Sunday, June 21, 2009

Beware of Bill Maher


Jewish date:  29 Siwan 5769.

Today’s holidays:  Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Summer Solstice (Feast of the Times).

Today’s quasi-holiday:  Father’s Day.

Worthy causes of the day:  “It's time for Congress to stop legitimizing hate groups”, “Support a Public Option”, “Tell Tom Daschle: Don't undermine a public health care option”, “Protect American Wildlife from Global Warming”, and “Free My Phone!”.

Relevant to Divine Misconceptions:
  1. See what you get in place of a weird thing today.
  2. “Is Clerical Celibacy Viable?”:  This is Rav Boteach’s take on the Father Cutié scandal.  Father Cutié is a famous Catholic priest who was caught having an affair in violation of his vow of celibacy.  This drew the ire of his superiors—despite the sympathy of his followers—and he has since become an Episcopalian.  Rav Boteach argues that celibacy is an unrealistically heavy burden to place on the clergy, and he has a point.  The sex drive exists because it works very well to get mobile life forms (including humans) to reproduce, and it has been part of our biological heritage for hundreds of millions of years.  Short of drastic chemical or surgical intervention, there is little an adult human can do to silence the drive, even if one ignores it.  It is little wonder that Father Cutié was unable to keep his vow or why his followers were so understanding.
Today’s news and commentary:
In lieu of a weird thing, today I present a review of Bill Maher’s pseudo-documentary Religulous, included below. Enjoy (or be disgusted with Bill Maher) and share the weirdness.


Appeal to ridicule: a review of Bill Maher’s Religulous
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

Humor is now a rare art. Humorists once engaged the mind in word-play, forming elaborate plot structures, and showing us our own foibles. But now subtlety and elegance have been forgotten, and those who pass for comedians today tend to try to pass off anything unpopular, unpalatable, stupid, or merely different as funny. And Bill Maher is no exception to the rule.
In Religulous (Charles 2008), pseudo-comedian Bill Maher tries to follow in the footsteps of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Dawkins 2006) and produce an anti-religious documentary. Unlike Dawkins, Maher has no academic credentials or even good critical thinking skills (i.e., he is known to believe in medical pseudoscience (Hemingway)), and it shows. Dawkins ignores potentially damaging historical and archaeological data—data dealing whether or not religions are actually true—but at least he argues against reasons some people have for belief in a religion. Maher, on the other hand, does not pretend that he is seriously arguing with his opponents; even at his most engaging, he still argues at them. Maher is primarily a comedian. Comedians do not normally argue with their opponents; they make fun of them. And that is exactly what Maher does.
The appeal to ridicule is pointing one’s finger at someone or something and saying, “This is too silly to believe.” This is a logical fallacy, because things which seem silly can be true. For example, one could argue that general relativity is silly. After all, the notion that the speed of light is a constant and the same for all observers and that physical dimensions, mass, and experienced time can actually be measured differently by different observers are contrary to everyday experience. Nevertheless, the predictions of general relativity have held up to rigorous testing. Silly or not, general relativity is a good approximation of the truth. Despite this fundamental flaw, Maher ridicules religion throughout the entire film. Whatever anyone religious says which Maher does not agree with, Maher treats it as unworthy of taking seriously and whoever says it as a naïve moron, whether or not it is actually unworthy of taking seriously and whether or not whoever said it is naïve or a moron. E.g., ex-Jews for Jesus missionary Steve Burg tries to justify his belief in God through the experience of “personal miracles”. Maher objects to Burg’s first “miracle”, which was a rainstorm happening coincidentally at a time he requested a drink and was mockingly told to hold a cup outside and catch rainwater. Maher insists that this was not a miracle, as rainfall happens naturally. But happening naturally does not make anything not a miracle; what makes a miracle a miracle is its recognized divine origin. The viewer is not given enough data to know whether or not any of Burg’s “personal miracles” really are miracles. Such data might not even exist, but the viewer will never know for sure; Maher never lets Burg get past “miracle” #1. As far as Maher is concerned, Burg is an idiot and unworthy of being argued with or taken seriously. What Burg might have been thinking is not his concern.
One obvious consequence of constant appeal to ridicule is that Maher only pays attention to what others have to say so far as he can milk them for material he considers funny. A scholar of religion would be interested in why his opponents take the positions they do, even if they are obviously wrong. E.g., José Luis de Jesús Miranda of Growing in Grace International Ministry takes the unusual position that since Jesus of Nazareth there has been no sin. A scholar would ask De Jesus why he believes this. Maher merely treats it as something funny and senseless. With this attitude, Maher is virtually predestined to learn nothing. Indeed, Maher habitually (and rudely) interrupts his interviewees rather than let them explain their views. (E.g., Yisroel Dovid Weiss of the Neṭure Qarta’ tells him to stop doing this several times.) Maher is also happy to spout inaccurate and wrong information (e.g., that people believe that God is a space alien, that we can destroy the Earth, that we know specifically where Sedhom and ‘Amorah were, that anyone considers Loṭ a paradigm of morality, that homosexuality is purely genetic, that the prohibitions of stealing and murder are the only two commandments in the Decalogue, etc.) if it adds to the illusion that religious people are a bunch of idiots. Attacking a fictional position is known as the straw man fallacy, and it is just as invalid as appeal to ridicule.
Another consequence of appealing to ridicule is biased sampling. The point of comedy is to say and show funny things, so the interviews included in Religulous (even among the deleted scenes on the DVD) are probably the ones Maher considers funny. We are not told how much material was rejected because it was not as funny as Maher wanted or even completely unfunny. For all we know, the vast majority of Maher’s attempts at interviewing religious people turned out so embarrassingly unfunny that he destroyed the recordings. Indeed, the segments of multiple people interviewed for the film (Dr. Andrew Newberg, Dr. Francis Collins, Rev. Reginald Foster, Rev. George Coyne) are known or reported to be selectively edited to show only material in Maher’s favor (quoting out of context) (Cusey).
Furthermore, someone competent wanting to show that religion in general is funny would actually try to deal with religion in general. Maher instead concentrates almost exclusively on Abrahamic religions, the sole exception among his religious interviewees in the final release being Reverend Ferre van Beveren of the First Universal Church of Kantheism (which holds smoking marijuana is sacred). Maher also puts an emphasis on the unusual and attention-grabbing, such as the anti-Zionist Jewish group Neṭure Qarta’ and openly gay Muslims, rather than the mainstream and everyday. How much of anything he claims about religion is the rule and not the exception is never made clear—and there is little reason to believe that Maher either knows or cares.
Hand-in-hand with appeal to ridicule is appeal to ignorance. Many of the religious people interviewed do not know—and, indeed sometimes cannot know—the answers to all the questions which Maher asks. Maher jumps to the conclusion that his interviewees are automatically wrong if they have imperfect information. E.g., Maher insists to a trucker that there is no historical evidence that Jesus existed and questions to Francis Collins’s face the accuracy of the historical reports in the Gospels. As far as Maher is concerned, since the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is imperfect, Jesus did not exist. But no mortal in their right mind claims to know all the answers. To have all the answers would require literally knowing everything, something which is clearly beyond the capability of any human. Despite this limitation, we are clearly able to learn about reality; imperfect information is still better that no information. Therefore Maher’s assumption is wrong. After all, Maher cannot possibly know everything either; should this be taken as a sign that he is always wrong?
Maher is also happy to resort to appeal to hatred, listing all manner of horrible things done in the name of religion. Islam provides the material for this hatred, liberally illustrated with quotes from the Qur’an and other traditional sources. Maher takes this as a sign that all religion is inherently false and horrible. By that same twisted logic, we should automatically assume atheism is inherently false and horrible; millions of people have suffered and died at the hands of communists. Communism is an atheistic belief system, and so by Maher’s own twisted logic all atheistic belief systems must be equally at fault and culpable.
In short, Maher has produced an uninformative, unreliable, and unfunny pseudo-documentary. Despite his claims of arguing for doubt, he preaches blind skepticism, a baseless rock-solid certainty that everyone who disagrees with him is wrong. No serious attempt is made to find the truth or even understand anything which is genuinely wrong. The whole film is an unending stream of rudeness and obscene language of such a degree that it is little wonder that Maher shocked staff that he was admitted to the Holy Land Experience, was asked to leave the grounds of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and was thrown out of the Vatican. Maher even reports that his staff used deception in order to get interviews (Goldstein; Cusey). Indeed, it is to the credit of Maher’s interviewees that every one of them had the self-control not to punch him in the face. A work such of this is no credit to atheism whatsoever.

Overall classification: Offensive, alleged comedy.

Theological rating: F.

Charles, Larry. 2008. Religulous. USA: Lionsgate/Thousand Words.
Cusey, Rebecca. Maher takes on religion, but some interviewees cry foul., 2008-10-01 [cited 2009-06-18. Available from
Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Goldstein, Patrick. Bill Maher hates your (fill in the blank) religion. Los Angeles Times, 2008-08-27 [cited 2009-06-18. Available from
Hemingway, Molly Ziegler. Look Who's Irrational Now. The Wall Street Journal, 2008-09-19 [cited 2009-06-18. Available from

Post a Comment