07/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Maher vs. Obama -- Score One For the President

Bill Maher has decided to straighten out President Obama regarding health care, and the economy. I know no more about those subjects than anyone else, but one way we judge what people say is by looking at what they have said about subjects we do know something about. I learned quite a bit about Maher by watching his movie Religulous and listening to his commentaries on religion since then. That is something I know about.

As I explore in my chapter on Maher in my forthcoming book, Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism),Maher's "critique" of religion is a unique study in ignorance. I presume Maher knows about as much about health care and economics as about religion.

As readers of my books and blogs know I'm one of the harshest critics of American religion, given that I was raised by an evangelical leader, became one myself and quit. I think the right wing of evangelical American religion is a threat to our democracy. That said, Maher doesn't get religion.

Maher's Religulous, provided the atheist version of a church-going experience.
In a series of interviews, Maher set up pastors, evangelists, political leaders, and assorted other flakes and actors (these last at a religious theme park) to look their worst. Maher's questions were those one might expect from a literal-minded, dim-witted ten-year-old stuck in Sunday school who was trying to annoy his teacher into throwing him out. The questions ranged from "How can you believe in a talking snake?" to "How could Jonah have lived in a fish?" to "How can God hear the prayers of everyone at once?" (To which one answer might be, if Google can do it, why not God?)

When approaching the biblical narrative through his handpicked interviewees (and how he edited their comments), Maher didn't seem to "get" allegory, let alone literary imagination or the results of religious faith in ordinary people's lives. For instance he seemed to think that religion, and Christianity in particular, is only about literal belief in the various biblical stories. It's not. It never has been.

Yes, there have been literalistic fundamentalists shaping religion through a hard-edged fundamentalist "thread" running through Jewish and Christian history. Yes, many Christians following this literal-minded thread have done terrible things. Yes, the Jewish and Christian faiths are full of such people today. What Maher ignored is that there has been a parallel tradition, another thread, running alongside the literalistic tendency he caricatures. And here's the irony -- given today's topic -- President Obama is himself a great example of the more enlightened thread of faith.

To ignore the open and questioning tradition and to dwell only on the fundamentalist thread is disingenuous, or in Maher's case more likely simply ignorant. It's as if Maher had made a documentary on medicine and concentrated solely on the experiments done on duped prisoners and so forth, while ignoring Jonas Salk and his discovery of polio vaccine or the early African American leaders in nursing, such as the outstanding Mary Eliza Mahoney, who was the first black professional nurse in America.

Maher seemed unaware that there are intelligent contemporaries of his who are deeply religious and who have spent lifetimes thinking about faith in God in ways that are far from the absolutist verities of (mostly) North American evangelical/fundamentalism Maher set up to knock down. For instance, Maher ignored the late John Updike. (Updike was alive and well when the movie was being made.) Maher might also have interviewed then Senator, now President, Obama.

Had Maher interviewed Obama, he could have asked him about Obama's 2006 lecture on religion and public policy, delivered at the "Call to Renewal" event sponsored by the evangelical Sojourners group.

On that occasion, Obama described his faith. He also talked about how faith should or should not impact policy making. Obama castigated the elements of the secular community (people just like Maher) for being short-sighted in their anti-religious views.

As Obama said:

At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word 'Christian' describes one's political opponents, not people of faith...

I speak with some experience on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household... It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma...

That's a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans... It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values. And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse..."

Maher's attempt to put religious belief in its place only reinforces the fact that for most people, one belief system is always replaced by another. In an act of unintended self-parody at the end of his movie, Maher preaches a fiery sermon against religion, even begging moderate religious believers to abandon their faiths and convert to his point of view.

Like some old-time evangelist, Maher wants to save us from his version of hell via his version of a born-again experience. It's Maher's way or the Apocalypse. Where have I heard that before? It turns out Maher is just another fundamentalist sure he has all the answers.

Maher is as unthinkingly pro-atheist as he is ant-religious. In 2008 Maher asked Richard Dawkins -- who Maher worships -- about Dawkins' book The God Delusion. Dawkins said little about the book's content but exclaimed, "It's sold a million and a half copies!" Then Maher, like an enthusiastic puppy scampering around a big dog, yelped, "And now it's in paperback it will be even more available!"

Maher paused to take a breath then added, "I'm your biggest fan!" Then Dawkins (slipping into his rock star/guru mode) explained that he has so many fans because "I think people are getting a bit fed up with other people thrusting their imaginary friends down their throats."

Prompted by Maher, Dawkins also explained one of his other big ideas.

"There is a scale of One to Seven of atheism," said Dawkins, "but I'm only a Six on my scale." Dawkins laid out the details of the Atheism Sincerity Scale. "A One is a complete believer in God and a Seven is a total disbeliever."

Something was bothering Maher, and he asked, "Why are you only a Six? Why aren't you a Seven?"

Dawkins didn't miss a beat; "As a scientist I can't definitely commit to anything, including that there are no fairies!" Big laugh and cheers from both Maher and his audience. I think I actually heard Maher squeal.

The intellectually rigorous Dawkins/Maher exchange put me in mind of one of my favorite scenes in This is Spinal Tap that also had to do with numbers, dumb interviewers and pompous Englishmen.

Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...

Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty DiBergi: I don't know.

Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly! What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven?

Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly! One louder!

With critics like Maher (and the Republicans) President Obama needs no friends. I trust the president will remain as fortunate in his detractors throughout his presidency. He looks, sounds -- and is -- way ahead of them all.