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Bill Maher and the idiocy of Religulous

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#1 Ken Gilmore

Ken Gilmore


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Posted 26 May 2012 - 03:55 AM

The stand-up comedian Bill Maher is proof that muddled thinking and advocacy of pseudoscience are not the sole province of theists. He received the 2009 Richard Dawkins Award from Atheist Alliance International, the bestowing of which triggered not a little controversy in the sceptical world given that he has expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of vaccines. Needless to say, this hasn't gone unnoticed in the more rational end of the sceptical community. The surgical oncologist who blogs under the pseuydonym "Orac" is fairly typical in his criticism of Maher's arguments:

The 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award bestowed upon him by the Atheist Alliance International (a.k.a. Bill Maher, anti-vaccine comedian and host of Real Time With Bill Maher, has decided, after an all too brief absence, to lay down a swath of burning stupid about vaccines again. When last we left Maher, he was busily embarrassing himself on the last two episodes of his television show, first by getting slapped down hard by Bill Frist, of all people (and, after his antics during the Terry Schiavo controversy, Bill Frist comes across as the voice of reason compared to Maher, Maher’s got a serious problem) and next having his arguments dismembered unceremoniously on the season finale of his show, concluding with his having his head handed to him (nay punted right back at him like a smug, smirking football) by Chris Matthews, who compared him to a celebrity Scientologist like Tom Cruise attacking psychiatry.

The horrified look on Maher’s face was priceless. Direct, hit Chris, right below the waterline. I only wish you had had time to finish the job while the woo ship Maher was listing and taking on water.

If you had, I might not have had to see this assault on reason by Maher published on Sunday on–where else?–that bastion of anti-vaccine quackery, The Huffington Post, in the form of a post entitled Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having, a post that he also crossposted on his own blog here. All I can say is this: If you had any doubts that Bill Maher is an unreconstructed anti-vaccine loon, this post provides conclusive evidence, all topped off with a heapin’ helpin’ of arrogance of ignorance and that special brand of vacuous self-absorption that few aside from celebrities are capable of. Oh, the pain to read this.

Unsurprisingly, he was quite amazed that the AAI even awarded the RD award to Maher in the first place.

Maher garnered no little controversy with his 2008 documentary Religulous which examined and mocked organised religion. (See the film here - embedding has been disabled) If you're worried that his flirtation with vaccine denialism hinted at a less than scholarly approach to his subject, then you're right. At Diglotting, Kevin Brown catalogues the errors:

I watched Bill Maher’s pseudo-documentary Religulous the other day. I knew I was in for a treat when it opened with Maher standing in Megiddo pronouncing the book of Revelation as “Revelations,” a subtle indicator that he has little to no familiarity with the subject matter of this video. This is confirmed later when Maher is talking to an actor who plays Jesus in a Holy Land theme park. This is part of the transcript of their conversation:

[Jesus'] bio was something that was going around the Mediterranean for at least 1,000 years. We’ve got Krishna who was in India 1,000 years before Christ. Krishna was a carpenter, born of a virgin, baptized in a river … There’s the Persian god Mithra, 600 years before Christ. Born December 25th, performed miracles, resurrected on the third day, known as the Lamb, the Way, the Truth, the Light, the Savior, Messiah.

Maher has apparently brought into the Zeitgeist parallelomania nonsense hook, line, and sinker. But, unfortunately for Maher, virtually nothing he says is correct. Krishna wasn’t a carpenter and wasn’t baptized in a river. The only thing that really comes close to showing a modicum of truth is that Krishna was born of a virgin but even that is technically incorrect. While Krishna was virginally conceived (i.e. his mother became pregnant with Krishna without engaging in intercourse), his mother did have seven or eight children prior to him who were conceived through the regular means of intercourse. Besides, attributing miraculous conceptions/births was standard fare with deities and men of renown in those times.

Ah, parallelomania. Once you see someone spouting that argument, you know you're in the presence of someone who is poorly informed about the subject. And of course, examining the extremes of religion and presenting them as normative doesn't help either:

Maher makes no attempt to present a fair or objective examination of religious belief. Most of the people he interviews are on the religious fringe (e.g. Ken Ham and some guy who claims to be the second coming of Christ). This isn’t too surprising considering that Maher is a comedian and what better way to make your documentary funny than by interviewing complete lunatics. But still, if Maher is going to emphasize how Christians and other religious people are just gullible idiots, he shouldn’t then go and spout off the demonstrably false parallelomania nonsense that Jesus was based off of pagan gods, as it only makes himself look like an ignorant and gullible person.

Maher is of course not representative of atheism - there are many who take the trouble to understand religion, and attack it from a position of strength. And then there are the New Atheists. Dawkins' response to the criticism of the awarding of the AAI award to Maher said everything:

The Richard Dawkins Award (RDA) has no connection with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). The RDA was instituted by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) several years before RDFRS was founded, or even thought of. This year, the committee of AAI took the decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher. They asked me, as an individual, if I approved, and I was delighted to do so because I find him, and especially Religulous, very funny. I know nothing of any stance he may have taken on medical questions.

And sceptics wonder why we find the "Courtier's Response" a lame, vacuous comeback that hints at gross ignorance of the subject they're criticising.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

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