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Bill Maher: Crank and Comic

Notes of a Fringe-Watcher

Martin Gardner

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.6, November / December 2009

Well-known stand-up comic Bill Maher has joined the ranks of the Big-D atheists, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and the Big-H atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, as an implacable foe of all religions. However, instead of writing a book, Maher produced the very funny documentary Religulous. While it has been blasted by followers of all faiths, secular humanists have hailed it as a masterpiece of rhetoric.

Maher was born in New York City in 1956 to a Roman Catholic father and Jewish mother but grew up in New Jersey. After graduating from Cornell, he began a highly successful career as a comedian.

In his first television show, Politically Incorrect, Maher exchanged banter with various celebrities. After carelessly remarking on the show that the September 11 terrorists were brave men (meaning that they were courageous to die for their cause), ABC canceled the show’s contract. Maher soon began a new show called Real Time with Bill Maher, which is still doing well on HBO. He was also a writer for the Roseanne television series and has appeared in numerous films.

Politically, Maher is an outspoken liberal with many libertarian views, such as favoring legalization of prostitution and marijuana. His attacks on conservative Republicans are merciless (e.g., he called Sarah Palin a “category 5 moron”). Philosophically, he prefers to call himself an agnostic rather than an atheist because he accepts the possibility of some sort of transcendental force or intelligence superior to our own.

In addition to his well-known disbelief in God, Maher also rejects modern medical science. He is firmly persuaded that almost all ills, including diseases, are the result of bad eating habits. “We eat shit,” he likes to say. As for germs, he believes they play no role in our illnesses. As a result, Maher is strongly opposed to all vaccines. He even denies that the Salk vaccine played any role in the decline of polio! Here is what he said in an interview:

[Germ theory] is another theory I think is flawed. And that we go by the Louis Pasteur theory even though Pasteur renounced it on his death bed and said Beauchamp is right. It’s not the invading germs. It’s the terrain. It’s not the mosquitoes. It’s the swamp that they’re breeding in.

Maher is referring to Antoine Beauchamp, a French biologist who opposed Pasteur’s germ theory. The claim that Pasteur renounced his theory on his death bed is pure mythology. A surgeon who posts remarks on the Internet under the pseudonym Orac referred to this myth as one “routinely parroted by credulous idiots like Bill Maher.”

Maher told Larry King that he never takes aspirin because, like all other drugs, he thinks it’s harmful. Owners of the big drug companies are evil men because they bilk the public with expensive and worthless drugs. On the Late Show with David Letterman he advised Letterman, then recovering from quadruple bypass surgery, to stop taking the “harmful” pills his doctor had prescribed.

Too bad Mary Baker Eddy believed in both God and Christ; otherwise, Bill Maher might have become a Christian Scientist. Fortunately, he has no children he could let die because of his refusal to vaccinate or because he would not accept medicine from a doctor in cahoots with those dreadful pharmaceutical companies that make and sell worthless products.

Let Orac have the final word: “I used to kind of like Maher,” he wrote, “but I really think that as he gets older he’s getting flakier and flakier.”

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner is author of more than seventy books, most recently The Jinn from Hyperspace and When You Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish, and Other Speculations About This and That.