Bill Maher’s contempt for Christianity and Christians

Christianity is not based on historical truth. … The historical accounts in the Gospels might … be demonstrably false and yet [religious] belief would lose nothing by this … because historical proof … is irrelevant to [religious] belief.  This message (the Gospels) is seized upon by men believingly (i.e., lovingly).

--Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Culture and Value, 1937

In a discussion with Bill O’Reilly, Bill Maher, wearing his usual expression of bored sanctimony to those who don’t share his undergraduate-level views, gives several reasons for his contemptuous attitude towards Christianity, calling Christians “morons.”  If the Bible is the “literal” word of God then, first, why are there untruths in it, and, second, why are there immoral things in it?  Maher gives the Noah’s ark story as an example of an untruth and the view, which he locates in Deuteronomy, that it is a “law” that if one sees one’s neighbor working on the Sabbath, one should kill him, as an example of immorality.  Faith in the Bible is nonsense, Maher claims, because faith is “the purposeful suspension of critical thinking.”  O’Reilly responds that the Bible is filled with allegory and parables to teach “a greater truth,” to which Maher replies, “I thought it was the word of God.  I thought it was literal ….” 

In fact, although some scholars defend a “literalist” interpretation of the Bible, many others hold that many Biblical statements must be understood metaphorically or symbolically.  Even so central a figure in Roman Catholicism as Thomas Aquinas holds that many religious statements must be understood symbolically or metaphorically because, roughly speaking, “finite” human intelligence cannot understand the transcendent (Summa Theologica, Q1, Art. 9), a view prefigured in Plato’s pre-Christian ontology (Republic, Book VI, “The Divided Line”). 

There are also other possibilities.  Wittgenstein, influenced by the Danish 19th century “existentialist” philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s view that Christian faith is not a rational belief but a “passion,” holds that “Christianity says is that all sound doctrines are useless, that you have to change your life” (Culture and Value, 1946)  The point of Christianity is not that one “believes” certain propositions but that one lives a certain way, e.g., the Biblical views about Noah’s ark are not a history lesson but an attempt to convey a certain spiritual moral about life (which is not to say that there may not also be some historical truth in it). 

This same idea is also illustrated in Wittgenstein’s illuminating remarks on the controversial theological views of the Trinity: “[T]he words you utter … are not what matters so much as the difference they make … in your life. … [This] goes for belief in the Trinity.” (Culture and Value, 1950)  Religious belief is about changing one’s life, not proving assertions.  Since Maher sees no proofs for Biblical statements, he rejects them, thereby missing the moral or spiritual point of the remarks.

Maher’s claim about Deuteronomy is also false, or, at least, misleading.  First, the passage to which Maher refers is not in Deuteronomy but in Exodus 31-15.  Further, there is no mention there of any “law” that one “neighbour” must kill another.  The Douay-Rheims translation of the passage reads: “[T]he seventh day is the sabbath, the rest holy to the Lord. Every one that shall do any work on this day, shall die.” This does not say that if Bill sees Bob working on the Sabbath, he must murder him.  In fact, if Biblical passages are actually an attempt to convey a moral lesson, one natural candidate would be that it says substantially the same thing as “The wages of sin are death.” (Romans 6:23)

The point about the translations is significant because the current editions of the Bible in English are translations of translations of copies the original text that is lost to us.  Any representation of the meaning can, therefore, only be approximate.  That is, even if the Bible as originally received is “the word of God,” the original pristine message was not available to the scribes who translated the Greek Vulgate Bible into the English-language versions.  One cannot, therefore, justify reading any very specific meaning into that Exodus passage, certainly no “law” that Bob must kill Bill if Bill works on the Sabbath.  By the way, did Maher mention how many Christians have killed their neighbor recently because they saw them work on the Sabbath?

Maher’s mistakes boil down to the fact that he has an extremely simplistic dichotomy expressed in his statement that “faith is the purposeful suspension of critical thinking.”  Maher thinks that there is genuine knowledge, which involving “critical thinking,” on the one side, and “faith,” which is evidence-free belief, on the other.  But is religious faith the same kind of “belief” involved in science minus critical thinking?  Is the “belief in God” comparable to the superstitious belief that one can cure terminal cancer by chanting?

Wittgenstein doesn’t think so: “Religious faith and superstition are quite different.  One of them results from fear and is a sort of false science, the other is a trusting” (Culture and Value, 1948).  When Bob says he trusts his wife completely, it is not because he has done a scientific investigation and concluded on the basis of “critical reasoning” that she is trustworthy.  In fact, if Bob needs to do a scientific investigation to reach that conclusion one can be quite certain that he does not trust her and no scientific investigation will change that. On the contrary, Bob trusts his wife because he feels he knows her heart in a different sense.  Similarly, religious faith is not and cannot be the result of “critical reasoning”.  Religious faith has to do with a certain attitude towards life (if Wittgenstein is correct, a certain kind of trusting attitude that even if we cannot always prove it with evidence, things are for the best and the way they must be).

In, roughly, Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the word, Maher has a naïve “paradigm” of religious belief.  Maher sees religious beliefs as akin to superstitious assertions of fact.   There are, however, many sophisticated alternative interpretations within the philosophical traditions about how religious assertions are to be understood.  Aquinas’ view is one. Kierkegaard’s and Wittgenstein’s is another.  It would be nice if our overpaid talking heads actually knew something about these issues before they start pontificating, but Maher’s typical bored sanctimony when he discusses this (and other) issues is based on ignorance, not genuine knowledge of the issues.  In brief, Maher, like so many TV personalities, is a comedian, not a philosopher or a theologian. The problem is that he does not know how funny he is to serious people.

The contempt Maher expresses for Christians, as opposed to Christianity, is an entirely different matter.  One wonders if a Maher, who makes his money by delivering mostly infantile tasteless jokes on stage, holds that other Christian believers, genuine creative geniuses such as Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Barth, are also “morons”?

No man is a hero to his valet, not because the hero is no hero, but because the valet is a valet.

                                                                                                  --G.F.W. Hegel

Note: All references to Culture and Value are to the year Wittgenstein recorded the remark.

Image: Pixabay / Pixabay License

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