I’ve always really liked Bill Maher. He’s a great comedian. In recent years, he’s become much more of a political cause célèbre on the left and in atheist circles. But I’ve always liked seeing him at his concerts where people start cheering and he would settle them down and say, “It’s not a rally.” Indeed, it isn’t. And Bill Maher, while certainly bright and reasonably well informed, is no political analyst. He tends toward libertarianism of the “glibertarian” variety. But by far, he is most clueless when it comes to religion. But maybe I’m being too harsh, because pretty much all of the prominent atheists are pretty clueless. As an atheist, I find them offensive when I don’t find them simply silly. I really wish they would take the name “antitheists” and leave the rest of us alone.
Maher wrote an article last week, Pope Frank: Papal Pleaser. I hate to find myself in the position of defending the Catholic Church, but it seems to be one of the burdens in my life. They believe in a bunch of hokus pokus. But they also do a lot of good scholarship and I appreciate their theology — or at least I appreciate that they have a theology that they take seriously. A good critique of Catholicism (and Christianity more generally) can be found in Garry Wills’ writing, like Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition But people like Maher know little of what they complain about.
Maher can’t even get past the first sentence without annoying me:
Not really. Many Americans seem to think that the papacy started with John Paul II. All right, that’s an overstatement. But I was amazed for decades that most Americans considered John Paul II a good and even liberal pope. He was anything but. I think it’s his face. He seemed like a friendly guy, but he was as regressive as Pope Benedict XVI who followed him. Pope Francis is exactly in the tradition of Pope John XXIII. So he is very much my father’s Holy Father. (Although my father is a Catholic in the same way that Graham Greene was.)
This is all very Franciscan of him. And what is important is Francis is showing some humility. Too often, Christians confront tragedy with, “God works in mysterious ways!” They don’t try to second guess God when he sees fit to kill 300,000 people with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But when it comes to whether gays or heretics go to hell, such Christians know. The funny thing is, I suspect that John Paul and Benedict would have said the same thing had it come up. But they weren’t the kind to push it. Francis is the kind to push it and that’s a good thing.
Affirmation of the big bang and evolution is nothing new. The Catholic Church does not have a literalist view of the Bible. (In general, they don’t much encourage the congregation to read it because — and they are right about this — it is a difficult book.) So as early as 1950, the Catholic Church accepted evolution. And in general, they have followed along with the scientific consensus. Again, I feel odd being in this position, but compare this to most American protestants who are science-hating fideists. Regardless, Maher is making a big deal out of ways that Pope Francis is supposedly going out of his way to appear liberal, but that just isn’t the case.
I appreciate the joke, and so would Pope Francis. But much more than Francis, Pope John XXIII was especially known for his sense of humor. I’m actually rather fond of this one: “In reply to a reporter who asked, ‘How many people work in the Vatican?,’ he reportedly said: ‘About half of them.'” It’s even funnier in Latin.
The problem is not in the pope, it is in Bill Maher — and many other American liberals, I dare say. And this is delusional. Maher thinks the pope is crazy for some of the things that he does and believes? I think Maher is crazy to think that the Roman Catholic Church would put someone in charge of itself who would dismantle the church as Maher would clearly prefer.
Pope Francis is not a liberal in the sense that I’m a liberal — at least on religious issues. But he is a liberal in the sense that he is liberalizing the church. (Also and critically: he is a liberal on economic issues, but that is a matter for another time.) But this liberalism has mostly to do with fighting corruption in the Catholic Church; holding people accountable for the cover up of child rape; perhaps even reform on divorce. But we won’t see it change on birth control, much less abortion. We won’t see it change on the acceptability of homosexual relations. We won’t see female priests or even married priests. This is the Catholic Church — it moves slower than glaciers in a non-global warming world.
So finally we get to what Bill Maher is upset about. The pope didn’t make a bold stand against exorcisms. Boo hoo! With all the problems in the Catholic Church and all the challenges that face Francis, I find it hard to believe that Maher really thinks a fight on exorcisms is a good use of his time and resources. I get it: exorcisms are ridiculous. The problem is that Jesus did them throughout the Synoptic Gospels. So to get rid of them would be to get rid of the priesthood. And as with Garry Wills, I’m all for that! But it is totally unreasonable to expect such a thing from the head of the Catholic Church.
Actually, Maher isn’t completely right here. Rituals (secular and nonsecular) can help people. I would recommend that Maher spend some time reading the extensive literature of the positive effects of placebos. In this statement, we get what I consider typical New Atheist hubris: ignorance posing as authority based upon science he doesn’t fully understand. As for the other comment, I suspect he’s right: Francis is staying on script because this is not a fight that is worth starting. And that raises the ultimate question: why did Maher even write his blog post?
Maher ends with a good line that nonetheless makes me bristle:
My guess is that Pope Francis really is a believer, but not a stupid one. I’m sure he feels God’s love, even as I am pretty sure it’s just a harmless delusion. I kind of doubt that he believes in demons taking over people — or even the existence of demons. He’s a sophisticated man. But I find it hard to accept that it is all a charade.
The problem with the comment is the old atheist’s scoff at the difference between “religious” and “spiritual.” This is a problem I have a lot when discussing ontology with fellow nonbelievers: they pretend to be ignorant about things they can’t possibly be ignorant about. When people claim to be spiritual rather than religious, they mean that they have thoughts about the nature and cause of existence but they don’t follow any dogma. And that makes the “spiritual” people — silly as they often are — infinitely more benign than religious people.
Regardless, Pope Francis is a force for good in the world because he is moving the Catholic Church in a positive direction. The question is not whether Francis is doing everything that we would hope he would do. The question is whether we are better off with a Catholic Church led by Francis or Raymond Burke. Bill Maher’s article is just an excuse to complain about one of the many silly aspects of the Catholic Church. That’s fine, but he shouldn’t use it to slam Pope Francis, when even Maher understands (and I assume agrees with) what the pope is doing.
H/T: Infidel753 (I stole a small part of my comment there.)