Maher begins his expert analysis by stating what he believes to be a self-evident point, that “all religion is anti-intellectual.” Even if we could excuse his ignorance of the rich intellectual tradition in Christianity (Augustine, Chrysostom, Boethius, Aquinas, Luther, Newman, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis) by assuming him to be an unreflective product of a historically ignorant culture—even so, given his self-proclaimed role as a critic of contemporary Christianity, certainly he should be aware of the Christian intellectual heavy weights of our own day like David Bentley Hart, William Lane Craig, Peter Kreeft, Alister McGrath, and Father Robert Barron. The works of thinkers like these don’t affect Maher’s expertise; I suspect because these are the big boys on the playground whom the mouthy kid knows not to mess with.
The problem for Maher in the interview, however, is that Douthat is a big boy too, and he makes Maher look ridiculous, not to the ideologically anesthetized audience, of course, but to those who partake in that antiquated and superfluous activity of thinking.
If I were an atheist, I would be even more irritated with Maher for making our side look like hyper-confident morons. For example, Douthat makes an excellent point in saying that the literal reading of the beginning of Genesis and the popular belief in the “rapture” are relatively new, fundamentalist innovations, and are not indicative of what most Christians have believed through the ages. Maher’s response is to accuse him of taking the liberty to say part of the Bible is BS.
If you don’t get the stunning shallowness of this, just picture an exceptionally smug 10th grader responding to his science teacher’s lesson on the way quantum physics has upended assumptions about Newtonian physics by saying, “Oh, so you’re taking the liberty to say Newton’s law of gravity is crap.”
Maher goes on to respond to Douthat’s extremely legitimate point that the nation for whom atheism was a constitutional principle was one of the most ruthless and murderous in history, by glibly dismissing it with the nonsensical term “secular religion.”
He then compares belief in Christ with believing in Zeus and Thor, failing to mention the fact that there’s no historical record of Zeus and Thor walking the streets of a particular city, or being tried and executed by a known government official, or being seen by several hundred people, and eating lunch with some of their followers after they had resurrected from the dead.
Toward the end, in the intellectual equivalent of face planting on a dismount from the parallel bars, Maher comes back at Douthat’s deeply substantial point that human rights is a metaphysical principle by saying that instead it's a principle of “common sense,” which is exactly like saying, “We don’t need all the oil in the Middle East anyway. Our cars run on gasoline.”
And yet, all the empty confidence and jejune arguments only evoke more applause from most (not all) of the audience. Likely this is because, at bottom, it’s not really about arguments at all. What it’s really all about was well summed up by Aldous Huxley in his book Ends and Means:
“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know."