Saturday, July 26, 2008

Maher Unamused by God

Someone showed me a copy of Playboy magazine in which appeared an article by comedian Bill Maher concerning a book he's about to publish. The book apparently attacks all religion. I think the illustration of Maher that accompanied the article was meant to be flattering, but it didn't seem so.

The article mentions an image of a giant in Ireland (I think), carved into a hillside. The reference is meant to illustrate that people will preserve religious images long after the particular religion has died, but the real purpose of the reference is, predictably, to go for a penis-joke. Then Maher slides over to more established religions and mocks the opulence of the Vatican. Gee, that's a new one. Finally he gets to his point, which is apparently that belief in "groundless" things leads to all manner of evil.

That the article should appear in Hefner's surreal, exhausted magazine is itself amusing--an attack on religion sandwiched between the ultimate Middle Schooler's airbrushed, Barbie-esque nudes and lame cartoons. More amusing is the sense one gets that Maher takes himself seriously as a critic of religion and as a "thinker," and that he imagines he's breaking new ground. I think he may also believe he's being slightly mischievous as he attacks religion. On his HBO show, he often gets a look on his face that suggests he thinks he's being quite daring. "Watch this: I'm going to say the F-word!"

Well, if groundlessness is the criterion, he should also attack everything else human. It's not as if science is based on solid ground, for example. Just ask Hume--or Einstein. The more science discovers, the more Jello-like becomes the "ground" on which it's based. Also, what is more absurd--religion or stand-up comedy? A priest or a diminutive fellow wearing makeup and reading from a tele-prompter? I should think it's at least a toss-up.

I think one key to a humorous and by no means stupid fellow like Maher is, ironically, his naivete. He seems ultra-hip, ultra-cynical, and jaded. When he was on top of the mass-media world with a show called Politically Incorrect, he fashioned himself a gadfly who would say all manner of offensive things, allegedly insulting the "politically correct" [whatever that means] Left and the prudish Right. Ah, but who fired him and for what? His corporate bosses fired him for suggesting that terrorists who blow themselves up are braver than American pilots who drop bombs. So, of course, it wasn't feminists or professors or multicultural theorists or pastors' wives in Nebraska who got offended and censored him by firing him. It was the corporate suits. And for some reason, he didn't see it coming: that was the surprising part. He seemed to assume his carefully modulated mischief, with good ratings, wouldn't piss off the corporate types. Oops, one slip, and you're out.

Now, like Christopher Hitchens, he seems to have discovered atheism and wants to tell the world. Next, I suppose, will come some breaking news about gravity. As a friend of mine (an atheist and politically radical person) used to say, "Get in the game," meaning: People have been having these arguments about religion since religion came on the scene. Nothing Maher asserts hasn't been asserted more effectively than by writers in the tradition, including contemporary ones like Garry Wills. And then there's this: the atheist jokes aren't that funny. I think there's probably a more productive comic vein to mine at this point than religion, just as there may be a slightly more daring magazine (ya think?) than Playboy. In other words, snore. Bertrand Russell is a lot funnier than Bill Maher when it comes to atheism, and Bertrand is dead.

The one fellow on Maher's show recently who seemed to get the better of him was Russell Simmons, the record producer and inventor of Def Poetry Jam. Maher was mocking how ego-maniacal most Hip Hop artists seemed to him, and Russell Simmons merely observed, ". . Whereas you have no ego?"

God must be quaking in the celestial boots after hearing about Maher's impending attack.
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