In defense of atheism

October 31, 2008

I WAS surprised to read Scott Johnson's ("Turning ordinary people into punch lines") and Alessandro Tinonga's ("Atheists and Islamophobes") responses to Bill Maher's recent film Religulous.

My surprise wasn't about liking or not liking the film (I agree with a good deal of Johnson's criticism of the movie). Rather, my surprise was in the suggestion, in Johnson's case, that the only reasonable look at religion in society is a nuanced and sympathetic one; and in Tinonga's, that there is something wrong with being an atheist, or at least being "militant" about it.

While I absolutely agree with Tinonga that religiosity should not be a litmus test socialists use in building struggles, I also don't think we should be shy about being atheists, or about insisting on rational, scientific thought to guide human society.

I haven't read the books that Tinonga focuses on in much of his letter. However, I have seen Religulous, and it is a major stretch (and, frankly, obnoxious) to call Maher a "militant atheist cretin," and to argue that he is defending free-market capitalism as a utopia.

In fact, Maher's closing message is that society faces utter destruction because of such modern realities as nuclear weapons and global warming, and that humans should address these issues rationally and urgently, versus waiting for divine intervention.

Johnson is absolutely correct to call out Maher for Zionism and for the outrageous way he portrays Islam and Muslims in his film. In fact, this is what is wrong with most of Maher's arguments on Real Time--for example, the sort of "pox on all your houses" that leaves him up siding with the wrong people.

The only piece that Johnson left out, though, is that well over three-quarters of the movie is dedicated to his critique of Christianity. In that, I would have to defend the film for spending most of its time on absolutely the right target.

I also understood the scene with the truckers in the roadside church differently. In fact, this is the only scene where Maher interviews actual worshippers, and I think in this case he was actually quite respectful of them, repeatedly stressing that these are smart, hard-working people (his words), so why would they believe in the fantastical stories of the bible.

To be sure, Maher skewers others who, frankly, deserve to be skewered--whether they were ambushed or not, whether Maher had every one-liner rehearsed to a "T" or not.

Bigots who preach "conversion" away from the "homosexual lifestyle" get no sympathy from me. No amount of nuance excuses scam artists milking working-class worshippers while they live high on the hog. Employees at creationist museums and evangelical theme parks (and the anti-Semitic visitors waiting for the "rapture" whom Maher ridicules) are not working-class heroes--they hold up some of the most backward ideas in society and deserve the scorn Maher heaps on them.

Moreover, it is not accurate to say that Maher only mocks and ridicules. For example, I found his conversation with the Vatican astronomer fascinating--precisely because this astronomer was defending evolution, science and rational thought from the inner sanctum of the Vatican! That's some nuance, I'd say.

Yes, Maher is a megalomaniac (and Michael Moore isn't?). Yes, he tries--and fails--to use humor to give cover to reactionary ideas about Islam in this movie. Yes, he should absolutely be taken to task for that.

But the central message in this movie--that humans have created the mess we find ourselves in, and only humans will get us out of it--is a welcome one. His call for a-religious people to influence public and political debates more effectively is the right call--and hardly a defense of the status quo.

Most of all, to critique this movie by downplaying atheism is a terrible mistake, not least for being misrepresentative of socialist politics. Especially because this movie (to my knowledge) is not being screened by anti-Muslim racists or the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee at their fundraisers.

Instead, a major part of the praise for this movie comes from people who are rightly fed up with the influence of Christianity on politics in this country, and who are looking for alternatives. This may not be the central audience for socialist politics in an age of war and economic crisis, but an important one nonetheless. Being open and direct about atheism and Marxism seems the better choice.
Jeff Bale, Lansing, Michigan

Further Reading

From the archives