Bill Maher brings to light bias, hidden prejudice against atheism
Bill Maher is a political comedian known for his outspoken liberal views. He’s also an outspoken atheist who frequently criticizes religion. While many other liberal pundits are critical about conservative or institutional religion, Maher is the only one attacking religion as a whole.
So it was special to see President Barack Obama finally appear as a guest on the show and have a frank discussion about atheism in America. Obama, as someone who constantly seeks compromise, often played it safe and tried not to be aggressive. Still, it’s heartening seeing a sitting president tell an atheist to his face that atheists are as much a part of the U.S. as any religion’s followers.
Maher began by thanking Obama for mentioning atheists in his inaugural address, then moved on to our (atheists) lack of political representation: “If our numbers were represented, there’d be over a hundred congress-people who felt that way. It just seems like we are not included in the basket of diversity in America, which is odd because we are the biggest minority.”
Obama admitted that there is bias against atheists, but we should focus on “active persecution.” Obama is correct that there’s a hidden prejudice — atheism isn’t as obvious as the color of our skin or a particular style of dress. It’s a mental attitude.
But according to a 2015 poll, only 58 percent of U.S. citizens would vote for an atheist for president. That’s the second-lowest group overall. If you listen to many U.S. citizens speak, they blame lack of religion for all the country’s problems. This belief is especially common in conservative circles. Even in the Democratic party, there was discussion of using Bernie Sanders’ alleged atheism against him.
When Obama said, “I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are,” he ignores how pervasive passive declarations of faith are. How many coworkers have you had who’ve kept a cross on their desks, or their favorite Bible verse or a little religious icon? If an atheist were to have something similar, like a Darwin fish, that can invite controversy.
Maher then asked if religion in the U.S. holds science back. Obama responded, “I think that the issues we have with science these days are not restricted to what’s happening with respect to religion . . . I think the problem here is that in our school systems . . . you start seeing this weird watering down of scientific fact, so that our kids are growing up in an environment . . . where everything’s contested; because, if it’s on Facebook, it all looks the same.”
He’s absolutely right about schools weakening our science curriculum, but he plays it safe by not mentioning the biggest controversies — evolution and climate change. Although everything should be available to scientific inquiry, when science routinely settles on an answer, we should accept it. Evolution is the center of biology, and only those in the religious right doubt it. It’s the same for physics and chemistry — when they disagree with the Bible, many conservative religious people reject science.
“If our democracy is to function in a complicated diverse society like this, [we must] teach our kids enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable,” Obama said, ending the segment. “And we seem to have trouble with that.”
That call to reason and knowledge is exactly one of the virtues we need.