I remember that exchange.

    I dispute that religion is a major cause of intolerance. I don’t dispute that religion is used as a major excuse for intolerance.

    Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is an excellent example, BTW. I think you’d find that many people there would turn out to be quite tolerant if their so-called “government” let them express it like they do in Sweden.

  15. #15 Koray
    April 27, 2007

    Argument against the mainstream (or otherwise) religions has got nothing to do with the alleged good or bad consequences of believing in them.

    However, it is true that once you have a group of people who are willing to believe in the unsupported (and often self-contradictory) scripture, then you can’t be surprised when they base their actions on these new “facts”. It may look stupid, even to some other christians, that the government would rather hire devout christians at the expense of more qualified personnel. However, this has never been an indefensible position throughout history.

    I actually don’t like it when bad consequences in belief are presented as arguments against religion in general. Maher is not the only person that does this. Sam Harris comes to mind first.

    It’s counterproductive because it puts the other side on the defensive: they either try to bring forward good consequences, or bring up “bad” atheists, both of which are irrelevant. The crux of the matter is what Maher said first. Whatever happened to Jesus or Mohammad is he-said-she-said that goes back thousands of years. Both are crappy and self-contradictory stories, and they are getting worse every day as we learn more about the universe.

    A sane person would write them both off as fraud just like scientology. There have been hundreds of “major” religions in history. We drank the kool-aid and we believed in Tom Cruise. We are just so willing to make up stuff and then believe in it.

  16. #16 Pseudonym
    April 27, 2007

    Koray: Excellent post! Thanks for getting to the crux (sorry) of the matter.

  17. #17 Tyler DiPietro
    April 27, 2007

    Pseudonym,

    I think that’s an overly generous interpretation of what “realpc” said. But assuming that the “irrational methods” he was talking about wasn’t just a phraseologically rearranged version of “our leaders need to believe in god or else they will be like Stalin”, I would say that he’s still wrong.

    I would first like to know how he’s defining “irrational methods” when it comes to governance. Is a government based on an honest assessment of the human condition somehow “irrational”? I think it would be hard to call James Madison “irrational”, ditto for Montesquieu, Bacon, Spinoza and Locke, among others.

    And as a corollary, what exactly does he mean by “rationality” then? He assumes it’s been tried before, but what are his examples. Does he mean Lenninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Naziism, Fascism? Those are often, to my consistent bafflement, touted as examples of the failure of reasoning! It’s amazing because they all have the features of religion we atheists deem irrational: deference to and veneration of arbitrary authority, thought control through fear of punishment. And in the end, despite ahistorical claims to the contrary, many of them were infused with religion. The Nazis and the Fascists maintained a close relationship with the Vatican, and Hitler constantly invoked God in both his Reichstag speeches and personal correspondence and memoirs, among other things.

    It’s all very stupid, IMO.

  18. #18 JasonR
    April 27, 2007

    pseudonym,

    I dispute that religion is a major cause of intolerance. I don’t dispute that religion is used as a major excuse for intolerance.

    Then present your evidence that religion is merely an “excuse” for intolerance and not a cause of it. Given the clear and direct historical link between religious doctrines and intolerance (the persecution of Jews and Muslims by Christians, the persecution of Protestants by Catholics and vice versa, the subjugation of women, etc.) the claim that there is no causal relationship between religion and intolerance is absurd on its face.

    Do you also believe that all other aspects of culture are merely excuses for intolerance and not causes of it? If so, how do you account for the dramatic variations in the type and degree of intolerance exhibited by different cultures? How do you account for the fact that the type and degree of intolerance exhibited by human societies changes over time as their cultures change? Conversely, if you do think that some aspects of culture cause intolerance, what are those aspects, and why don’t you think religion is one of them?

  19. #19 JasonR
    April 27, 2007

    pseudonym,

    Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is an excellent example, BTW. I think you’d find that many people there would turn out to be quite tolerant if their so-called “government” let them express it like they do in Sweden.

    Er, you’re making my argument for me. That “government” is part of the religion of the Taliban. It’s a theocracy. There is no separation of church and state. Like most religions throughout history, the Taliban religion performs the functions of government. Sweden’s government, on the other hand, is secular. Religion plays no role in it, other than a trivial symbolic one that is a toothless remnant of Sweden’s religious history.

  20. #20 Pseudonym
    April 28, 2007

    Tyler: You’re probably right. I do tend to be optimistic. I would like to know what realpc really meant.

    JasonR:

    Then present your evidence that religion is merely an “excuse” for intolerance and not a cause of it. Given the clear and direct historical link between religious doctrines and intolerance [...]

    You made the assertion, you present evidence for this “clear and direct historical link”. But a few remarks first.

    First off, there’s the theocracy problem. Not having separation of church and state makes things difficult to analyse, because state problems tend to get cast as religious problems and vice versa. This is often religion’s own fault, of course, when it happens today, though often it’s a case of politicians co-opting religion for their own ends.

    But before the rise of the Enlightenment Republic (when France and the United States were finally fully established), it wasn’t obvious that “modern” (by the standards of the time) government could be done any other way. Previous attempts at secular societies had eventually fallen, after all.

    Secondly, there’s the obvious problem that for every piece of anecdotal evidence, there is an equal and opposite piece of anecdotal evidence. You say Taliban, I say Khmer Rouge. You say Crusades, I say Stalinist Purges. As Koray pointed out, we’ll never get anywhere that way.

    Thirdly, you can only define tolerance relative to the standards of the time. Future generations will probably rake us over the coals for our raising hypocrisy to the status of greatest sin, and we even give ourselves a good ribbing over political correctness and avoidance in giving offense. Today, we might call a culture of the past “intolerant” compared to us, but if it was the most tolerant culture of its day, that’s a bit unfair.

    That “government” is part of the religion of the Taliban. It’s a theocracy. There is no separation of church and state.

    Oh, sorry, I thought you were talking about the relative tolerance of regular (oppressed) Afghanis, not the government. Looking at the difference raises yet another bunch of interesting questions as to how you decide how tolerant a culture is.

  21. #21 JasonR
    April 28, 2007

    pseudonym,

    You made the assertion,

    No, you asserted that religion is merely an “excuse” for intolerance rather than a cause of it. Present your evidence for this assertion. Show us that the intolerance was caused by something else and that religion has been unfairly scapegoated for it.

    First off, there’s the theocracy problem. Not having separation of church and state makes things difficult to analyse, because state problems tend to get cast as religious problems and vice versa.

    This is just doubletalk. Under theocracy, “state problems” are “religious problems.” Where there is no separation of church and state, the state is part of the religion.

    Secondly, there’s the obvious problem that for every piece of anecdotal evidence, there is an equal and opposite piece of anecdotal evidence. You say Taliban, I say Khmer Rouge. You say Crusades, I say Stalinist Purges.

    Another irrelevant assertion. The claim you made and that you need to justify with evidence is that religion is merely an excuse for intolerance rather than a cause of it. The fact, if it is a fact, that the Khmer Rouge or the government of Stalin were causes of intolerance does absolutely nothing to support your assertion. Again, produce your evidence that religion is merely an excuse for rather than a cause of intolerance.

    As I said, your claim is absurd on its face. The idea that a religion with a 2,000-year history of preaching that Jews are the perfidious Christ-killers, that Muslims are evil infidels, that homosexuality is an “abomination,” that wives should be subservient to their husbands, etc., etc., is not a cause of intolerance but merely an “excuse” for it is ludicrous.

  22. #22 Stu
    April 28, 2007

    The next arrow in the Creationist’s quiver is the imminent opening of the Creation Museum in Kentucky where they hope to get 250,000 visitors in the first year. Take a look at it here: http://paralleldivergence.com/2007/04/28/creation-museum-madness/

  23. #23 Pseudonym
    April 29, 2007

    JasonR, here’s what you said again, before I entered this discussion with you:

    If intolerance were merely a characteristic of human beings in general then we would expect all large human populations to exhibit similar levels of intolerance. We don’t find that. The type and degree of intolerance varies dramatically across different human groups and nations, indicating that it is substantially a product of culture. Different cultures produce dramatically different levels of intolerance. Religion is a major component of culture, and religion is a major cause of intolerance.

    The last clause of the last sentence is what I’m asking you to justify. So far, I’ve only heard assertions like this:

    The idea that a religion with a 2,000-year history of preaching that Jews are the perfidious Christ-killers, that Muslims are evil infidels, that homosexuality is an “abomination,” that wives should be subservient to their husbands, etc., etc., is not a cause of intolerance but merely an “excuse” for it is ludicrous.

    That’s not a justification, that’s another assertion. And it’s misleading and wrong.

    It’s misleading because you’re talking specifically about Christianity, which doesn’t generalise to “religion”.

    It’s wrong because it implicitly assumes that Christian “preaching” has been the same over its 2000 year history, an assumption which is demonstratably untrue. Indeed, finding a Christian today who would say that “Jews are the perfidious Christ-killers” is quite a difficult exercise, though I suppose Google helps. Most pro-ID churches are so rabidly pro-Jewish they almost think the current Israeli opposition parties are satanic. In fact, I can’t think of one single group of Christians that has ever taught all of those things that you put in one paragraph.

    It’s akin to arguing that “Darwinism” (whatever that is) promotes eugenics and fascism, which is a favourite wrong argument of the IDiots.

  24. #24 maper
    April 29, 2007

    see this

  25. #25 Lettuce
    April 30, 2007

    All religious people make the same mistake:

    They believe magic is real and not a parlour trick.

  26. #26 Robert O'Brien
    April 30, 2007

    Do let us know when a group of atheists flies jets into buildings killing thousands, or shoots abortion protestors, or executes people for questioning the prevalent opinions on religion. Calling stupidity such as yours what it is is hardly the same thing. Neither are examples of citizens in officially atheistic authoritarian societies with a quasi-religous adherence to the ruling party (Communists) or figure (Pol Pot).

    The fact remains, hayseed, that atheists Joe, Mao, and Pol were responsible for the deaths of some 60 million people–far more than all the deaths that can be attributed to any Christian pope, prince, or potentate.

  27. #27 Robert O'Brien
    April 30, 2007

    MAHER: I’m just making the point, Joe, that religion warps people’s thinking. Until we get over these, I’m sorry, yes, childhood myths, we can’t think straight and we can’t solve our problems in a functional way, in a way that involves rational thinking. We are steering the ship of state by cutting open a chicken and reading the entrails, like the Romans did, instead of using a compass, which would be science.

    Bill Maher’s remarks are like a fart in that they befoul the air for a few moments, then quickly dissipate for lack of substance.

  28. #28 Jim
    April 30, 2007

    Robert O’Brien:
    Maher (from the part of the interview that you quoted) made an anology of US policy toward Isreal in the middle east (for instance…could apply to many other issues as well, of course) based on evangelical end-times mythology to the Romans using mythological beliefs to guide them as well. This is factual; can not be seriously disputed. All you offered was that you don’t like it. So, I ask you…who lacks substance?

  29. #29 Robert O'Brien
    April 30, 2007

    It is a fact that Bill Maher made some unsupported assertions and a lousy analogy.

  30. #30 yanka
    April 30, 2007

    Do let us know when a group of atheists flies jets into buildings killing thousands, or shoots abortion protestors, or executes people for questioning the prevalent opinions on religion.

    I don’t have the first two examples for you, but atheists absolutely did execute people that maintained their religious beliefs, in the USSR, all the way up to 1950s. They also burned churches, destroyed priceless “religious” works of art, banned and censored literature that contained religious themes, and (that is something I find particularly ridiculous) prohibited scientific research that was not in line with the party-endorsed ideology of scientific atheism.

  31. #31 David Heddle
    May 1, 2007

    I’m trying to understand, trying to think from atheist’s viewpoint, what’s to applaud here about Maher. It seems to me he said nothing of substance, at least in what you quoted. Declarations that religion is dangerous or comprised of childhood myths–why you can find such sentiment in the comments of virtually any blog that deals with religion, often much better said. And the statement denigrating Monica Goodling (maybe she is worthy of scorn, I don’t know, and it’s beside the point) because her alma mater’s president (Pat Robertson) believes “hurricanes are caused by gay people” is textbook ad hominem circumstantial. Should all Penn graduates be regarded as dolts because the president of Penn (Amy Guttmann) was dumb enough to pose for a picture with a soupy grin on her face while standing next to some bozo dressed as a suicide bomber?

  32. #32 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 1, 2007

    Hi David. It’s nice to see you updating your blog again (though I think you err in dsecribing atheists as fools.)

    Alas, your time off does not seem to have sharpened your comments any. It looks to me like in the space of a few paragraphs Maher said a great deal of substance, amd said it very well indeed. You may disagree with him, but that doesn’t make his remarks insubstantial.

    That similar thoughts have been expressed in the blogosphere is neither here nor there. There’s a big difference between expressing a thought on a blog and expressing it on national television in a show watched by hundreds of thousands of people.

    And Maher didn’t attack Monica Goodling simply for being a graduate of Pat Robertson’s law school. Instead, he attacked the Bush administration for placing an obviously underqualified person in a position of great importance, and used her as one example of a general phenomenon in the Bush administration. Specifically, that Bush cares more about loyalty to an especially myopic set of religious convictions than he does about basic competence.

    It looks to me like Maher was very clear about what his point was, and it was not the point you put into his mouth. You should read more carefully.

  33. #33 ron
    May 1, 2007

    you’re right, robertson did not say a hurricane would hit orlando because of the gays.
    he said a terrorist attack, earthquake, tornado or even a meteor would strike it. very unfair of maher. hurricane bonnie did however hit virginia, home of pat robertson later that year.

    “After Orlando … city officials voted in 1998 to fly rainbow flags from city lampposts during the annual Gay Days event at Disney World, Robertson issued the city a warning: “I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you. … [A] condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It’ll bring about terrorist bombs, it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor.”

  34. #34 itchy
    May 1, 2007

    Rationality has been tried many times, always resulting in new heights of insanity.

    Wow, that is such a funny statement. Wrong in every way, but funny, nonetheless.

    If it was proven true, I wonder what the proper response should be?

    Something Monty Pythonesque, to be sure:

    “Rationality, having been proven ineffective as a foundation for government, has been cast aside. Henceforth, chickens wearing silly hats shall define the laws of our society.”

  35. #35 Phobos
    May 2, 2007

    SCARBOROUGH: Take that up with Shiites and Sunnis. You don’t see Christians going around shooting each other in America, do you?

    Well, yeah, but perhaps not for sectarian reasons. But how about Northern Ireland not too long ago, as just one example? (Yeah, the situation there is/was more complicated than just religious beliefs, but so is the situation between Shiites and Sunnis.)

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.