May 22, 2007

Open Letter to Bill Maher

For some reason, I've suddenly begun getting a lot of hits to the blog looking for this old letter (originally posted 3/23/05). So that visitors don't have to dig to find it, I'm bumping it up to the top of the queue. By way of an update, I should mention that there was never a reply to the letter. My apologies that the Chicago Sun-Times link is no longer active.

It's finally complete and can be found here: An Open Letter to Bill Maher

At 14 pages it's a rather ambitious project. It turns out to be too long to post as a LifeWay article, as well as the problem of its sharp polemic tone (in places anyway). I think Maher has earned himself a bit of rough handling, though, after the kinds of callous, yet shallow, statements he's been throwing at us "unenlightened," "arrogant," "childish," "weak-minded" evangelicals. Read for yourself.

I've sent it on to his HBO address and to his official website feedback form. My guess is that he won't read it, much less respond. But who knows, I may have just made a new penpal.

By the way, I took my "Maher" quotes from the following sources:
MSNBC "Scarborough Country" transcript
Chicago Sun-Times



At 9/22/2005 12:20 PM, Anonymous jyeager said...

I know it was already too long to go adding more content, but Maher's statements contain so much fallacious reasoning that it could be an article in itself to take those same statements and simply detail the logical fallacies contained therein.

At 9/22/2005 1:02 PM, Blogger Paul said...

He's a mess. There was just so much low-hanging fruit that I didn't even need to shift out of first gear (to mix my metaphors). Now, I'd hate to face him in a raw political debate, but it seems I can just cut his legs out from under him if I just stick to his flawed presuppositions. I think this is a good general tactic. Rather than always getting tied up in the intracacies of an issue, you can just deal with the assumptions on which it is based.

At 5/22/2007 11:38 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

Greg Koukl mentioned this on his "Stand to Reason" Podcast. Someone called with a question about Christopher Hitchen's new book and the conversation ended up with some discussion on Bill Maher. Greg suggested that people read your response which he thought was very well done... At least that's why I'm checking it out.

At 5/22/2007 1:03 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Ahhh, thanks Matthew! That confirms my theory. I knew that Greg and Melinda had read it, but I am behind in my STR podcast listening. I'm presently working through Jonathan Edwards' exhaustive The Religious Affections on CD. Good content, but I recommend a good night's sleep before listening.

At 5/23/2007 5:58 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I think your letter was well argued Paul.

At 5/23/2007 8:51 PM, Blogger Paul said...

That's a fine compliment coming from you Psio. You're a different sort of skeptic, and it's a pleasure having you around to kick the tires on my ideas. I only wish I had more time for our dialogs.

Tell me, as an atheist, what do you think about fellows like Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins, who are so stridently anti-religious and openly contemptuous in their claims that, for example, Christianity is anti-science and the cause of all the ills in the world?

At 5/24/2007 9:27 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I'm not familiar with Maher but I have read some of Dawkins' books and seen recordings of some of his debates.
I think he has written some very good explanations of aspects of the theory of evolution. However I am less convinced when he addresses the matter of religion. Whilst I agree with some of what he says about it, I am really not sure whether his approach is productive. Time will tell I suppose. I suspect that the fundamental flaws in his position are that:
1) He seems to regard religious belief as symptomatic of a kind of cognitive deficit or misuse. I think this is not what religious belief is about for most people.
2)His goal is not clear since his confrontational style has a tendency to polarize the debate.
On the other hand, there is an argument that in cultures like North America, some communities stigmatise atheism, so that Dawkins and Dennett speaking out can give others the courage to stand up for what they don't believe in. I don't know how true that is.
3)he has stepped out of his area of expertise and therefore provides some low hanging fruit for those with philosophical and theological training.

At 5/24/2007 1:08 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks for your feedback. Very reasonable points, I think. I have some thoughts on each, in relation to Dawkins, who is well known over here.

1) My point to Maher would apply here: that if religion is a mental virus, then it seems uncalled for for Dawkins to belittle Christians. I can understand trying to curb the symptoms of our "illness," but he is not shy to make personal attacks and is very hateful to those of us with this mental "handicap." Perhaps if he goes out with Alzheimer's we should feel free to call him a moron.

There is also the problem of religion being such a majority report. I'm not sure how this mental condition has settled in with such great success in every isolated and historic culture. From the materialist, evolutionary perspective I find it odd that a creature which is presumably adapted to its environment — a purely physical environment — would find it universally necessary to appeal to the non-physical for any need at all.

2) It is true that, privately, few people are comfortable just tossing their atheism out onto the table. However, other forms of spirituality are often kept private as well. Overseas there may be the mistaken idea that the US is very publicly religious and it holds some dominance in the culture, but we see ourselves as being alarmingly secular these days. Secularism has quite a stranglehold on our schools, the media, and much of the legal system, and it is only because it has of late gotten so dramatic, and that most people are (at least) privately spiritual, that we've had something of a reaction to this in recent years. Where secularism was once a slow creeping blanket, it is now being confronted more directly and battle lines are being drawn. Still, nothing much is changing other than a bit more variety in the entertainment world, some universities rededicating themselves, news programs getting more heated, and a few politicians being elected on purely values-based terms.

3) Unfortunately, Dawkins' weak philosophical thinking in many areas is largely what he uses to justify his attacks against Christianity. As I understand it, many of his like-minded peers are even embarrassed by his aggressive assaults outside of his own field. It is unfortunate, though, that those like him are in the vanguard and casting the mold for the "new atheism." In spite of my preference to the contrary, I may need to begin addressing his form of adolescent skepticism rather than the really interesting questions that the more sober contestants of metaphysics ask.

At 5/24/2007 6:50 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul, I think your first point is interesting. It makes it clear to me that when Dawkins calls religious belief a mental illness of some sort, he doesn't mean it. He's just making an insult, and that's all.

psiomniac, concerning your second point, I wonder if JP Holding is just the Christian version of that. He can be pretty confrontational and rude, too. It's a shame because I think every now and then he has something good to say, but I too embarrassed to link to him because of his abrasive tone.

At 5/25/2007 6:53 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

From the materialist, evolutionary perspective I find it odd that a creature which is presumably adapted to its environment — a purely physical environment — would find it universally necessary to appeal to the non-physical for any need at all.

I think that there is a lot of good research on this and a coherent picture can be formed about why this is consistent with an evolutionary perspective.
I don't disagree with a lot of your points here.

At 5/25/2007 7:00 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I'm not too familiar with JP Holding either but a quick google so far supports my suspicion that polarization of the debate inevitably produces firebrands on each side.

At 5/26/2007 12:26 AM, Blogger Vman said...

this is the second time, i'm commenting on this letter and my views are markedly different. first, it was wise not to debate him on the flying planes into buildings point, but I'm a regular fan of bill's and you can tell that his disdain for christianity is mainly when it gets in the way of science and/or a good time, by preaching intelligent design instead of evolution and opposing an HPV vacinnation for teenage girls because they're afraid it might lead them to have more sex. He also doesn't believe in your morals. That however, is not the main point of his religious critique, he's basically saying that all the bad things that have been done in the world in the name of religion, could be stopped or at least reduced in number if religion didn't exist. Osama Bin Laden would lose much of his appeal to young muslim men if the religion's promise of heaven to those who commit jihad didn't exist. and the ad hominem arguments are slightly distressing but i suppose he reaps what he sows, practically speaking, I don't buy the world going in flames without religion change that you seem to make when maher discusses how much better it would be without religion, we have government to stop anarcy and people aren't stupid enough to need a book to tell them how to behave. and I know that Maher loves using this, but if you look at Europe, they're doing pretty well without religion, in fact, their current problems disenfranchised muslim youths and problems related to terrorism would be lessened without religion and could be stopped with economic growth. the rise of atheism and agnosticism in western europe has had no discernible negative consequences, it's not too far fetched to think that america could be like that too. in conclusion, maher is an equal oppurtunity deregatory statement maker, he believes that all religions are false because he is indoctrinated in the scientific method and he wants to see concrete proof that as dawkins puts it "the improbability that is god" is actually probable, his main point is that society would be better without religion, although we're dealing purely in hypotheticals and speculation here, i'm tempted to agree with him, secular humanism is the way to go.

At 5/27/2007 7:54 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Vaman, thanks for the input. This gives me some inspiration for my next post. You will find a reply to some of what you say in there.


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