I’ve been a fan of Bill Maher for a long time: he brings a well-reasoned voice to discussions of politics, pop culture and world events, using biting humor as an equal-opportunity offender to make his points. I agree with his position on many issues, including marriage equality, the decriminalization of certain drugs, the sometimes-absurdity of political correctness and the inappropriate role of religion (organized and otherwise) in American politics. I’ve seen him live and on television, and squirmed uncomfortably at times during his movie Religulous in the theater.
Simply put, the guy is dang funny…except for this week.
In the popular “New Rules” segment at the end of his Friday night show, he mounted a senseless tirade against Buddhism, all because Tiger Woods’ Feb. 19 mea culpa speech referenced the fact that the golf legend was raised Buddhist, and that Woods would now return to the Buddhist path as part of his recovery. Here’s the part of Tiger’s speech that sent the Real Time host into an angry tailspin:
I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.
I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, in Bill Maher’s eyes, a celebrity either hiding behind or wrapping himself in religion after a scandal would be, in a world, scandalous. But rarely have I seen the man get so angry, and spew so much venom toward organized religion. But to then go on to personally attack Gautama Buddha as a man and teacher, and his teachings on the origins of suffering? I guess I would have thought that Bill Maher was smart enough to realize, even in the abstract, where Buddhist thought comes from.
[Read the full transcript of his “New Rule” here, via Huffington Post. He demonstrates that Buddhism really isn’t his cup of tea: “Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life – I don’t want to learn to not want, that’s what people in prison have to do.”]
Even so, the fact that I’m still thinking about this — that I’m still smarting from Bill Maher’s vilification of Buddhism — leaves me to wonder what I’m missing. When he railed against Sarah Palin’s certainty that her candidacy for vice president was part of “God’s plan,” I laughed right along with him. Yet when he poked fun at tourists and a man playing Jesus at Orlando’s Holy Land Experience in his movie Religulous, I groaned aloud in discomfort.
The discussion of religion in public life, especially in today’s America, is never easy, as few issues are as divisive. I have as much right to believe in Buddha’s teachings, as off-base as they may seem to some, as Jehovah Witnesses have the right to believe that they are the only ones who can survive the Abrahamic Armageddon. And Bill Maher has the right to what he believes, too.
Many years ago, I remember feeling terribly uncomfortable when visiting my dad’s Southern Baptist church and hearing the minister and Sunday School teachers say that Roman Catholicism was a statue-worshiping cult made up of people who prayed to spirits rather than reserving all of their devotion for Jesus. And now, perhaps I’ve grown accustomed to the low profile Buddhism maintains with militant atheists and the like, but it is still uncomfortable when my personal beliefs are attacked. The same certainly holds true for anyone on a spiritual or religious path.
I still respect Bill Maher for his intelligence, his ability to use persuasive reason, and the fact that he’s irreverently funny. I realize his red-in-the-face form of atheism is part of his shtick. But sometimes, it really isn’t that funny — and I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.