The religious fanaticism of Bill Maher

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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I saw a clip the other day of Bill Maher casually referring to Republicans as “a**holes.” That’s hardly news, and is in fact typical of the discourse-poisoning invective that caused Maher to be widely blamed by the mainstream media for the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. (Or maybe they didn’t blame him; I forget.) But when I pondered what causes Maher to be so contemptuously dismissive of a plurality of his fellow Americans, an unlikely suspect emerged: Maher’s religious beliefs.

Now ostensibly, Maher has no religious beliefs. He is a self-described apatheist, which means that he follows no religion and is disinterested in the existence or non-existence of a higher being. That is a personal choice that I will not criticize. But Maher’s apatheism has not stopped him from behaving like the religious fanatics that he so despises.

Maher embodies the worst traits that he ascribes to people of faith: He holds his left-wing views not with mere passion, which I could respect, but with downright certitude (if I may attempt to reclaim a word forever made icky by Anthony Weiner). He is therefore completely intolerant of those whose views differ from his own.

Maher’s attitudes mirror not those of the typical religious believer, but rather those of the extremist who is drawn to religion for all the wrong reasons. Since Maher believes in no higher being, his political ideology is left, by default, in the paramount position of importance that others reserve for their religion. His ideology has become his religion. And he attacks those who are heretics against his secular faith with a fervor that can only be described as religious.

I coined the term “secular fundamentalist” to describe people like Maher. Mr. Google now rudely informs me that others coined it first. I use the term to refer to those on the left who are largely secular (not necessarily atheist or apatheist) but who channel their pent-up “religious fanaticism” through their politics. I do not claim that this describes most people on the secular left. Nor do I deny that there are intolerant people on the right, but we already have the mainstream media to tell us that every day.

Secular fundamentalism fills an important void for those who have rejected religion but nonetheless harbor many of the worst instincts that cause certain people to embrace religion. Secular fundamentalism allows non-believers to experience the thrill of religious bigotry without having to put up with the nuisance of religion.

I’m not putting intolerance against conservatives on the same level as the severe historical racism and bigotry that African-Americans and others have endured. But the underlying elements of this ideological intolerance are identical to those of bigotry: the emotional need to feel superior to the “other”; the need to demonize, dehumanize and demean the “other” rather than accepting respectful disagreement; the mean-spirited smearing of entire groups based upon the actions of a few; the use of unfair judgments and double standards to maintain the myth that one’s group is inherently superior to others; and the complete absence of the self-honesty to acknowledge that all of this is going on.

While secular fundamentalists are scornful of all conservatives, there is a special place in Secular Hell for conservatives who happen to be African-American or female. The most visceral hatred is reserved for them. It is an article of secular fundamentalist faith that liberal/left ideology is the only acceptable worldview for African-Americans and women; those race traitors and gender traitors who dare to think independently must be made examples of, like runaway slaves.

Secular fundamentalists are rightly offended by the notion that immutable characteristics such as race and gender should limit what people are allowed to achieve, but nonetheless imply that such characteristics should limit what people are allowed to think.

We were recently treated to the spectacle of liberal activist comic Jon Stewart mocking GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain in an Amos ‘n’ Andy voice, proclaiming his aversion to reading. Would Stewart have done that to Jesse Jackson? Watching Stewart’s shtick reminded me of those clueless, tone-deaf white liberals who used to think that they could get away with using the “N” word because they were “down” with the Black Man.

The fact that Stewart indeed got away with what he did exposes a double standard: African-American conservatives are fair game for abuse, even racial abuse, in a way that African-American liberals are not. Such double standards are like sugar-free desserts for secular fundamentalists, allowing them to indulge their impulses without guilt.

Speaking of Stewart, his recent shoot-out with Fox News’s Chris Wallace touched on some of the comforting myths that secular fundamentalists use to assure themselves of their intellectual superiority to conservatives. “Who is (sic) the most consistently misinformed media viewers?” railed Stewart, his sense of righteous indignation overwhelming his sense of grammar. “The most consistently misinformed. Fox. Fox viewers. Consistently. Every poll.”

The one bad thing about myths, of course, is that they aren’t true. The Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact.com rated Stewart’s claim “False” on its famous Truth-O-Meter.

One of the polls that Stewart was referring to rated respondents “informed” for believing that Obamacare will not increase the federal deficit. Well then count me in as a flaming ignoramus, because I firmly believe that the cost of Obamacare will explode way beyond the price tag that its proponents were able to squeeze out of the CBO with rigged assumptions. I hold that belief, no doubt, because of the propaganda I’ve been spoon-fed by whoever issues the Marching Orders at Fox News — or perhaps because I have a Wharton MBA and actually understand economics.

Secular fundamentalists indeed have an unhealthy need to feel intellectually superior to conservatives, and no one works harder to satisfy that need than Bill Maher. His methods are intellectually dishonest. He selects targets that he thinks are easy such as the “Tea Baggers,” and ridicules their intelligence as a way of ridiculing conservatism. But if the “Tea Baggers” are so stupid, then why do so many really smart people completely agree with them on the issues they champion — i.e., the need to restore fiscal sanity and limit the role of government?

I would love to see Maher engage in a serious debate with a conservative intellectual on the Tea Party’s issues. (At this point, Generic Liberal Comic quips that “conservative intellectual” is an oxymoron; yuk, yuk, yuk, yuk …) Since Maher purports to venerate logic and reason in eschewing the superstition of religion, he should also agree to eschew the crutches that he uses as substitutes for logic and reason — name-calling, glib generalizations, comic “ironies” that work as humor but don’t hold up under intellectual scrutiny, etc.

I have no doubt that under those ground rules, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Paul Ryan, Thomas Sowell, Steve Hayes, Larry Kudlow and any number of smart conservatives would wipe the floor with Maher. We’ll let Maher try to convince America that we should be more like Greece.

Watching Maher attack religious fundamentalists reminds me of the pop psychology you see in the movies: “No wonder you guys can’t get along. You’re too much alike!” Intolerant people on the left and the right are indeed alike, and maybe we should put them off in a separate room to discover all the things they have in common. The reduction in noise might allow the rest of us to have an adult conversation, which is a lot easier to do when you don’t have a childish need to feel superior to those with whom you disagree.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.