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Bill Maher gets it right … and wrong

(Photo: Reuters/Fred Prouser)
(Photo: Reuters/Fred Prouser)

Not even a decade ago, television personality Bill Maher had cemented his brand of snarky atheism and political leftism. His crass, snide, and often irrationally irreligious humor infuriated many and led to an earlier show being canceled, not to mention plenty of gigs. For a couple of years now, however, many of his former critics have noted something new: how often he’s willing to say out loud what many on the left are not.  

In a monologue on last Friday’s episode of his HBO series, "Real Time with Bill Maher," which I cannot officially recommend given the language and perverse humor, Maher offered a thorough defense of Israel and Western civilization: 

For all the progressives and academics who refer to Israel as an outpost of Western civilization, like it’s a bad thing, please note: Western civilization is what gave the world pretty much every [expletive] liberal precept that liberals are supposed to adore. Individual liberty, scientific inquiry, rule of law, religious freedom, women’s rights, human rights, democracy, trial by jury, freedom of speech. Please, somebody, stop us before we enlighten again. 

He went on to note that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where these societal goods can be found and even said that the world would be a lot better off “if it had more Israels.” The plight of marginalized peoples everywhere is better off, Maher noted, because of the supposedly toxic West that anti-Israeli protestors deride. 

Maher then offered a mini-history on the evolution of human rights, detailing a host of thinkers through the ages who articulated, argued for, and built the freedoms we now enjoy. It was, after all, only from the ideals brewed in Western culture that people like Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to launch crusades against racial oppression and American segregation. It was from the writing of thinkers such as Jean Jacque Rousseau and Voltaire that the U.N.’s well-devised, even if poorly applied, Declaration of Human Rights was birthed. In a point dripping with his typical snarkiness, Maher pointed out that no one studies the great prophet of liberty, John Locke, anymore, “because he’s so old and so white and so dead.” He ended by noting how few of those he was critiquing would even take seriously what he said because they are too committed to a way of seeing everything through the lens of predetermined oppressors and the oppressed. 

I, like many, disagree with Maher on multiple things, but I also find it fascinating the number of cynics and skeptics today who seem to be rethinking everything now that they’ve been confronted with the ideas that have replaced religion in the West. At a conference last week, former politician and human rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali described herself as a “Judeo-Christian” and atheist Richard Dawkins as a “Christian,” not because either believe in a God per se or the resurrectionbut because the values they want in the world rely on a specific kind of world, one created with moral norms inherent to it. 

Which, in fact, brings up just what Bill Maher left out in his otherwise thoughtful and compelling monologue. As you might expect from the guy behind the faith-despising faux-documentary Religulous, he’s not quite ready to admit the role of religion in cultivating liberty and human rights. Because Voltaire and Rousseau were anti-religious, they are safe to mention. Locke and King are often praised almost in spite of their deep faith, which Maher never mentioned. 

In fact, Maher started his history of Western civilization too late, describing men who inherited a tradition as if they had started it. Put differently, to begin the story of Western civilization with Henry David Thoreau or John Locke is kind of like beginning the storied history of the Boston Celtics with Paul Pierce. Yeah, he was good, but Bill Russell! 

In his book, A Brief History of Thought, Luc Ferry, also an atheist, identified and clearly articulated the true source of the West’s most important and consequential ideas:   

"Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance." 

In other words, without the principles that emerge from Holy Scriptures, which simmered for centuries in Jewish and Christian thought, the world would never have benefited from the insights of a Jefferson or a Locke. The biblical view of the world, especially its description of the inherent value and moral nature of the human person, is the only basis for freedom in all of human history. The ideas Maher rightly celebrates are not only good ones, they are true. Without their religious roots, they cannot be sustained, certainly not from atheism. Maher is right to look to an earlier foundation for our civilization. He just needs to look back even further. 


Originally published at BreakPoint. 

John Stonestreet serves as president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on areas of faith and culture, theology, worldview, education and apologetics.  
Timothy D. Padgett (PhD) is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint.org with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His focus is on cultural engagement, living out the Christian worldview, and the way Christians argue for diverse viewpoints while sharing a common biblical foundation?particularly regarding the relationship between church and state, Christ and culture, and war and peace.

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