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Bill Maher’s Errata

This essay consists of the following sections:
Absolute Agnosticism
Oh My (Selfish) Goodness!

In this essay Atheism is Dead will enumerate the various logical and theological fallacies that were uttered my Bill Maher whilst appearing on Joe Scarborough’s news show “Scarborough Country” for April 24, 2007 AD (manuscript here).


JOE SCARBOROUGH: No holds Mahered. Controversial comedian Bill Maher attacks God, Jesus and Christianity. Now, he’s working on a new documentary on religion with the producer of “Borat.” And I talked to him about why Jesus, Christianity and faith scares him so much.

Here they play a clip of a conversation on Bill Maher’s show (for info on Religulous see here, here and here):

BILL MAHER: I mean, you really think that I’m lost because I don’t accept Jesus Christ as my savior. You think I’m your inferior. Be honest.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (UF): Oh, no, not inferior.
BILL MAHER: Come on!
UF: That’s very different.
BILL MAHER: But wait. You think you have a truth...
UF: I don’t—I don’t think you’re inferior, but I...
BILL MAHER: But do you think you have a truth that I do not see?
UF: Yes.
BILL MAHER: Then aren’t I not, by logical means...
UF: No. No, you’re where I was...
BILL MAHER: ... inferior?
UF: ... once because I was all confused myself.
BILL MAHER: That’s condescending.

Bill Maher appears to be an example of a person who is not strictly expressing their opinions on the subject at hand but are expressing what is deep within the recesses of their hearts, souls and minds. A form of what psychology refers to as “transference.” For instance, on the topic of fathers who take their little daughters to father-daughter dances or “purity balls” Bill Maher had quite a laugh about pedophilic-incest. On the topic of a mother breast feeding her little baby in public Bill Maher likened it to public masturbation (see here and here for details). These are various aspects of the ongoing Bill Maher controversy.

Transference certainly seems to be the case in this instance. Bill Maher is equating a person who possesses a certain bit of information with a superiority complex and infers that they look down upon a person who does not possess that bit of information as being inferior. This is certainly a fallacious inference due to the following options:

1. A person who possesses a certain bit of information may very well hoard it with good reason and rightly look down on others who do not possess it as inferior. For example, an inventor may patent a new devise from which he will become rich himself and give a business of his choosing, to whom he sells his invention, an advantage over another business which may even become obsolete and go out of business due to the competitor’s technological-superiority and their technological-inferiority.

2. A person who possesses a certain bit of information may hoard it with a much more selfish reason and capriciously look down on others who do not possess it as inferior. Such would be the case in a “I have a secret” (read in a whiny voice) scenario.

3. A person who possesses a certain bit of information that another person lacks is under no moral or logical obligation to feel superior to anyone, may even feel unworthy, and may feel it to be their life’s purpose to share that information with as many people who lack it as possible.

Note that Bill Maher, appearing to be more interested in instigation and belittlement than in rational discourse, did not ask the logical question, “Do you think I’m your inferior?” Rather, he makes a fallacious assertion, “You think I’m your inferior.” Note that he then turns from insisting that he is being considered “inferior” to insisting that it is “condescending” to be considered “confused.” The fact is that some people are confused and there is nothing condescending about it nor about pointing that out.

It appears to me that the bottom line, at this point, is that Bill Maher considers her worldview to be exclusivist and arrogant. Yet, her claim to have absolute knowledge to the effect of someone being lost because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their savior is matched by Bill Maher’s negation which is just as absolutist, exclusivist and arrogant.
Moreover, it should be noted that if something is true and another thing false, it is not arrogant to assert the true in negation of the false. For instance, if someone stated, “1+1=2 and 1+1 does not =152” would they be considered arrogant for making such a truth claim? Granted truth claims about mathematics and truth claims about theology are of separate categories but the general concept is important to point out: if something is true and another thing false it is not arrogant to make the truth claim and therefore negate the false. I drew out this issue a bit in two essays: Exclusivism, Part I - Is only one worldview true? And Exclusivism, Part II - Is there only one way of salvation?

Absolute Agnosticism

MAHER: As you know, Joe, I’ve always had it out for religion for very good reasons. It’s mostly destructive. I don’t know what happens after you die, but to believe what another person tells me just makes me want to say to that person, How do you know? So that’s what I would ask you. How do you know what happens after you die?
It’s only, Joe, because somebody in this long game of telephone from 2,000 years ago told you what it was. But if some person hadn’t told you and a person just came up to you on the street and says, Yes, there’s a God and he had a son and he sent him on a suicide mission to earth, and then on Easter, he flies bodily up to heaven, I mean, what would you think of a person in the 21st century who believed that someone could fly bodily up to heaven?

The statement that religion is “mostly destructive” is stunningly exaggerated. Let us consider, for example, the topic of war. The Encyclopedia of Wars (New York: Facts on File, 2005) was compiled by nine history professors who specifically conducted research for the text for a decade in order to chronicle 1,763 wars. The survey of wars covers a time span from 8000 BC to 2003 AD. From over 10,000 years of war 123, which is 6.98 percent, are considered to have been religious wars. Let us consider the number of religious people who have ever lived and let us balance on one side of the scale those who have engaged in religious war and those who have lived out their entire lives in virtual benevolence. The scale would surely break under the weight of the benevolent side. Yet, we are getting ahead of ourselves since Bill Maher did not provide any standards by which to make an absolute claim to religion being “mostly destructive” but merely made an argument for embarrassment assertion.

It is somewhat logical to think that if you do not know what happens after we die no one else does either. However, this is actually an agnostic logical fallacy since it is illogical to think that since I do not know something then no one else, in the history of the universe, knows it either.

To the issue of a “long game of telephone.” This is a fallacy which betrays knowledge of how oral cultures maintained their information and assured its accuracy. This also fails to recognize that far from being a game of telephone, the purpose which is to fail and have a good laugh about it, there are over 24,000 New Testament manuscripts and proof of at least 2,000 year of accurate Old Testament transmission.

Dr. Craig Blomberg, Ph.D., while interviewed by Lee Strobel, explains why the game of telephone is not a good analogy for how oral traditions are passed down:

“When you’re carefully memorizing something and taking care not to pass it along until you’re sure you’ve got it right, you’re doing something very different from playing the game of telephone. In telephone half the fun is that the person may not have got it right or even heard it right the first time, and they cannot ask the person to repeat it. Then you immediately pass it along, also in whispered tones that make it more likely the next person will goof something up even more. So yes, by the time it has circulated through a room of thirty people, the results can be hilarious.”
“Then why,” I asked, “Isn’t that a good analogy for passing along ancient oral traditions?”…
“If you really want to develop that analogy in light of the checks and balances of the first-century community, you’d have to say that every third person, out loud in a very clear voice, would have to ask the first person; ‘Do I still have it right?’ and change it if he didn’t. The community would constantly be monitoring what was said and intervening to make corrections along the way. That would preserve the integrity of the message,” he said. “And the result would be very different from that of the childish game of telephone.”[1]

But what of the statement about things that would be unbelievable in the 21st century? The fact is that, much to Bill Maher’s dismay, millions of people believe it today. Moreover, consider other things that we are supposed to believe in the 21st century:
That the universe came into being when an eternal uncaused dot of matter exploded.
That life on earth originated when lightning struck a swamp (abiogenesis). Ergo, that the argument from contingency regresses us back to ethereal clouds that rained down upon an amorphous concoction of minerals, etc.
That we cannot detect or observe 96% of the universe.
That there are invisible subatomic particles.
That light is both a wave and a particle.
That Keanu Reeves can act.
As Prof. Richard Lewontin has stated it (see here for the full text):

What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity ‘in deep trouble.’ Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: So let me ask you, do you belief in God?
MAHER: I call myself an “apatheist.” I’m apathetic about God. In other words, there could be a God. There could be something. I don’t know. I don’t—I certainly don’t think it’s a human God. But there could be some force that we can’t understand on earth.

Bill Maher has apparently established another sect of atheism/agnosticism namely: apatheism. Yet, we should wonder just how apathetic he is about God’s existence. He devotes comedy routines, portions of his show, interviews and a documentary to the issue of God and religion. Perhaps God is only important enough to mock. Well Bill Maher, it’s been done, done to death in fact, to death.

While it is true that “there could be some force that we can’t understand on earth” one aught to be careful about the usage, and usefulness, of this argument. This argument can all too easily become an excuse for believing in an absolutely materialistic universe and denying any evidence to the contrary.
According, to this argument any evidence for the supernatural can be shrugged of as natural phenomena that we do not yet understand but that we will surely someday understand as mere materialism after all. Yet, upon what do we base such assertions? How do we logically claim to know what future discoveries will be? Because this argument and the worldview which it informs are presuppositionally materialistic. Ergo: there is no evidence for the supernatural because the supernatural does not exist and we know that the supernatural does not exist because we never allow anything to count as evidence for the supernatural because the supernatural does not exist because there is no evidence for the supernatural, ad infinitum.

Oh My (Selfish) Goodness!
At this point the discussion involves at least two main topics: the question of why someone does “good” and the alleged selfishness of Christians.

After claiming apatheism Bill Maher continued by stating the following about God’s existence:

It doesn’t matter. You should be a good person for the sake of being a good person, not because there is some reward in heaven.

This is highly presuppositional on various levels:
He is referring to “good” without defining what “good” is—what is “good”?
Without providing any standards of goodness, he asserts the importance of goodness anyway.
He is setting up goodness as a moral standard without establishing why we aught to do “good.”

Rather, he mere makes various assertion, “You should be a good person” – why, remains unstated.
Moreover, “for the sake of being a good person” – why, remains unstated.
Furthermore, “not because there is some reward in heaven” – why, remains unstated.

At this point I would consider arguing that if I set out to “be a good person for the sake of being a good person” then my primary purpose for being good is so that I can be thought of, and think of myself, as being a good person. In this sense, “being a good person” is a reward that I sought. In fact, Dan Barker enumerates certain reasons why we should be good during his debate with Peter Payne:

“if you wish to be…a healthy person” [meaning mentally healthy], “if you wish to be labeled ‘ethical’ by other people,” “if you wish to be viewed by your society as ‘a good person,’” “if that’s something you wish.”

Atheism is Dead has detailed this atheist sentiment in the following essays: A Good Person, Does God Prefer Atheism?, Do Any Atheists Have Pure Motives?

At this point Bill Maher gets to the alleged selfishness of Christianity.

One of the things that bothers me about religion is that it masquerades as humility, and it’s really arrogant. And it masquerades as self-sacrificing, and it’s really about saving your own hide. Ask any Christian, they’ll tell you it’s about salvation through Jesus Christ. This is how I am going to achieve happiness for all eternity after I die. But it’s mostly about saving my own behind.

At this point Joe Scarborough asks:

But how in the world can you even—how can you draw—listen, how can you assume I’m a Christian because I want to save my hide?

Some back and forth occurs at this point the gist of which Bill Maher states thusly:

BILL MAHER: OK, the reason—the reason I say this is because I just got done from interviewing many, many people about this. This is what I was doing on this documentary. And most Christians...
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Many, many people—I mean, you sound like—you sound like Katie Couric—Some people say—you didn’t talk to me.

Joe Scarborough’s point is more understandable this way: “Many, many people”? “Some people say”? Well, “you didn’t talk to me.” I certainly do not know what that reference to Katie Couric was but I thought that Bill Maher sounded like Richard Dawkins he was interviewed by Ben Stein for the movie Expelled. Richard Dawkins asserts that people feel liberated and relieved when they realize that God does not exist. Ben Stein asks him how he knows that, he is after all speaking with an empirical scientist. Richard Dawkins responds that he receives letters from people to that effect. To which Ben Stein states that there are some 8 billion people in the world and asks, “How many letters do you get?” (see here for more examples of goosbump-atheism).

The conversation continues thusly:

BILL MAHER: OK, but I would bet, Joe, if you talk to most Christians, what they would say the most important part of the religion is, salvation, salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s in the Bible. It’s what he says. You can only...
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Now, you know what Jesus says the most important part of being a Christian is? And he tells his disciplines when they ask him. He says it’s about feeding the poor, clothing those that have no clothes, visiting people who are sick, visiting people in jails. Just because Christianity has been perverted by televangelists during your lifetime and my lifetime doesn’t mean that they’re using the words of Jesus. Jesus said, This is how you’re judged. You’re judged on how you treat the poor. You’re judged on how you give hope to the hopeless. I am shocked you didn’t talk to a single person...
BILL MAHER: Yes, but...
JOE SCARBOROUGH: ... that didn’t tell you that.
BILL MAHER: Yes, they talk about that, and that is important. But of course, you can do those things without believing in those kind of myths. You don’t have to personalize a God. OK, but Joe, I mean, let’s get real. I’ve read the New Testament. I’ve read it recently. It is a lot about achieving eternal life through Jesus Christ, OK? Yes, helping the poor and all that stuff is in there, but mostly it’s about saving yourself through this one method, through this one man. God sent his son to earth to die for your sins, yada, yada, yada. That’s what it’s about.

With that, this segment comes to an end.

Certainly, “you can do those things without believing in those kind of myths.” Although, there may be something to be said for the fact that it is not exactly atheist who establish, fund and manage charities, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, disaster relief organizations, hospitals, universities, adoption agencies, foster homes, etc., etc., etc.

As much as I know that Bill Maher has built a career based on bombast, belittling and vile displays of prejudice I get the feeling that he may actually be honestly confused on this point. Or would that be condescending? I am trying to give him some credit, even while believing that he deserves very, very little, if any. I wonder if he missed the point when he was interviewing many, many people.

I would not doubt that many, many of them stated that the point of Christianity is salvation. The issue is that it was at that very point that they, many, many of them were, and this is a crucial point, sharing this message with Bill Maher. It may be this very simple, yet crucial, point that Bill Maher missed. Would not the experience of salvation be a prerequisite for telling others about salvation? Would Bill Maher refer to volunteers at a homeless shelter’s soup kitchen as “selfish” because they also ate, and ate in order to have enough energy to feed others?

Thus, it may be perfectly accurate to assert that “if you talk to most Christians, what they would say the most important part of the religion is, salvation, salvation through Jesus Christ.” And it is from this premise that Christianity is not selfish since it is not, or not solely, about “saving your own hide” or “mostly about saving my own behind” (“mostly” being a very telling qualifier) but is about attempting to save everyone’s hides and behinds. Bill Maher appears to be missing the cause and effect that is at work in the New Testament and in today’s 21st century Christianity.

[1] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), p. 56


  1. Thanks, Mariano. This was a great post!

  2. Show you right!


  3. Mariano wrote:
    > Bill Maher is equating a person who possesses a certain bit of information with a superiority complex and infers that they look down upon a person who does not possess that bit of information as being inferior. This is certainly a fallacious inference due to the following options:
    > 1. A person who possesses a certain bit of information may very well hoard it with good reason and rightly look down on others who do not possess it as inferior.


    The problem is that, for quite a long time, the most fervent of Christians have tended to be among the least knowledgeable, least educated members of society.

    The problem is not that no one should feel superior to others. For example, my knowledge of physics and cosmology vastly exceeds your knowledge (for details, see below), and, in that respect, I feel superior to you. Nothing surprising there: Stanford gave me that Ph.D. in physics because, presumably, I do know more about such things than most people.

    No, the problem is that Christians claim to have superior knowledge when there is overwhelming reason to think they have nothing of the sort. People who have never heard of Codex Vaticanus or Codex Sinaiticus or the Johannine comma consider themselves experts on the infallibility of the Bible.

    That is indeed ludicrous.

    You also wrote:
    > As much as I know that Bill Maher has built a career based on bombast, belittling and vile displays of prejudice…

    That’s his shtick: are you old enough to remember Don Rickles? Expecting Maher to be a nice guy is like expecting G. W. Bush to act intelligently or Michael Jackson to act sanely.

    Yes, Maher’s a jerk: he’s a professional jerk; that’s his career.

    You also wrote:
    > Moreover, consider other things that we are supposed to believe in the 21st century:
    >That the universe came into being when an eternal uncaused dot of matter exploded.

    I’m a Ph.D. physicist, Mariano: that is not what we scientists claim.

    I doubt you can find any competent scientist who claims there was an “eternal” uncaused dot of matter that caused the Big Bang. Indeed, if it had existed eternally, it would have exploded a long time before!

    The best theory nowadays is so-called “inflationary cosmology” (not to be confused with the accelerating expansion of the universe, which is a different issue).

    Current cosmologists do not think the Big Bang was the beginning, and indeed it may be that inflation has been going on forever, so called “eternal inflation" (yes, I know the argument against an infinite sequence of events – scientifically, that argument is simply silly: it is the easiest thing in the world to write down mathematically an infinite series of pre-existing causes).

    I’ve had to explain this to Christian after Christian, even though inflationary cosmology is about three decades old: I knew the fellow who developed it, Alan Guth, when I was a doctoral student at Stanford.

    Google it, or, better yet, read Alan’s book.

    Christians seem to be very, very, very slow to learn modern science! But I keep trying to help them.

    Of course, people who are really good at learning science tend to stop being Christians.


  4. Mariano,

    It occurred to me that I should explain why the supposed impossibility of an infinity of past events seems trivially false to any competent physicist.

    There is a deep theorem in physics, the PCT theorem, fairly plausible if you think about it, that the “tape can always be run backwards.” Any set of events that is physically possible would also be possible if run in reverse (technically, one must also perform charge and parity conjugation, but this does not change the main point).

    The distinction of physical cause vs. physical effect is not built into the universe: it’s just a matter of which direction you choose to view as “positive” for the time coordinate. Run the tape backwards, and cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause.

    Now, it seems pretty obvious to most people that it is at least conceivable that the universe has an infinite future ahead of it with an infinite number of events to occur in the future – this may or may not actually be the case, but it is at least logically possible.

    But, by the tape-reversal principle (PCT theorem), the possibility of an infinite future also implies the possibility of an infinite past. Just reverse the tape, and voila! -- your infinite future becomes a perfectly possible infinite past.

    If anyone is skeptical of this, I can provide standard references, though they require a fairly high knowledge of physics and math.


  5. I have an observation to make.

    Maher tells us to be good for the sake of being good--not because God tells us to, or anything like that; just be good, he says.

    I personally think that the Christian system is superior in that it provides motivation for moral behavior; if you behave badly, you will suffer the consequences.

    What is Bill Maher going to say to someone who is presented with the opportunity to do evil to the persons he hates most while never having to worry about being caught or punished? Be good just for its own sake? Clearly a Christian can say: you might never get caught here on earth, but there is someone who sees what you do in secret, and you're going to have to give an account to him some day.

    If (let's say) our goal is to have persons behave morally, then Christianity taken thus is clearly more pragmatic than Maher's ethical theory.