Comedian Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins after Maher’s talk at the Atheist Alliance International conference in Burbank, CA. Photo by Bbsrock.
There’s an old Aaron ‘Sorkinism’ which claims that not only do we “expect less and less from each other everyday” but how we simply need to start treating each other better. Trivialize as we might over the current state of world affairs, who could disagree? Like liberals often ask in conflicted times, “why can’t we be friends?”
Examining the many reasons why not, there is perhaps no more bitter discourse in our culture wars than between the religious and atheists.
Take for example, a recent episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. In it, Maher, who is an atheist, claims that the religious, and Christians specifically, should stop calling themselves Christians if they don’t care about the poor.
“And finally, new rule: It’s okay if you don’t want to feed the hungry, or heal the sick, or the house the homeless. Just don’t say you’re doing it for their own good,” says Maher to an amicable crowd.
Cut to a chimera of Republican congressman denying assistance to poor, hungry, disadvantaged Americans while quoting the Old Testament, followed by an anecdote about a cheap ploy to stiff your server (that just so happened to be derived from the worst of the Bible Belt):
This segment can translate to: If benevolence is not primarily wielded by the state, a nation cannot truly call themselves benevolent.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the point that Maher makes here about the hypocrisy of those using Jesus Christ to defend their right to stiff waiters. Neither am I naive to which political ideology better aligns itself with an Oxford Dictionary definition of reason.
However, there’s something to be said about what’s problematic in how the atheists and the religious treat each other. Similar to the ways of so much media and left-loving satire, the picture Maher is painting here uses absurdly broad strokes and produces even less precise insults.
Maher’s sweeping generalizations aren’t just implemented against the targets of his comedy. They’re also used against the common sense of his audience who might more ably agree with him if he didn’t. Seriously, do we ‘of reason’ really think that a handful of assholes used a fake ten dollar bill to get out of leaving a tip at a restaurant quantifies rampant moral hypocrisy in America’s heartland?
That’s elitist pandering of the worst kind, comparable with the most bigoted presumptions of the right. It is a rhetorical gesture that is especially hypocritical to find from the left, whose members pride themselves in fighting for egalitarianism and superior treatment of humanity.
Now it is granted that statistically, Americans may not be the most willing donators in the world anyway (in fact, we’re merely in the top 5); but too often is the ideological argument being made by we of little faith that the solution to religion’s altruism — its most redeeming quality, to be sure — is the social safety net. From Maher’s media pedestal, it has reached the point where the comedian class of punditry assumes an atheistic audience would not believe otherwise.
The problem with drawing such battle lines in the war between theism and atheism into the nearly infinite conflict within every civilization over their society’s needs is it equates the rational rejection of a personal deity with a rejection of personal responsibility (something that should not be automatic). It is a belief that atheists, or at least rational secularists, should reject, if only because it gives Christianity a tangible and philosophical moral high ground here.
What I mean by that is, compared to the statements of Maher, Jesus Christ far more tactfully differentiates the responsibilities of human beings have to each other from their responsibilities to the state – regardless of whether he was truly the son of man.
Consider the following famous Biblical parable. Jesus came across a temple in Jerusalem that had been converted into a marketplace. Furious, Jesus throws a temper tantrum that, if you grew up Catholic, every parent feels the need to explain represents the one and only time the Messiah somewhat misbehaved.
Any atheist could hardly blame him — what he treasured so dearly in this life, his faith, had become commercialized. How many liberals, Christians or otherwise, feel the same way about Christmas?
In the very next chapter of the Matthew Gospel, the Pharisees try to pin point Jesus’s exact feelings on money by asking him whether it is right for them to pay taxes. Jesus famously replies, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
In the grand tradition of a separation between church and state, Jeffersonians ought be comforted by the fact that “love thy neighbor” and “pay your taxes” are the answers to almost entirely separate questions.
Perhaps even more interestingly, both an atheist like me (or Maher) and any Christian can process these episodes as anecdotes. Reading them literally bares no impact on the metaphysical lessons derived.
Jesus does not need to be a deity to show that, regardless of society, how we treat each other is where the great moral battleground where empathy and generosity are executed. The realm of money and commerce is of a wholly different metaphysical fabric than righteousness. Or more simply, whether or not you believe there should be ample homeless shelters shouldn’t stop you from offering your home to someone without one.
Pragmatically, of course, both are not mutually exclusive — if all homeowners were willing to house homeless people, there would be no need for homeless shelters. The point is if our assumptions delegate that responsibility exclusively to the state, we endorse a culture that hears a cry for help in a crowded neighborhood and assumes someone else will call the police.
Whether the body of modern Christians, or really any arbitrary demographic, could possibly live up to that utopian calling is a different matter all together.
I, like Maher, may believe in a healthy safety net, but not at the expense of the most effective kind of kindness — that which is interpersonal. To argue that the next intellectual step after atheism is always statism is presumptuous. I’m all for a better, smarter government that’s better able to accommodate the needs of its citizens, however, it is not an end-all-be-all alternative.
Moreover, these lines of conversations represent every wrong way to approach a healthy atheism vs. religion debate. For that, I’ll leave discussions of etiquette on the matter to the trusty folks at Cracked.com. I just hope any charitable Christian who stumbled on this video doesn’t think this is how all atheists operate, just as I don’t believe all evangelicals are lousy tippers.
“Charity begins at home” may sometimes serve as a cowardly refrain for those Randian individualists simply just don’t want to help; but the saying is no less true. The same philosophy goes for the maxim that if all people were charitable to begin with, we’d have no need for welfare.