Is Bill Maher Literally Wrong?
The Ridiculous Wrongheadedness of Religulous
Bill Maher joins the ranks of the ‘new atheist’ crowd by attacking the Christian right in his new documentary Religulous, just out on DVD. He also joins Chris Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris as being stupid, literally speaking; particularly in his simple minded devotion to acknowledging reality only in its most pared down anemic ideology of literal-minded rationality. There are intelligent atheists, many prominent philosophers and cultural critics, who correctly set their claims in the realms of meaning and symbolic knowledge. They dismiss Maher and Co’s sophomoric atheism because it actually pushes the same ideological framework as the people on the Christian right who believe in talking snakes.
First off, Maher confuses categories of knowledge. You can say “a flower is a plant” and this belongs to ‘positive knowledge’ since it is empirical. Another category of knowledge is to say “flowers are beautiful.” The fundamentalist Christian, confusing the two modes of knowing, might say it is a scientific FACT that flowers are pretty. Then Bill Maher would come along and say, “We’ve dissected the flower and have found no ‘beauty cells’ or ‘beauty structures’, therefore flowers are not beautiful and furthermore beauty does not exist.” Both Maher and religious fundamentalists deny all modalities of knowing except for the scientific one and in so doing diminish what it means to be human.
You don’t need philosophy to understand this. I once read about a Christian holy man who spoke about how silly it was to look for God using rationality. It’s the wrong tool, he said. It would be just as silly to use a telescope to look for God. If you want to make any statement on God you must first clear your heart of illusions, treachery, and passions, since the heart is the true instrument with which to seek God, only then can you say weather God exists or not.
Many Christians understand this perfectly well. Maher spoke primarily to those Christians most easy to mock in order to push his own point. Here, however, are two quotes from typical priests of the third largest Christian denomination, Orthodox Christianity, Fr. Andrew Anglorus and Fr. Stephen Freeman:
…lack[ing] a Patristic understanding of the Scriptures…they do not understand the Scriptures spiritually, ascetically, allegorically, poetically, but only literally. We call such an understanding 'fundamentalist' (1).
Genesis, properly read, is not a science text book. It is about Christ and reveals Him as the very meaning and purpose of creation - as well as explicating His Pascha. If you don’t see that when you read the first chapter of Genesis, then no one ever taught you how to read Scripture as the primitive Church read Scripture….Scripture functions as a verbal icon - and like an icon requires an understanding of its spiritual grammar to see it correctly (2).
Nor is this simply a way for modern Christians to excuse obviously unscientific biblical passages. St. Maximus the Confessor, living in 500-600 A.D. wrote, “Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way” (3). Maher purposefully avoids this type of true Christian faith because it does not fit in with his simplified one dimensional view of black and white reality.
Finally, here are some words from Slavoj Zizek, a modern philosopher/cultural critic who is a die-hard atheist. He has written many books on Christianity, including one recently where he debates with Christian theologian John Milbank, who happens to have a PHD and a firm grasp of postmodern philosophy, unlike the people Maher approaches who are either uninformed or incapable of defending themselves intellectually or dismissed out of hand. The italics are mine.
“Both liberal-skeptical cynics and fundamentalists share a basic underlying feature: the loss of the ability to believe, in the proper sense of the term. What is unthinkable for them is the groundless decision which installs every authentic belief, a decision which cannot be grounded in the chain of reasons, in positive knowledge. …the status of universal human rights is that of a pure belief: they cannot be grounded in our knowledge of human nature, they are an axiom posited by our decision. (The moment one tries to ground universal human rights in our knowledge of humanity, the inevitable conclusion will be that men are fundamentally different, that some have more dignity and wisdom than others.) At its most fundamental, authentic belief does not concern facts, but gives expression to an unconditional ethical commitment.
For both liberal cynics and religious fundamentalists, religious statements are quasi-empirical statements of direct knowledge: fundamentalists accept them as such, while skeptical cynics mock them.
… its [religious fundamentalism’s] true danger does not reside in the fact that it poses a threat to secular scientific knowledge, but in the fact that it poses a threat to authentic belief itself” (4).
In other words, by disregarding any symbolic mediation between humanity and a reality transcendent of logical apprehension both Maher and the Christian right are on the same team, since both equally undermine true belief and reject those more rarified modalities of understanding and being.
1) Anglorus, Fr. Andrew, “Towards an Orthodox View of Creation
And Evolution.” [Weblog entry.] Orthodox England on the ‘Net. Aug 2006.
) 03 March 2009.
2) Freeman, Fr. Stephen, “The Meaning of Scripture.” [Weblog entry.] Glory to God for
All Things. 26 Oct. 2008. (http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2008/10/26/the-
meaning-of-scripture/) 03 March 2009.
3) Berthold, George, Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. Paulist Press, 1985.
4) Zizek, Slavoj. How to read Lacan. W. W. Norton, 2007.