Bill Maher gets the Richard Dawkins Award? That’s like Jenny McCarthy getting an award for public health

Although I often don’t agree with him and have cooled on him lately, I still rather like–even admire–Richard Dawkins. While it’s true I’ve taken him to task for having a tin ear for bioethics, lamented his walking blindly right into charges of anti-Semitism (no, I don’t think he’s an anti-Semite), and half-defended/half-criticized him for seeming to endorsing eugenics. What’s really irritated me about him in the past, though, is his use of the “Neville Chamber atheist” gambit that I so detest, so much so that I once featured Dawkins in a Hitler Zombie episode (albeit not as the victim). On the other hand, I loved Dawkins’ The Enemies of Reason, particularly Dawkins’ demolition of Deepak Chopra and other woo-meisters. Indeed, his explanation of the ridiculousness of the pseudoscience that is homeopathy was about as clear and visually compelling as any I’ve ever seen, and I loved how he and P.Z. Myers totally pwned the producers of Expelled! last year.

Through it all, even though I don’t always agree with Richard Dawkins mostly on matters of religion versus atheism and how to advocate for reason, I have never doubted that he is a force for reason to be reckoned with. I’ve even briefly met him, although I highly doubt that he’d remember me, my being one of dozens of people who shook his hand that day nearly two years ago in New York. There’s even an award named after him, the Richard Dawkins Award, which the Atheist Alliance awards to one person every year based on these criteria::

The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist 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; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

Past recipients have included James Randi, Ann Druyan, Penn and Teller, Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, all worthy recipients.

So the other day I was rather shocked to see who the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award will be. If you read Pharyngula, you knew the answer a couple of days ago.

Bill Maher.

When I found this out, all I could think was: WTF?

Let’s backtrack a minute. Longtime readers of this blog know that I do not think much of Bill Maher. Oh, sure, I find him occasionally somewhat amusing. For example, his New Rules segment is sometimes pretty funny. However I can’t really watch Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO, mainly because Maher’s smugness irritates the crap out of me. But none of that has anything to do with why I find his receiving the Richard Dawkins Award to be about as inappropriate as giving Jenny McCarthy a public health award–and for much the same reasons. After all, Bill Maher is a woo-meister supreme and, like Jenny McCarthy, an anti-vaccine crank, as I’ve documented time and time again on this very blog. He’s also a big time PETA supporter and a germ theory denialist.

None of this strikes me as “advocating increased scientific knowledge.” True, it’s only one criteria out of three, but Maher violates it by not just a little. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we? Let’s go back to the very first time, nearly four and a half years ago, when I noted that Bill Maher is an anti-vaccine wingnut. Let’s take a look at what he said:

I don’t believe in vaccination either. That’s a… well, that’s a… what? That’s another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur theory, even though Louis Pasteur renounced it on his own deathbed and said that Beauchamp(s) was right: it’s not the invading germs, it’s the terrain. It’s not the mosquitoes, it’s the swamp that they are breeding in.

In a word, no. This is a germ theory denialist lie, as Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch pointed out in a nicely researched essay.

Next Maher nuttiness:

You’re in denial, about I think is a key fact, which is it is the at… people get sick because of an aggregate toxicity, because their body has so much poison in it, from the air, the water…

I wonder if Maher is into chelation therapy, colon cleanses, and liver flushes to get rid of that “aggregate toxicity.”

I know that some of this may seem a bit repetitive, but I want to emphasize just how ant-science Bill Maher is. So let’s go back to the second time I noticed that Bill Maher is an anti-vaccine loon and look at a couple of things he said:

  1. “I’m not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic.”
  2. “A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.”
  3. “Well, I hate to tell you…but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there’s ten times the likelihood that you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease.” (Note, as I described, this is a lie hawked by antivaccine macher Hugh Fudenberg.)
  4. “A flu shot just compromises your immune system.”

Then there was the time he told David Letterman this, referring to pharmaceuticals:

Letterman: Are you interested in medical journals and that sort of thing?

Maher: Not western medicine, I think we’re being poisoned…I would love for you to investigate the possibility that your health issues might have arisen from the fact that you’re being poisoned by America.

Maher was referring to Letterman’s heart disease, which required multiple coronary artery bypass operation a few years ago. Indeed, Maher went on in essence to encourage Letterman to ditch his heart medications. In case the above wasn’t clear enough, before they got off the topic of the evils of big pharma, Maher told Letterman “Please get off of the meds.” Now that’s a great way for Letterman to end up dead. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Maher also laid this gem down:

Why is there mucus?…It’s because your body is toxic and it’s trying to create a river to get rid of these toxins.

After that quote, I expected some woo-meister somewhere to come up with a treatment designed to provoke a “river of mucus” in order to flush out all those “toxins,” but I was sorely disappointed. Oh, well, maybe next time. In the meantime, Maher continues to make claims that he “never gets the flu on an airplane,” to which an exasperated Bob Costas once responded, “Oh, come on, Superman!” It was at this point that Maher had a rare moment of self-awareness when he noted that Costas and the others on the show were looking at him as though he was crazy.

And let’s not forget that Maher is a big-time supporter of PETA, the group of antimal rights extremists who try to argue that animal research is all but useless, that eating meat is a “Holocaust on your plate,” parroting the dubious idea that gluten-free diets relieve autistic symptoms, while writing letters to Ben and Jerry’s suggesting that they use human milk instead of cow’s milk for their ice cream.

I think I’ve made my point in my usual inimitable style, in which too much is never enough and wretched excess is the order of the day.

So what if Maher is a wingnut when it comes to medicine and animal research? After all, say some of his defenders, being an atheist doesn’t necessarily mean rationale. All it means is that atheists are prone to a different set of delusions than the religious. So what does it matter? He did a movie bashing religion; so it’s all good. Right? He’s an atheist who routinely shows the nonsense of religion on his show and in his act, right?


We did a show last night about God and religion with Dave Foley, who I love, and we were arguing against this one woman who had a book called I Like Being Catholic. Someone said, “Oh, boy, a lot of atheists on this panel.” I said, “I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no.” I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books. I think that the people who think God wrote a book called The Bible are just childish. Religion is so childish. What they’re fighting about in the Middle East, it’s so childish. These myths, these silly little stories that they believe in fundamentally, that they take over this little space in Jerusalem where one guy flew up to heaven–no, no, this guy performed a sacrifice here a thousand million years ago. It’s like, “Who cares? What does that have to do with spirituality, where you’re really trying to get, as a human being and as a soul moving in the universe?” But I do believe in a God, yes.

On the other hand, that quote was from 2002. Maybe he’s changed since then. More recently, he’s sounded more agnostic. So maybe he meets the criteria of being an atheist. Barely. Maybe being anti-religious is enough, no matter how much of a wingnut you are otherwise. I have to wonder what the committee who picked Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award was smoking when they picked him. If I could smoke anything without collapsing into a fit of hacking coughs, I’d want some of it. Maybe they baked it into brownies. In the meantime, Richard Dawkins weighed in over at P.Z.’s blog thusly:

The Richard Dawkins Award (RDA) has no connection with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). The RDA was instituted by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) several years before RDFRS was founded, or even thought of. This year, the committee of AAI took the decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher. They asked me, as an individual, if I approved, and I was delighted to do so because I find him, and especially Religulous, very funny. I know nothing of any stance he may have taken on medical questions.

Don’t you think you’d better find out about the stances he’s taken on medical questions, Professor Dawkins? After all, Bill Maher is going to be given an award with your name on it, but his level of rationality when it comes to science is more appropriate for the homeopath and alternative medicine mavens you interviewed in part 2 of Enemies of Reason than for the recipient of an award that bears your name. Heck, his level of rationality when it comes to medicine is more appropriate for Deepak Chopra (whom you also interviewed in Enemies of Reason) than it is for a recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award. No, I’m not exaggerating, either. There’s a very good reason why a number of people are ticked off at Maher’s receiving this award.

Maybe some of the people attending the Atheist Alliance International Convention can educate Professor Dawkins about just what an anti-science loon is being given an award, part of the criteria for which is to champion science and reason. Not that I think it would make any difference. Bill Maher is famous; he’s a comedian. Apparently his celebrity trumps standards when it comes to getting the Richard Dawkins Award, as long as he attacks religion. PZ has given him a pass, and Richard Dawkins has pleaded ignorance. It may be true that Maher may said this:

You can’t be a rational person six days a week…and on one day of the week, go to a building, and think you’re drinking the blood of a two thousand year old space god

But in reality the religious described by Maher actually have one thing on him. According to Maher, they’re only irrational once a week; Maher’s irrational a hell of a lot more of the time.