I like Bill Maher, (despite his rather dumb opinions on vaccinations), because he comments on current events from a different, perceptive and funny angle. I also agree with him a lot more than I disagree (vaccinations notwithstanding). Recently though it seems he’s been bested by people with inferior arguments. A prime example came on last Friday’s show (HBO – US TV), where his guests were Salman Rushdie, Ben Affleck and blogger Andrew Sullivan.
Sullivan is that rare person, a gay conservative Catholic. (Rare in being openly so, anyway.) He’s also very smart and always a good guest on Maher’s show. He gave Maher a pretty good smacking on Friday, as the Transcript for Oct 7 shows, although I think Maher missed the rather obvious comeback. See what you think (all added bold is mine):
MAHER: And I have to tell you, what offends me the most about this nomination is that there is no diversity of religion in this country. George Bush does have a diverse Cabinet when it comes to race. They've done a pretty good job: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, so forth. But, you know, I don't think race makes someone as diverse nowadays as how you think about religion. And there's no secular voice. There's no voice of me in this Cabinet. Everyone who gets appointed has to be not just Christ-y, but “Super-Christ-y,” [laughter] “Double-Dog-Christ-y,” “Twice-Born Christ-y.” [laughter] And you know what? That – people of faith – and when I hear “people of faith,” I think, well, those are people who suspend rational judgment for nonsensical bullshit that they believe. Where is the – where is the diversity of the people who think like myself and perhaps you. [applause]
(Snipped comments mainly from Affleck)
SULLIVAN: Bill, I'm a person of faith, and I rather resent being called stupid.
MAHER: I'm not calling you stupid. I'm saying—
SULLIVAN: Yes, you did. [laughter]
MAHER: No, I'm saying it's a mental block. Because I know intelligent—[laughter]
SULLIVAN: I'm saying you have a mental block when it comes to people of faith.
MAHER: No, I had a mental block when I was a child when they taught me this nonsense. And when I got to be an adult, I got over it. [applause]
(Snipped comments mainly from Rushdie)
SULLIVAN: But…people of faith are not talking about what is known; they're talking about what is not known and what we cannot know… And genuine people of faith are not going to make these asinine statements like Franklin Graham or these nut cases that you point out. They're going to be humble in front of God. They're going to recognize that there are some things that science cannot tell you: the meaning of the universe, the point of our lives, what morality is, what happens to us after death, how we should treat our fellow human beings; those questions, I think, in true people of faith who don't seek to impose on other people, are just trying to find a way to live their own lives in a good way. And by demonizing all people of faith … what you do, is you play into the hands of these fundamentalists.
The first obvious point is that Maher never said people of faith are stupid. He said their beliefs are nonsensical (or stupid, to stretch a point). That is a crucial distinction, because smart people can believe in stupid things, as Michael Shermer has explained.
More importantly, Maher didn’t call Sullivan on his main fallacy, namely his claim that that science can’t answer the questions of the meaning of the universe etc, but that religion can. No it can’t. It thinks it can. And it’s sure its explanations are correct. But there is absolutely no good reason to suppose they are correct. They’re just made up. And so they’re probably wrong.
Third, Sullivan’s claim that people of faith “don't seek to impose on other people” is, frankly, bullshit. Religious people have made it their life’s work to impose on other people, from before the days of the inquisition right up to the modern intelligent design movement that seeks to replace science and rationality with made-up nonsense. Or as PZ Myers wrote on Wednesday:
It is not enough to let (people of faith) be, you must also acknowledge the vast and weighty import of their history, their rituals, their majestic all-powerful Tooth Fairy. And since their god is infinitely malleable, they can attach him to anything to add his incalculable mass to whatever end they want. Little kids get told to say their prayers before bedtime—a meaningless ritual backed by the Lord of the Entire Universe. People are killed en masse in wars because they address same Lord by a different name or title than other people.
Sullivan threw Maher off his main point with a phony martyr-act, drivel about religion answering questions science can’t, and innocent “we just want to be left alone” bullshit. In case you forgot, Maher’s original point was that this administration does not have a representative for the secular voice. And it doesn’t. Sullivan didn’t refute this point, didn’t even attempt to refute it, he just red-herringed it away. Maher is good on prepared monologues but not so good on a comeback when challenged by someone smart who disagrees with him. And Sullivan’s challenge really wasn’t that hard to refute.
Maher is on again tonight (8.00pm Pacific, HBO).