Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Value in Skepticism

Atheist Alliance International, an alliance of several smaller atheist groups, will award their 2009 Richard Dawkins Award to comedian and talk show host Bill Maher. This has upset a lot of skeptics, since Bill Maher, in addition to being a loud and open atheist, is also a promoter of pseudoscientific "alternative medicine" treatments, a promulgator of paranoid conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies and western medicine, and an antivaccinationist. The Dawkins Award, in the words of AAI, is supposed to be given to those people "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..." Bill Maher may meet the secularist qualifications, but he fails miserably on the increasing scientific knowledge front. And the nonsense he spews could keep people from seeking life-saving medical treatment.

Some of the criticism over this award has been directed at Richard Dawkins himself, but he's not a member of the AAI committee that chose Maher as this year's recipient. However, AAI has issued a statement claiming Dawkins is "happy" with the decision, as he doesn't have to agree with someone on every point to appreciate his or her work promoting nontheism. AAI says Maher's documentary "Religulous" was "easily the most prominent film against religion in the United States last year".

Putting aside the fact that this defense doesn't address the scientific clause in the Dawkins Award criteria, it makes no logical sense. How many other films released in 2008 could be classified as being "against religion"? Holding "Religulous" up as the best example in such a paltry field is meaningless. It would be like giving "Battlefield Earth" an Oscar for Best Movie with Pro-Scientology Undertones Starring John Travolta and the Last Remnants of Forest Whitaker's Integrity.

More importantly, "prominent" isn't a value judgment at all. Instead of honoring the anti-religion movie with the most publicity, AAI should be more concerned with whether the movie is a quality piece of journalism or entertainment that makes its case effectively. "Religulous" fails on both those fronts. It's a meandering, smug, and witless film that offers no insight whatsoever. Instead of engaging with the religious people he encounters, Maher simply balks at them. His idea of debate is to shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh, come on!" This isn't an inappropriate response when faced with the raw ideas behind religion. Virgin births and neverending fish baskets are pretty silly, and there's not a lot one can say to dispute the facts at hand. But Maher's target isn't just religion. It's religious people.

In one of the hallmarks of a poorly made documentary, Maher chooses to tack a speech onto the end of the film explicating his thesis in the most didactic way possible. After showing us a bunch of faithful people espousing silly but unsurprising opinions and acting anywhere between heartwarmingly cordial and slightly batty in the face of Maher's shrugs, his ultimate conclusion is that by preaching that the world will come to an end, the religious (mostly Christians, but not all) feel free to rape the planet environmentally and otherwise be total pricks. But while it's irrefutable that much prickishness has been committed in the name of religion, it's hard to reconcile this argument with the portrayal of so many hospitable and seemingly decent theists throughout the rest of the film. And to blame environmental travesty on religion is to ignore the more plausible explanation of sheer ignorance, selfishness, and greed. If the faithful were so sociopathically convinced that death is just an entryway to a perfect eternity and nothing on the Earth matters, they wouldn't spend so much time working for nicer homes, doting on their families, and watching TV. Maher gives too much credit to the scriptural convictions of the religious and, in the process, shows how little he understands them even after his trip around the world.

It's profoundly disturbing that AAI, Richard Dawkins, and many others are willing to look beyond the inherent value in a work or in the work of an activist like Bill Maher in favor of blindly accepting anything spewed from the mouth of the non-religious. This is exactly what religious people do! If Christians cared about the quality and integrity of their culture, mediocre to terrible "artists" like Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, Tyler Perry, and Creed wouldn't have careers. They value message over substance, and apparently AAI and Dawkins do the same.

It's spilled over into the broader skeptical community as well. Take, for example, a Twitter message recently sent out by Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com: "'Anti-Religious Intent of "Invention of Lying" Confirmed' - http://is.gd/3P8NQ - If true, let's all go see it tonight!!" If you don't already know, "The Invention of Lying" is the new Ricky Gervais movie about a world in which no one has ever lied and what happens when one man (Gervais) learns how to lie. Because there's never been a lie in the universe of the movie, no one ever made up the concept of God. Hence, there's no religion. Gervais is an open atheist and skeptic, so this shouldn't be surprising at all. It's actually pretty brilliant. But instead of encouraging people to see "The Invention of Lying" because it's most likely a very funny movie starring, co-written, and co-directed by an exceptionally talented comedian, Dunning chooses instead to support it sight unseen because of its "anti-religious intent". And he's so worked up about the idea, he couldn't be bothered to look up when the movie comes out, which is two days after he told people to "see it tonight!!".

This isn't an isolated incident. Earlier this year, Dunning and Skeptic Magazine's Michael Shermer were subjected to a prank by British comedian Marc Wootton. Wootton plays a character called Shirley Ghostman, a self-proclaimed and obviously horrible psychic. Under the guise of a TV show seeking to have Shermer and Dunning test the powers of "real" psychics, Wootton's production company set up a situation where the two skeptics would test Shirley Ghostman. Hilarity, I'm told, ensued. But when Dunning and Shermer found out they'd been had for the sake of comedy, they went ballistic. They posted blogs and issued tweets blasting Wootton as dishonest, malicious, and unfunny. Shermer even went so far as to find out where the Ghostman character would be performing more pranks so he could send people there to disrupt the show. Only after Shermer and Dunning were informed of the very obvious fact that the entire Ghostman character isn't meant to lampoon skeptics so much as people who claim to be psychic did they settle down. Not only did they settle down, but they also changed their tune about whether the prank was funny at all. (And it was funny. Ghostman claimed to communicate with the spirit of Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man. After being told that Majors isn't dead, Ghostman brought in a body bag containing a guy with calculators taped to his body. Good stuff.) They proved that their value judgments are based more on message than substance.

The Ghostman example is disconcerting, but perhaps understandable. Anger at having their time wasted and their dignity potentially compromised may have clouded Shermer and Dunning's initial statements on the matter. But allowing yourself to be blinded by ideology can also open the door to hypocrisy. For instance, Richard Dawkins appeared in Ben Stein's anti-evolution film "Expelled", and later complained that he was tricked. The producers of "Expelled" told Dawkins and the other rationalists who are interviewed in the film that it was actually called "Crossroads" and was about the intersection between faith and science. Far from the paranoid, delusional screed it turned out to be. But Bill Maher did the same thing in producing "Religulous". Speaking to the Los Angeles Time, Maher said, "We never, ever, used my name. We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it 'A Spiritual Journey.'" By supporting this film, Dawkins is embracing the same techniques he derided when they were used by people of an opposing viewpoint.

The list goes on. Greydon Square, an atheist rapper, has been the subject of fawning interviews on many skeptical podcasts, even though his songs are repetitive and pedantic compared to the best hip hop has to offer. Square entered into a relationship with the Rational Response Squad, the financially suspect atheist organization that enjoys several devoted followers despite the fact that its representatives barely managed to hold their own in a debate with intellectual powerhouses Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort of divine banana fame. Is it too much to ask that artists, writers, activists, and producers focus less on creating output that's good for skeptics and more on creating skeptical output that's simply good?

Sure, a lot of value judgments are based on taste. They're opinion, not fact. If you like Greydon Square's music or find Bill Maher funny, there's nothing wrong with that. But the next time you're reading a skeptical book or watching a TV show critical of religion, take a moment and ask yourself if you'd find any value in this piece of culture at all if it didn't reaffirm your own beliefs. There is absolutely a wealth of top quality content out there being produced by and for skeptics of all sorts. Richard Dawkins' prose is elegant and gripping. NOVA Science Now is funny and informative. The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is an invaluable resource for both knowledge and entertainment. Make no mistake that the good far outweighs the bad. But never accept the bad just because its message is good. And in the case of Bill Maher, AAI should consider whether making fun of religion in front of a wide audience is more important than feeding that same audience misinformation that could potentially kill them.

Blog Archive