Final thoughts on the Bill Maher controversy

I’ve previously written about my disapproval of the Atheist Alliance International’s picking of Bill Maher as this year’s recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award and have written about the controversy over the decision in greater depth here.

PZ Myers also strongly disagrees with Maher’s stance on medicine but did previously defend the decision. Now Myers, who attended the convention, reported on the proceedings with regard to this particular issue:

The good news for all the critics of this choice is that Dawkins pulled no punches. In his introduction, he praised Religulous and thanked Maher for his contributions to freethought, but he also very clearly and unambiguously stated that some of his beliefs about medicine were simply crazy. He did a good job of walking a difficult tightrope; he made it clear that the award was granted for some specific worthy matters, his humorous approach to religion, while carefully dissociating the AAI from any endorsement of crackpot medicine. It won’t be enough, I know, but the effort was made, and talking to Dawkins afterwards there was no question but that Maher’s quackery was highly objectionable. I also got the impression that he felt the critics of the award were making good and reasonable points, and that he felt the awkwardness of the decision.

I have to say that it is at least comforting to know that when Myers talked to his friend afterwards, Dawkins did express his strong disapproval of Maher’s medical position and agreed that critics of the decision had reasonable points. It’s also good to know he  did publicly comment on the controversy and make reference to his disagreement on these issues to the audience.

However, PZ Myers is right that it’s not quite enough. Orac is less generous here than myself at this point, but I too still feel that it was indeed a bad call to put the atheist message above the rational and scientific one on this occasion. I think Orac makes an excellent point here:

To me, this whole fiasco is pretty strong evidence that, if atheism and science come into conflict (unless, of course, that science happens to be the science of evolution, in which case I highly doubt that this controversy would have been so flippantly dismissed), for Richard Dawkins atheism wins hands down, and science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community. Atheism is clearly what’s more important to Dawkins now. As long as he bashes religion, Maher’s a-OK with him and only gets a brief remonstration for his promotion of quackery and anti-vaccine views. I’m the other way around. Quite frankly, I no longer care much about atheism; science and reason are my passion, which is why this fiasco got me so worked up.

While I’m still a proud, card-carrying, banner-waving atheist, I can sympathize with Orac’s position. If Maher was as critical of evolutionary biologists as he was of the medical community, he would not be receiving this award. He wouldn’t because evolution is so much a part of the identity of the modern atheist “movement.” It seems almost like we’re falling into the trap Sam Harris (who incidentally still has no Richard Dawkins Award) warned us about by choosing to identify ourselves as “atheists.”

At the end of the day, what are we going to value more, creating converts or promoting science and reason? I think science and reason is the higher goal and that an atheist worldview naturally stems from that. But at the end of the day, I don’t really care whether an individual believes in a god or not just like I don’t really care if an individual believes in the Lock Ness Monster or not. What I care about is that they think critically, reject faith as a justification for poor beliefs, and avoid dogma.

While I enjoyed Maher’s film and much of his comedy, I don’t see him as a person who embodies those values, values which I think the atheist “community” should be honoring over ticket sales. And I certainly don’t see him as the person who best embodied those values in the past year. Past recipients of the award included James Randi, Ann Druyan, and Daniel Dennett, luminaries who each clearly embody those values and are able to put those values before their own political agendas. Sam Harris too embodies those values. As does Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Michael Shermer, and many more who make far better choices, in my opinion, as recipients of the award than the star of Religulous. The former show they care more about seeking truth than being right whereas Maher more often than not goes the more Bill O’Reilly route of shouting out his beliefs and simply demanding everyone agree with them, lest they be called an idiot or a pinhead. He’s a loose canon that sometimes will point in the direction of the enemies of reason but may just as often be pointing at us. And I am beginning to wonder if Maher’s atheism stems less from rationalism than from his mere interest in being contrarian.

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One Response to Final thoughts on the Bill Maher controversy

  1. Mark P says:

    “I think science and reason is the higher goal and that an atheist worldview naturally stems from that.”

    Indeed, religious people who use reason to make real world decisions are no danger, even if their religious views are kooky. Whereas atheists who make decisions by dogma (Stalin, for example) are a major threat.

    As importantly, if you want Atheism to become recognised as reasonable and sensible, then it is vital that people with loony views like Maher are not condoned, just because they happen to be Atheist too.

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