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Don’t Know Much About Theology Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Thursday, 14 October 2010

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were watching an episode of “The O’Reilly Factor” in which the host, Bill O’Reilly, was interviewing Bill Maher, a comedian and host of HBO’s “Real Time.” They were discussing religion, with the focus on Christianity. Neither one seemed to know much about the topic, though Mr. O’Reilly seemed slightly better informed. And this on the Fox News channel, which is supposed to be friendly to traditional religious faith.

Mr. Maher, if you did not know already, is particularly hostile to Christianity, saying things about Christians – their intellectual powers and the rationality of their beliefs – that would not be tolerated if it were one religious believer speaking about another. If Maher, for example, were a Fundamentalist Christian and said on national television that Islam is a false religion, he would be excoriated for being “Islamophobic.” But because Maher maintains that all religions are false, he is hailed as an edgy freethinker and a courageous comic willing to speak truth to power. You are a bigot, apparently, if you think one religion is true and all others false. But if you think no religion true and thus all of them false, you are a paragon of cultural sophistication.

To give you an idea of Mr. Maher’s intellectual acumen, consider this comment, from his 2008 documentary, “Religulous”: “The only attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt.” Yes, arrogance is bad, to be sure. It is a character flaw that each of us should avoid. But if “arrogant certitude” about the big questions is to be shunned, and the nature of man is a big question, then is it not arrogant certitude for Mr. Maher to claim that he offers to his audience the “only attitude for man to have about the big questions?” 

That is, Mr. Maher maintains that there are no legitimate alternatives to his understanding of the scope and limits of human cognitive powers – a narrow dogma. There cannot be, as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “sufficient motive” for the believer to believe because “he is moved by the authority of divine teaching confirmed by miracles, and what is more, by the inward instigation of the Divine invitation.” The Christian believer, for Mr. Maher, is always mistaken if he claims to know that his beliefs are true. And Mr. Maher knows this for certain.


    Bill Maher preaching to the choir

So Mr. Maher’s advice about how to respond to certitude about big questions has provided us with the grounds for rejecting his prescription: doubt. “Faith,” he says in his film, “means making a virtue out of not thinking.” Mr. Maher, apparently, then, is a man of faith and virtue. 

It would require little effort to go through a dozen or more of Mr. Maher’s similar claims over the past decade. Perhaps this is because he lacks formal training, or even a modest acquaintance with a whole library of arguments and points of view on the rationality of religious beliefs. And yet this deficiency has not diminished the number of invitations from leading media outlets to Mr. Maher to offer his “insights.” Evidently, network executives, website managers, and radio show producers who would never interview Paris Hilton on the content of recent peer-reviewed research in organic chemistry, have no problem in giving air time and server space to a philosophical and theological illiterate on matters philosophical and theological.

Although it is tempting to attribute this phenomenon to media hostility toward traditional Christians, I think it runs even deeper than that. What seems to dominate our media culture is the unspoken and undefended understanding that religious belief may never rise to the level of knowledge, or that believers can never possess reasonable arguments for their points of view. This is why you rarely if ever see on any of the major news programs intelligent, winsome apologists for the Christian perspective taking on people like Maher. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen highly educated, widely published, devout, and serious Christians who can offer intelligent and thoughtful commentary on a variety of subjects about which Christians have a special interest. But I never, ever see these men and women placed opposite the Bill Mahers of our culture. 

Instead, what we usually get on the network news programs is an uninformed, though well-meaning, pastor or lay person pitted against a well-educated unbelieving professor on a topic about which the Christian does not possess any expertise or academic credentials. What often results is an embarrassment to the Christian viewers, who deserve better. But they are not likely to get it unless they demand that, if there’s going to be a fight over the rationality of belief, the fight should at least be a fair one.  

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at BaylorUniversity. His blog is returntorome.com. His most recent book is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft. 

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Comments (19)Add Comment
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written by Mark, October 15, 2010
Good article. The so-called New Atheism isn't new at all. It's almost always the same old uninformed ranting and venom that's long been fashionable among "free" thinkers, who seem inevitably to be burdened by the heaviest mental shackles. Bill Maher and his ilk don't argue against religion. They sneer, and as William Paley observed, "Who can refute a sneer?"
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written by James Danielson, October 15, 2010
Articles like this one, competently detailing the obvious, appear in sufficient quantity and have done for some time. Certainly the people who should read articles like this--"the Bill Mahers of our culture"--do not, so like Mr. Maher, our writer addresses the choir. I wonder to what extent Christians and Bill Maher share a common culture, and if they do, what might this tell us about American Christians? A better question, however, is this: Why should Christians care what Bill Maher or anyone like him says or thinks? Why bother responding? It seems to me that by taking up the "challenge" laid down by our faith's mindless detractors, we tarnish the dignity of the faith. Heathens rage. So what?
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written by Brad Miner, October 15, 2010
One point of clarification for Mr. Danielson: It was I who added the photo of Mr. Maher and the caption (re: preaching to the choir) to Prof. Beckwith's column. -Brad Miner
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written by Chris in Sykesville, MD, October 15, 2010
The "O'Reilly's" are the Problem - not the "Mahers"

O'Reilly has repeatedly had the progressive dissenter Fr. McBrien on his show, and cleasrly feels quite at home with him. Perhaps McBrien represents Bill O's brand of Catholicism - which I conclude is at best - the emulsified, populist "Notre-Damed Catholic" a-la McBrien and Fr. Hesburg, or some other devolved form. My hunch is that Bill O and McBrien are in league, but maybe Bill O is just being duped by McB. In any case - it would be better if an orthodox Catholic priest, someone like Father Barron, or Fr John McCloskey, would angle to get on Bill O's show and reduce Fr McB's footprint. Because when Bill O puts McB on his show, good Catholics will unwittingly conclude that McB is a faithful priest.
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written by John Coalson, October 15, 2010
Mr. Danielson,

I became a Christian in 2004. Articles such as this one proved very educational and inspirational when I first became a Christian. They provided me with some insight into not only the Mahers of the world, but more importantly my own thinking prior to conversion. My own thinking, which was similar to that of Maher, could not just be ignored. I needed help straightening it out, exorcising the old demons, so to speak.

More importantly, I wouldn't have gone searching the dust bins of the internet looking for past articles to help exorcise demons I didn't even know I carried. I would've seen Maher's name, thought 'Oh, I know that guy. What's up here?', read the article and learned something.

You raised some good questions, but based on my personal experience I think short, enlightening essays on current topics in pop culture and the relevance of those topics to our faith are always in need.

Thanks Prof. Beckwith! Keep it coming Catholic Thing.
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written by Jacob, October 15, 2010
James Danielson...you talk about "our faith", but you don't seem to be a member of "the choir" in this instance.

I wager you'd feel more at home in Bill Maher's choir! After all religious belief is nice but it's more important to come off intelligent and above it all, right?

I'd say we need the exact opposite, direct challenges to the manifold absurdities that pass for intellectual discourse on the tube.

BRAVO PROF. BECKWITH!
(If only they would let you on Fox News!)
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written by paul, October 15, 2010
Thank you, Professor Beckwith! I saw the interview and was surprised at the illiteracy of of both Bills when it came to the bible. Yes, they had some "familiarity" with stories from the bible, but as for being capable of analyses or interpretation, they lacked both the tools and background. I found the conversation very irresponsible on both parties. I think this may be more endemic of our culture in general. We see issues from a very shallow, modern viewpoint and do no consider that the current conversation we are having about faith, morals or man's nature, have been discussed before and with more profudnity.

To me, it seemed that Mr. Maher was positing a classic Cartesian viewpoint that he himself was not even aware of.
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written by Louise, October 15, 2010
It is pretty frightening to know that all we have are the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and that Catholic priest who turns up every now and then and who seems more overwhelmed by the rarified air he thinks he is breathing than someone ready to proclaim the Truth in season and out. Fox News is a very large forum to let it be put to waste by such lightweights who think they know so much but who, combine, know practically nothing.

Fr. Barron or Fr. McCloskey are good choices. How about you, Prof. Beckwith? Or, for that matter, almost any of The Catholic Thing's fine writers and witnesses?
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written by Other Joe, October 15, 2010
Small comment - there are those of us in the choir who appreciate periodic reinforcement because the reach of the popular culture is nearly omnipresent. It is easy to feel alienated and even despairing at times - and I don't need to be reminded of the 7 virtues. For at least the last 50 years, unfounded assertions have been granted the same (or greater) level of respect as truth well-grounded in reason, as long as the assertions lined up nicely with progressive wishful thinking. It is almost a definition of relativism. As a tireless anti-Darwinism warrior noted to me recently (after a discussion of DNA and the mystery of information arising from material process) "That's a chump's game. If they can't see the obvious, they will not be dissuaded by argument based on the obvious.”
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written by James Danielson, October 15, 2010
Mr. Coalson,

Your experience shows that God can turn to advantage whatever lies at hand. This does not vindicate the practice chasing after silly commentators as if their ideas merit the attention.
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written by Achilles, October 15, 2010
A wonderful comment on a misguided man. What did Chesterton say about his type "arrested development with a superiority complex"/ ? I think. Thank you very much Mr. Beckwith, excellent essay.
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written by James Danielson, October 15, 2010
Prof. Beckwith and Mr. Miner,

On my use of quotation marks around the words "preaching to the choir," kindly forgive. Mr. Miner is right. These are not Prof. Beckwith's words, and I erred in attributing them to him.
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written by Mike Donnelly Sr, October 15, 2010
Seems to me that Maher sits down at the end of the day and laughs. He vehemently condemns millenia of Christian thought and discovery and replaces it with his own declaration that he is a man of supreme truth. How do you do that? Criticize brilliant minds recognized as such as purveyors of falsehood while he takes over the podium of truth as belonging to himself!

I think it humerous to give him the time of day as if he deserves it!
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written by Krzysztof, October 16, 2010
Right.
Ex. Fr. J.M.Bochenski, The Logic of Religion,1965+ the newest biblical hermeneutics+ the use of 20th cent.discoveries in logic (Cantor,Skolem-Lovneheim, B.Russell (on types), K.Godel (on proof)especially A.Tarski (on truth)-the perfect Source to combat ignorance of atheists and primitivism of Christian clergy@simple folks.
Do not ignore it as an abstract : it seems I AM confirmed Directly (not by ...servants) on Jan 27,20001, Holy Mass with ...riots when R.C.priest ordered not to give me ...Communion ...he did not finish the Mass.....
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written by Scoop, October 16, 2010
Actually, I did see a qualified Catholic person interviewed by the bombastic Chris Matthews.
Matthews was successfully making the point of why Catholics should not participate in public policy by saying, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's..." The guest, a bishop, no less, mumbled something and suddenly the interview was over, of course.

I assume the bishop was qualified to answer, "...and to God what is God's." But he did not.
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written by Roger Farmer, October 16, 2010
I always cringe when I hear O'Reilly or Hannity say that because they're Catholic they can have certain opinions! Makes them experts in all things theological! But as I told my child before she went to Notre Dame, beware of wolves in priest's clothing. Glad she is out of there now. As for my other child, she is growing stronger in her Catholic faith. Where does she go you ask? The same place that Prof. Beckwith is located!! Go figure.
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written by Gary J Sibio, October 19, 2010
WHile FoxNews is open to religion, it would be wrong to assume that all of their hosts are Christianity-friendly. For example, there was a rather famous (infamous) confrontation between Sean Hannity and Fr. Tom Euteneuer.

While Hannity calls himself a Catholic, he opposes many of the Church's teachings including the prohibition on birth control. Note also in this debate that as soon as Fr. E. makes his point, Hannity reverts to bringing up the clerical abuse issue even though it had nothing to do with the discussion.
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written by allison kyff, December 05, 2013
thank you for articulating this beautifully. Feeling outnumbered and I appreciate the support.
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written by Josh, January 13, 2014
As a protestant (seminary trained layperson by choice) I have talked of this with others before. While we don't agree on some theological points Catholics are my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

In some ways it is an apologists dilemma (go and try to show the light of Jesus) as Scoop mentioned in his post earlier or debate and show that intelligent people can can have faith in something bigger than themselves. The media is completely money focused in today's world so why not bash "the old establishment" if it brings in more advertising and ratings? B. Maher fits what the media wants at the moment.

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