I am an atheist.
When I was seven years old, my father told me that there was no God and that he was Santa Claus. I was upset about the Santa Claus part, but I put the "no God" revelation on hold until I could think about it properly and continued in my Catholic upbringing until I’d reached a point, around about fourteen or so, where I realised that my father was probably right.
However, my parents also raised me to be respectful of other people’s faiths and beliefs. I went to school with Jewish kids and Protestants. I went to school with kids, who were Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Holy Rollers, who played with snakes. Such was a rural upbringing in the South in the early Sixties. Whenever I sought to criticize another’s religious persuasion, my mother was quick to admonish:
"Those are their beliefs; don’t criticize them. That’s wrong."
I put that admonishment down to good breeding on her part, and, although I can honestly say I heard her dish the dirt on many a neighbour in a gossip-fest with one of her sisters or a neighbour, I can honestly say I never heard her condemn another person’s faith, religion of lack of either.
So, whilst I don’t believe in God, I don’t condemn or ridicule anyone who does, unless they seek to impose that belief on me and condemn my non-belief as wrong. Later on, after having left education, I realised that this philosophy is basically the tenet upon which our Constitution is founded – we have the freedom in our country to believe and worship or not to believe and not to worship and not be persecuted by anyone for our religious or non-religious choice.
This is why our government was founded, specifically, without any sort of established religion as part of its identity. Therefore, we are a secular nation. That a certain tranche of society within the country chooses to believe otherwise, chooses to believe that we are, in effect, a Christian nation, is a fallacy. It’s when they appropriate a particular faith – the Christian faith, or rather, the Protestant end of the Christian faith – attach it to the flag and wave it about, that it becomes distatesful, offensive and wrong.
It’s when the likes of Sarah Palin mounts the podium to proclaim the Christian Right as being in possession of the sole identity that is "Real America" which mirrors a particular brand of perverted Christianity, which is petty, mean, vulgar and exclusive. The Christianity I studied preached tolerance, inclusiveness, love and charity to all, without exception. A particular meme of the Catholicism of my childhood, as a matter of fact, appears, as well, in a teaching of Islam: love the sinner, hate the sin.
Throughout life, I’ve had friends who believed and friends who didn’t. Two of my closest friends from college are a practicing Catholic and a born-again Christian. They accepted my cynicism and secularism with openness and aplomb. We get along fine. They even pray for me in times of strife, and I thank them for that. It certainly can’t hurt. When they’re under duress, I let them know that they’re in my thoughts.
Hand-in-hand with that, my parents – lifelong Democrats and liberals – taught me, as well, that our kind, politically and socially, were traditionally tolerant and open-minded. We recognised change in society and changed with it.
So forgive me if I’ve spent the better part of my adult life believing that anyone to the left of the political scale was just that: tolerant and open-minded, because of late, I’ve seen a lot of the opposite on the Left side of the fence, and it’s not been pretty to see.
Friday night, I saw the worst sort of narrow-minded, ugly, bear-baiting intolerance come to the fore during the panel discussion on Real Time with Bill Maher.
And it concerned religion.
I must admit that I’ve long held Bill Maher’s atheism as suspect. For the longest time, until last September, Bill refused to be categorised as an atheist. An atheist, he’s on record as saying, is as definite in his belief that there is no God, as a fundamentalist Christian is in asserting that there is one. The truth is, he stated, we simply don’t know. When pressed, he actually admitted that he believed in a higher entity, just not the traditional God the Father image which is foisted on society as a whole.
He’s made this assertion, perfectly reasonable, in several interviews and even in his documentary Religulous, which was released in 2008. With this assertion, the closest definition of Bill’s belief was agnosticism. Then last September when he received the Richard Dawkins Award as "Atheist of the Year", all hell broke loose in the atheist community because Bill wasn’t an avowed atheist, but also because Bill, who presented himself as a rationalist who believed in science, actually only believed in science, as long as it didn’t pertain to medical science – or Western medicine, as Bill described it.
When various high-profiled atheists in the scientific community started questioning Richard Dawkins’s judgement in bestowing the award, Bill "admitted" his atheism.
Bill, who likes to joke about women doing anything for shiny objects, professed he was an atheist ... in order to receive a shiny object.
Two Fox News reporters have been known to "convert" to Islam in order to save their lives.
On Friday’s panel, Bill had the author S E Cupp as a first-time guest. I admit I didn’t know very much about the woman. She’s an author, a conservative and an atheist, who advocates for people of faith. She’s also very young.
Several people, avowed atheists in the blogosphere, have admitted difficulty in believing that she is, in fact, an atheist, because she has said that she accepts and understands why people believe in Christianity or whatever faith they follow, and because she has stated that, one day, it’s plausible that she, herself, might be open to the idea that there is a God.
I think, perhaps, those esteemed, blogging voices (many of whom are probably very young and/or very obtuse), take more exception with the fact that Miss Cupp is a conservative, rather than her unusually open-minded view of religion and religious followers. Let’s fact it: "conservative" and "atheist" juxtaposed is the most curious of oxymorons.
On Friday night, Bill Maher, with a copy of Cupp’s book in hand, asked her if she didn’t consider people who believed in God as "delusional". This is what Bill thinks. He never forgets to tell us this at every opportunity – that people who believe in God suffer from a neurological disorder – to the deafening applause of his studio audience.
And so, he asked Cupp, fellow atheist, this selfsame question.
He didn’t get the answer he expected.
Cupp replied that she didn’t think believers were deluded. Bill asked her again, clearly not believing the answer he heard the first time, and she reaffirmed her reply, even enhancing it by saying that she knew many intelligent, articulate, well-informed people who believed in God and were in no way deluded.
But Bill pressed on, insisting, unwilling to believe that another person, a non-believer, could be so openly accepting of people of faith.
"Look," Cupp tried to explain, "I totally buy into faith and religion. It works for some people." And she proceeded to explain how various studies had shown that people with religious faith were happier in themselves and how these sorts of people seemed to respond well and benefit from various medical treatments, due to their abiding faith; but still Bill pressed on, determined to get her to admit that religious people were delusional, determined to wear her down, until suddenly, Cupp snapped:
"I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God, but I’m not the one who’s angry with Him."
For one split second, there was a deafening silence before more than a smattering of applause erupted. Bill, for his part, had the panic-stricken look of a deer caught in the headlights of a car.
A raw nerve had been touched and brutally, if unintentionally, exposed. S E Cupp, who – prior to that evening – had never met Bill Maher before, had exposed his Achilles’ heel for all to see, read and comprehend.
For this man is not an atheist; he is someone who believes in and is angry with God and, by extension, religion.
There followed, for the next fifteen minutes, one of the ugliest examples of bigotry, intolerance and close-mindedness I’ve ever seen on any television screen. That it emanated from one who sees himself as a spokesperson for the Progressive Left was positively sickening.
One of the other panelists was Cory Booker, the newly re-elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey – a Democrat and a Christian. Booker never referred to his beliefs as a Christian, but entered the discussion in order to give some concrete examples of how Christians, through their religious organisations, can make a difference in communities and how various churches do, in some instances, work well in areas of deprivation and poverty.
It was at that particular instance that we saw Bill suddenly morph into Bill O’Reilly. He repeatedly cut Booker and Cupp off mid-sentence, refusing to let them get any point across and directly criticizing and belittling Booker for his faith.
Booker was summarily "reminded" by Bill that every war that had ever been fought was fought because of religion, that religion causes people’s deaths, that every ill in the world could be traced directly back to a person’s religious faith. Each time Booker sought to retort – logically – Bill swathed his every remark. When Booker attempted to get a word in edgeways by remarking that Bill didn’t know everything, Bill replied, prissily, "You’re the ones who know everything, like what happens after death!"
Booker objected strenuously, saying that he certainly didn’t know, but then retorted that he didn’t care to hear anymore of what Bill had to say, that Bill was beginning to sound more and more like the proselytising fire-and-brimstone Baptist preachers he regularly excoriated. "You’re intolerant," he stated with finality.
Thus, occurred the second split-second pin-drop moment, followed by the audience’s applause. The camera caught Bill, on live television, looking like a small child who’d been roundly told off by his parents for naughtiness. He looked near tears.
"I’m not intolerant," he protested, weakly, before accusing Booker of saying he was prejudiced and explaining in the most pedantic manner that he wasn’t pre-judgmental at all, merely judgmental, without ever realising in his hubris, that both were inherently wrong.
The whole exchange dominated the entire twenty minutes allocated for the panel portion of the show and afforded the reptilian Darrell Issa summary accordance, subsequently, to interrupt Booker’s explanation of the Miranda rule, just in time for Bill to call a halt to the proceedings for New Rules.
Although I was appalled by the episode, I wasn’t surprised in the least. Bill’s behaviour is something that’s becoming as common amongst people who purport to be a part of the Progressive Left as it is their Rightwing, teabagging counterparts. These people aren’t on the street, waving pictures of Obama as Hitler or a witch doctor, or spitting at Congressmen; but they’re hunched over laptops, tapping out four-lettered insults to anyone who doesn’t pass the purity test of agreeing lockstep with what they perceive to be accepted liberal dogma. They abhor racism, but they laugh at Bill referring to the President as "President Sanford and Son". They nod in agreement when he derides the state of Arizona’s inordinate treatment of the Latino population, but see nothing wrong with Bill’s alpha male admonition to the Muslim community that they’d better honour our First Amendment – in other words, our way or the highway.
These are people who consider Dylan Ratigan the height of journalism, not only when he shouts down a conservative "guest" to the point that he doesn’t allow the man the opportunity to answer at all, before flinging an ad hominem epithet his way and ending the interview in feigned disgust, but also when he screams insults at Debbie Wasserman Schulz, a Congresswoman and a breast cancer survivor, for her support of what he perceived to be a flawed healthcare bill.
These are people who attack anyone, even of their own political persuasion, if they admit to a nominal belief in God. Pardon me, but I thought our Constitution and our country abhorred any persecution of any faith. And I also thought my atheism was simply my lack of belief, not a dogma to be imposed on others as right. What’s right for me is not right for anyone else. Bill pointed out, quite rightly, to S E Cupp that communism was a state religion of sorts. Atheism is not a religion by any means, and people who proselytise it as the right way, the only way are as bad as those people who condemn anyone who doesn’t accept Christ as the only way to eternal hell.
He sounds like a male version of Sarah Palin, just as snarky, exclusive and mean. When I ran across a remark made by one of his biggest fans recently, a woman who is a former politician and living in the Pacific Northwest, commenting derisively that she supposed Bill had encountered "some dots of intelligent life in flyover country" after his return from stand-up in Indiana and Wisconsin, I knew then that – although he may not intend it – he’s becoming a demagogue to people who are so bereft of the capability to think and opinionate for themselves, that they parrot his own attitudes and beliefs, no matter that they are as inconsistent as the mood in which he awakens every morning.
This year, he derided S E Cupp her ability to speak out, as an atheist, for people of faith. Last year, he commended Brad Pitt, another self-avowed atheist, for his commitment to doing so. People who believe in God or practice a religion are delusional and suffer from a neurological disorder, yet Bill pals around with practicing Catholics Chris Matthews, Michael Moore, Paul Begala and P J O’Rourke. Please don’t tell me he’s trying to convert them.
Maybe they remember Bill in their prayers. Maybe he secretly wants to be like them. Maybe it’s time certain people who purport to be part of the Progressive Left, check their exact position on the political spectrum – because if you move far enough to the Left, you come out on the Right ... and neocons are lapsed liberals.