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Don’t Know Much About Theology

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 [1], [1] “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 & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).