Monday, 5 October 2009

Controversy as Bill Maher wins American atheist award

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An interesting controversy has broken out in the US following the announcement that comedian Bill Maher will receive the Atheist Alliance International's 2009 Dawkins Award, which is presented annually for this reason:
"The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins."
It's worth clarifying that the award is not given by Richard Dawkins, but is rather named in his honour by Atheist Alliance International, which is a coalition made up mostly of US atheist groups, along with a few others from around the world (none of the UK secular or humanist groups are members).

Maher, of course, was behind the 2008 comedy, religion-mocking, documentary Religulous, which came out here earlier this year, and it's for that reason that the AAI decided to present him with the Dawkins Award. However, Maher, while standing alongside atheists and rationalists on questions of religion, has some fairly unorthodox views on health care and medicine. Most notably, he blames poor diet for the poor health of many Americans, and argues that the answer is not modern medicine. This post at the Respectful Insolence blog helpfully points out some of Maher's past comments on the subject (there are many more in that post, too):
  1. "I'm not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic."
  2. "A flu shot is the worst thing you can do."
  3. "Well, I hate to tell you...but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there's ten times the likelihood that you'll get Alzheimer's disease."
  4. "A flu shot just compromises your immune system."
So, you can see why some free thinkers are having trouble with the idea of Maher winning an award which, in previous years, has been awarded to such sceptical heroes as James Randi, Ann Druyan and Daniel Dennett. PZ has blogged about this on Pharyngula, and he points out that Maher "is being given this award for making a movie this year that clearly promotes atheism and mocks religion, and that's all that is being endorsed," adding:
"Let's be clear about something else. This is atheism: we have no dogma, we have no infallible leaders, everyone is naturally flawed, and we recognize that within our ranks there is a huge diversity of opinion. Our strategy for dealing with these ideas is the same as the scientific approach — constant, relentless criticism. There is no Atheist Supreme Leader. There is no Atheist Pope. There is no Godless Ruling Council, no Atheist Inquisition, no Freethought Dogma."
It's an interesting controversy, as it raises the question of, if there is indeed something we could refer to as an atheist "movement", then what exactly is it for? If an organisation called the Atheist Alliance International has an annual award, then perhaps that award is purely for contributions to promoting atheism, in which case releasing a documentary called Religulous in cinemas around the world would seem like a good reason for winning it. But the AAI itself says the Dawkins Award is in part presented to those who promote "increased scientific knowledge", and the Maher quotes I included above demonstrate why he hasn't achieved much in that department.

I think this demonstrates why the groups operating in this country tend to talk about humanism, or rationalism, or freethought, or secularism, rather than just atheism – because all atheism means is not believing in a god. You can be an atheist and still believe lots of other unsubstantiated nonsense - this Maher controversy shows that. If we're promoting scepticism, critical thinking and a secular state we should do it under a banner of more than just atheism, because there are often many more important things as stake than simply the rejection of religion.

To throw this out to comments, what I'm asking is whether there is such a thing, or should be such a thing, as an atheist movement, and if so what would such a thing stand for?

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

This counter-argument smells like atheist-bureaucracy.

The fact is that the US faces far steeper opposition to atheism than in the UK. Maher is promoting Atheism in popular culture in a country that has Glenn Beck. The award he's receiving says nothing about promoting the concept of western medicine and the quoted comments are not anti-sciece; he is merely sharing his perspective on healthcare.

Congratulations to him for the award! It was well deserved.

Anonymous said...

There should never be a movement. Atheism is simple; the denouncing of religion.

I could go into detail as to why creating an umbrella movement for atheism would be awful, but instead I'll just tell you to go watch South Park episode 1012 (#151)"Go God Go".

Anonymous said...

"I'm not an atheist, though, because the belief that there is no God only mirrors the certitude of religion. No, I'm saying that doubt is the only appropriate response for human beings."
http://bit.ly/AKhLG

tauriqmoosa said...

@ Anonymous

Maher says: "Well, I hate to tell you...but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there's ten times the likelihood that you'll get Alzheimer's disease."

That is not "merely sharing his perspective on healthcare". This is a unverified statement, to put it bluntly, a lie. It is something verified via science through evidence. To say otherwise (that there is link between vaccination and Alzheimers or Autism) is either: because one has access to alternative evidence that shows otherwise, or one is anti-science.

skepacabra said...

Great blog. I've been frustrated with the Maher decision as well.

PozzSka said...

"I'm not an atheist, though, because the belief that there is no God only mirrors the certitude of religion. No, I'm saying that doubt is the only appropriate response for human beings."

I agree that doubt is the most appropriate response, but only to a point. Once the evidence is amassed and the claim being evaluated is supported sufficiently, a provisional claim must be made.

But, I disagree that atheism is as certain as religious belief. Atheism is a lack of belief, not a knowledge of non-existence.

Whether we can know if a god exists or not has not been answered, but "atheism" makes no claim to that. it is just a lack of belief.

Anonymous said...

I don't think having an Atheist organization/movement is such a difficult task, as long as we all agree on a few things.

1. God is imaginary
2. Religion causes mental retardation.

Through this common actuality (plus remaining outspoken with refined logical argument, and flat out religious bashing), we can achieve our goal of getting more & more of the next generation of the human race to turn to one another for problem solving and solidarity, rather than clinging to some invisible man in the sky. Religion is simply pathetic!

I'm all for Bill receiving the award, although his quoted comments are somewhat unlettered, but eh... why not Bill Maher if there's no better contestant?!

Joe Hayhurst said...

Yeah, lets start a movement. Then we can appoint leaders who will tell us what to think, wear and do. Then we can split the movement into sects and argue about whose is correct. Then we can have a few wars about it.

The religious already love to tell atheists (incorrectly) that atheism is like dogma, don't give them any more reason to believe that.

Better to stay as a moving target.

Elaine said...

I don't think there could ever be a religion-style atheist movement because I agree with whoever it was that said trying to get atheists to organize is like trying to herd cats. But even cats will gather around a big dish of tuna...The internet provides for a new type of movement where ideas can circulate and a consensus form without the need for didactic leaders. In that sense there already is an atheist movement and I feel that it is gathering momentum.

Sciolist said...

Why do we have to agree with everything he says to agree with part of what he says?

Also, "he blames poor diet for the poor health of many Americans" is hardly controversial is it? It's not like everything he has to say on healthcare is rubbish.

regime rapide said...

I think it is a challenge from a Christian perspective to live "in the world but not of it". People can use their beliefs (whatever they are) as a place to run and hide from reality or as a way of richly encountering and trying to make a difference. This kind of story and the person's response is rather pathetic, but hey, perhaps my main challenge ... Read Moreas a psychiatrist is dealing with people who just want to be anesthetized and have me change the world for them rather than wanting to grow as a person.

Neal said...

I am sure this blog is on the right lines. Being atheist is very single issue, a non belief in any god or gods. It does not actually make you for anything. The fact that most atheists seem to share a sceptical, rationalist, humanist kind of outlook confuses the issue. About the only thing you have to collectively rally around is persecution of other atheists in a sort of tribal sense. Alternatively the FFR type banner is possibly appropriate I'm not sure.

What people, me included, seem to want is to go forward with an umbrella group to belong to with shared values. Their seems many disparate alternatives at present for which atheism at present seems to me to get badly miscast to fill.

Why could someone not come up with a more acceptable name than 'Bright'? Sorry but it just falls for me on the very first hurdle. "I'm bright." No I don't think I can say it out loud.

Brooks Dobbs said...

There is a difference between atheism and rationalism. How Bill Maher can be rational enough to point out the consistency between god and the tooth fairy and then lack the rationality to be swayed by the overwhelming data on flu shots and vaccines is indeed strange and disheartening.

It will be when Steven Novella starts promoting Big Foot that I'll start to worry.

dawno said...

It seems that Bill Maher has lumped religion and medicine into the same category... don't trust anything that you can't figure out for yourself. Medicine, like religion, seems like a bit of hokus-pokus magic. You need a reason for living, believe in god. You get sick, you take a pill. Magic!
He is skeptical of remedies that he did not produce himself. This only shows his ignorance, no? Religion is a mixture of tradition and faith. Medicine is progressing based on scientific discoveries.
I saw Religulous. I laughed so hard in parts, and I recommended other people to watch it because it is an eye-opener for people who, maybe, haven't been exposed to the arguements opposed to religious dogma. And it was quite entertaining, from my perspective. If the film itself deserves an award, I would put my vote in. Bill Maher? I don't know... He's just another mammal, spouting what he thinks he knows.

Sacul said...

If you think you have to agree with all of someone's beliefs to celebrate some of them, then you are falling into the same trap as the religious sheep among us.
Bill Maher and his fantastic movie have advanced the cause of atheism and exposed the harm caused by organized religion around the world. The fact that Bill is doing this in the most religious Western country in the world is something worth recognizing.
Bill has many other opinions, including those on medical practices and recreational drug use, that are pretty tough to swallow for many rational people.
Who cares? I'm sure Glenn Beck has said something rational at some point...but his sheep remain in the flock.

Anon said...

Anything that concerns God and is organized by human beings to me is the most frightful thing.

I enjoyed religulous, it was entertaining. But that was it. It was kinda creepy though how Maher was going about telling other people that their beliefs were wrong... It reminded me of the religious.

Frankly, the thing that makes atheism so rational is that you don't need a strict belief system, organization, or any kind of 'I'm right you're wrong' mindset. It's not anyone's business. I don't believe in God. You do? I don't care. It's none of my business. And my belief is none of yours.

Anonymous said...

For what it is worth:

I am not a religious person but I find much atheistic expression in the popular realm too hostile and reactionary to serve as anything but commiseration on a common fear and/or dislike. I understand the problems many people have with religion, but I have encountered an equal amount of people who find solace where others find disgust and I think there is enough social benefit in religious belief to counter the negatives distortion and fanaticism have caused. Humans are violent and emotionally irrational by nature and quite at odds with the civility we have collectively designed and maintained (in the interest of relative comfort). Religious belief does not seem to be a prerequisite for selective intelligence and sadistic behavior, though I know many people believe that religion fuels such things.

But beyond a distrustful perspective towards religion I see a deeper problem, that of existential terror, which is not a philosophical condition as much as it is a reality of amplified awareness. And there is no cure for this condition but temporary respite from distractions or faith in a universal purpose or maker. Is a movement designed to express the common belief that we are all likely born temporal accidents in an amoral world of pain socially relevant? To those who have found an appropriate distraction or experience no anxiety in such a ‘knowledge’ an atheistic movement can give a communal sense of control and security. I am quite sure this is a movement that I can have no part of, though, as I do not have either the capacity to properly distract myself, nor the lack of anxiety necessary to find comfort therein.

I do not mean to say that a God is needed for moral belief or that atheism equates nihilism, but I think that despair is not dispelled in all minds in the same manner. Maybe it would be wise to consider the possibility that all evidence of personal conviction in either stance (religious and atheistic) is inevitably compromised by self-oriented perception and desire. Maybe no society can actually exist wherein the human species will find comfort without so-called irrational beliefs and the abuses caused through fanaticism are a side effect of a very necessary ‘evil’. I do know that mockery and ridicule will solve nothing but the arrogant desire to feel superior to those one does not intimately understand, and I believe the atheist mind is doing itself a disservice when it feeds the desire for everyone to share a common view on one of the most important matters to any thinking creature. Cheers and Godspeed.