They gave Bill Maher the Richard Dawkins Award?

I’ve always kinda liked Bill Maher. In retrospect, the things I liked about him were his harsh criticisms of religion and our shared politics on many issues. And last year when Maher released his film, Religulous, I considered it one of the best films of the year. And even though in the film and while promoting the film, Maher continued to perpetuate the myth that being an “atheist” means absolute certainty that there is no god, while he just simply respond with something akin to, I don’t know and neither do you, but I highly doubt it (the atheist position), I still liked Maher.

Now I’d heard that Maher had wacky beliefs about medicine but I hadn’t really heard him discuss them. But perhaps I just didn’t want to hear them and just wanted to believe Maher was as rational as he seemed to be when criticizing religion.

I wanted to believe that Maher was only a little wacky when it comes to modern medicine but I really had no idea how much of that Kool-Aid he drank. But Orac has opened my eyes to Maher’s beliefs when arguing why Maher should not receive the Richard Dawkins Award, an award that is intended to not only celebrate one’s promotion of atheism but one’s commitment to science and reason. He opened my eyes and now I’m afraid I can’t shut them.

Orac makes a really, really compelling case against Maher, quoting past comments he’s made over the years.

You’re in denial, about I think is a key fact, which is it is the at… people get sick because of an aggregate toxicity, because their body has so much poison in it, from the air, the water…

And Maher’s anti-medical comments have been about as bad as they get:

I don’t believe in vaccination either. That’s a… well, that’s a… what? That’s another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur theory, even though Louis Pasteur renounced it on his own deathbed and said that Beauchamp(s) was right: it’s not the invading germs, it’s the terrain. It’s not the mosquitoes, it’s the swamp that they are breeding in.

Maher even discouraged David Letterman from continuing to take his heart medicine a few years ago when Letterman suffered from heart disease that required a multiple coronary artery bypass operation:

Letterman: Are you interested in medical journals and that sort of thing?

Maher: Not western medicine, I think we’re being poisoned…I would love for you to investigate the possibility that your health issues might have arisen from the fact that you’re being poisoned by America.

I had no idea he was that delusional. I love the Bill Maher that gave us Religulous but the amount of pseudoscience he promotes does not reflect well on atheism or on Dawkins’ name:

Why is there mucus?…It’s because your body is toxic and it’s trying to create a river to get rid of these toxins.

Maher represents everything Dawkins debunks in his Enemies of Reason special. Maher really needs to be challenged on his BS, not rewarded.

This isn’t the same thing as with figures like Penn and Teller, who while may hold some wacky views, aren’t advocating that all of modern medicine is wrong. Also, Penn and Teller can and allegedly have been persuaded to change their minds on some of the issues they criticized on their show, even talking about possibly making an episode that debunks some of their own bullshit, which was previously promoted on the show.  So while I disagree with them on some issues, they’re far more rational than not. But no position I’ve ever heard them defend comes anywhere near as bad as Maher’s denial of germ theory and vaccines.

I’d rather the receiver of the Richard Dawkins Award believe and promote the view that the Earth is 6000 years old than have them promote germ theory denial and anti-vaccinationism. It’s not even close. And I would prefer Maher just believed in a young Earth than his current beliefs on medicine.


11 Responses to They gave Bill Maher the Richard Dawkins Award?

  1. Actually, Mike those statement are distortions of the context in which Maher was talking about. Maher is a Health food nut. His opinion is that Americans eat like crap and because of that we have created a fertile ground for decease to fester. While he may take that position a little bi more over the top than I like, he is still essentially correct. Personally, I love me some White Castle, but I still think Maher has a good point. If Americans ate better and had clearer water, air, etc. people would probably be more resistant to decease. So while I still think Maher is a little in the deep end on this one, I won’t put him in the same camp with Jenny McCarthy by a long shot. Besides, we are all irrational on some thing.

  2. mjr256 says:

    If people ate better, sure, they’d be healthier. I don’t think anyone would disagree. But Maher is parroting germ theory denialist propaganda almost verbatim such as the fictitious Pasteur death bed recanting gambit. Sound familiar? It’s the same exact claim evolution deniers make about Darwin. It’s baseless and would be wholly irrelevant to the science even if it were true.

    I’ll agree that he’s not as bad as Jenny McCarthy, but only because he’s not actually actively campaigning against vaccines nearly as much as she is. But whose to say he won’t decide tomorrow to make another Religulous that this time attacks the medical industry? According to the source linked to above, he’s also said:
    1. “I’m not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic.”
    2. “A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.”
    3. “Well, I hate to tell you…but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there’s ten times the likelihood that you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease.” (Note, as I described, this is a lie hawked by antivaccine macher Hugh Fudenberg.)
    4. “A flu shot just compromises your immune system.”

    As long as he makes rational criticisms against religion, I’ll applaud those efforts. But I don’t feel comfortable with him being singled out as a reputable leader in the atheist community.

  3. If you were to challenge his reputation as a leader of the Skeptical community, I might give you this one, but to say that he isn’t a leader in the atheist community is just not true. Remember that all atheism is, is a lack of belief in deities. It says nothing about other irrational beliefs. Maher may have some valid points when it comes to medicine and some of his beliefs may be irrational and over the top. But that has nothing to do with his lack of belief in deities. I too have some beliefs which many skeptical people could consider irrational (like alien visitation, ghosts, etc.) but that doesn’t make be belief in gods. One has nothing to do with the other. Maher is a leader in the atheist community. Not only because he made Religulous which was a mass market film, but also because he is on the board of the Reason Project and he speaks out against theism on television all the time.

    Instead of demonizing Maher, you should educate him. Point him to the research that you think will sway him against his irrational beliefs.

  4. mjr256 says:

    I understand the argument that his wacky beliefs on other things don’t necessarily make him a bad atheist. But I think his positions on other issues should have been factored in before they made this decision. If he was a Holocaust denier claiming Primo Levi admitted the Holocaust was all a Jewish conspiracy on his death bed, I have a hard time picturing people still justifying his receiving the award because that doesn’t have anything to do with his atheism.

    When you single someone out with an award like this, I think their overall character matters. Now I’ve been told that Stuart Bechman, president of AAI, when explaining why Maher was chosen to receive this award says, “We and the RDF recognize that Bill Maher has not been the best representative or advocate for science. However, we are recognizing him at our event for his ongoing contribution to exposing religious hucksterism and quackery, not for his contributions to science.”

    I think Bechman is making a false continuum argument to justify a poor decision. I don’t think anyone expects them to choose “the perfect single pro-science, pro-rationalist, pro-compassion, pro-humanity atheist.” Maybe I’m optimistic here but I think we can do at least a little better than someone who thinks germ theory and vaccines are just bogus treatments made up by doctors to scam people out of money. To borrow from one of Lewis Black’s bits, I never thought I’d see someone get a prestigious atheist award who didn’t believe in medical science or, you know, thought that it at least has SOME MERIT!! I for one don’t feel comfortable honoring him while knowing that it’s entirely plausible that tomorrow he might decide to make another Religulous-type movie that attacks modern medicine.

    Now I have to think that since Maher’s been active in the atheist community and with The “REASON” Project that people have been trying to educate him on these matters. And if he publicly abandons them tomorrow, I’ll happily change my opinion of him. But as far as I know, it hasn’t happened yet.

  5. Remember that South Park episode where atheists win against religion and then factions of atheists start warring with each other claiming that the other is less rational than they are? You are starting to sound like that. There is no evidence that Maher would make an anti-science movie and yet you have an irrational fear that he will. The fact is that the drug companies do try to make profits at the expense of public health. Maher may take that too far, but that has nothing to do with his lack of belief in gods. Maher isn’t a holocaust denier. He isn’t in that category. Do I disagree with him on some issues, yes. But that doesn’t make him any less of an atheist. Nor are his ideas so far out there that they should affect the decision to give him an award for atheism. Not all atheists have to agree on everything dogmatically. Atheism is NOT a religion. We have no dogmas. While I support science and modern medicine, those are not dogmas of atheism.

  6. mjr256 says:

    His making a film about it was just a hypothetical example. But Maher seems to criticize medicine almost as much as he criticizes religion so it’s not unreasonable to think he’d consider a movie about that or some other big gesture to promote his position on medicine. He is passionately opposed to science-based-medicine and it seems he says as much frequently.

    That’s reasonable grounds to disagree with his receiving an award which specifically and deliberately mentions the advancement of science: “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” While it is true that Bill Maher has raised public awareness of atheism, it is dishonest to say that the award has nothing to do with science when the description specifically states that it does.

    Now I understand that you like Maher. And as much as I’m appalled by some of his beliefs, I still kinda like him too…at least when he says things that I agree with. But if we’re just going to prop up anyone who happens to promote atheism regardless of their other positions, then that seems more like religion than the South Park example, which was simply over labels and not ideas. I agree that the label dispute is silly. But I see no reason why we shouldn’t be criticizing someone in the atheist community who has irrational beliefs about other things.

    I really like Maher as a comedian and as a satirist of religion, but the problem with giving him the Richard Dawkins Award is that it suggests all Dawkins stands for is atheism, when presumably he stands for rationalism and science as well. That Dawkins didn’t publicly object to the committee’s decision may show that Dawkins is capable of being more gracious than sincere.

    I would like to be part of a community of rationalists, not just a community of atheists. I won’t defend someone who’s a 9/11 Denier just being their an atheist, nor will I celebrate Maher as some great defender of reason when he’s just barely scratched the surface. My vote would have gone to Hitchens.

  7. It is possible to celebrate Maher as an atheist and still be critical of his ideas on modern medicine. It is possible to celebrate other atheists even if they happen to be 9/11 Deniers. One atheist who I have become friendly with on the internet is Davis Fleetwood. I support him in his efforts to promote atheism, but I strongly disagree with his 9/11 stuff and more recently his anti-American stuff. But as an atheist I love the guy. Penn is also an atheist and I support him too, but when he goes off on the Libertarianism and the worship of Ron Paul, I am very critical of him. Would I be upset i he got an award for atheism? No, he should get an award for atheism. Hitchens is also a great voice for atheism, but when he talks about politics and the great conspiracy in which he claims that Bill Clinton rapes women I have to be critical of that. I like a lot of what Maher has to say and while I don’t agree with him 100%, I don’t agree with ANYONE 100%. If we only are willing to give awards to atheists who we agree with 100% than we couldn’t give out any awards at all. So the question is, why did they give the award to Bill Maher? The answer is because he promoted atheism. So while we can be critical of Maher on many issues, I still support his efforts in atheism.

  8. mjr256 says:

    It is possible to celebrate them as atheists even though they’re wacky in their other beliefs. Sure. But if it were me making the choice of who should be a recipient, those wacky beliefs would definitely factor into my decision, especially if their views pertain to anti-scientific beliefs, which directly conflicts with the criteria of the award: “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” Maher does not meet that criteria. Ideally, the recipient of the award should not be a controversial choice who large number scientific-minded, rational atheists would find strong objection to. I think the award should go to a rationalist.

    I feel like you’re downplaying the seriousness of his strongly anti-medical position. It’s not a mere political disagreement. This isn’t the same as with Penn or Hitchens who I have political differences with. If Maher were simply a Republican, I wouldn’t be so opposed to him. It’s that his position is incredibly anti-science.

  9. […] an award for public health to Jenny McCarthy. I was not alone, either. Larry Moran, Matt D., and Skepacabra agreed with […]

  10. Andrew says:

    Maher. “I would love for you to investigate the possibility that your health issues might have arisen from the fact that you’re being poisoned by America.”

    You. “I had no idea he was that delusional.

    Me. “Take a look at the Okinawans and what is happening to them as the American style rolls through. Case and point.”

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