Bill Maher and the Sophistry of Public Intellectualism


Bill Maher is at it again, pushing the envelope and reaping the public relations benefits. His latest dust-up with Ben Affleck was brilliant for its ability to escape the narrow confines of HBO and capture, then polarize, the public imagination. In the immediate aftermath of its airing, the on-air-blow-out metastasized and went viral.  The Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris sophistry and public intellectualism show was suddenly must-see TV. In one fell swoop, Maher successfully tapped into the heartstrings and life blood of the most salient and timely issues of the day. Ratings and web traffic exploded.

True to form, Maher marched in his weekly handpuppet, in this case, a would-be and self-styled knower of all things, even, drumroll please, resident public intellectual Sam Harris himself.  In general terms, for many the so-called public intellectual is roughly euphemistic for lettered atheist, anti-theist and intellectual demagogue. While Maher can be a bit over-emotional, prone to ad-hominem attacks and somewhat inarticulate in communicating what some might see as veiled hate speech, he had the well-respected and lettered Sam Harris to mask it all in intellectual jargonese. This, of course, is in keeping with Maher’s view of Americans as stupid, easily fooled and given to manipulation. For the dramatic “Americans are stupid” accusation, see the below-referenced YouTube clip Number Two.

Bill Maher

As puppet-master, Maher, through Harris, was again able to, consistent with his seeming purpose in life, lambaste, lampoon and otherwise caricature not only Islam and religion but Theism itself. Contemporary public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss,, poor men’s versions of Christopher Hitchens, Maher’s deceased personal hero, would no doubt be proud of the sophistry informing Harris’ so-called objective assessment of things.

As a self-appointed representative of all things liberal, Maher took issue with the notion that liberals, who, in his view, can generally be trusted to champion basic human rights and otherwise be on the side of reason, justice and morality, have somehow failed with respect to calling out the evils inherent in Islam.  In criticizing offending liberals and the overly silent in the face of evil types, Harris argues that “We have been sold this meme of Islamaphobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.” He suggests that this conflation is “intellectually ridiculous.” Then in one mind-blowing if not hypocritical confessional that is less objective than autobiographical, he suggests that “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”

To be fair to Harris, and he does attempt a reasoned defense of his position, he, like his fellow public intellectuals, is not properly trained or prepared to enter the public debate in a meaningful manner. With Bill Maher by his side, Harris quite literally paints a picture of what public intellectualism and sophistry is all about.  That is, as a neuroscientist, he makes for a poor scholar of Islam and Religious Studies. And despite his protestations to the contrary, his understanding of Islam presents in a green, awkward fashion and ironically serves as its own meme. His unsophisticated and superficial arguments and portrayal of Islam bespeaks a lack of awareness of the multivalent nature of Islam and any subsequent self-serving apologia is properly seen as fallacious and incongruent.

Sam Harris

Harris’ starting point for whatever he might like to say about Islam at any given time is based less on scholarly consensus than on the implied false premise that Islam is a monolith, indeed, that it is one thing. Even neophyte students of religious studies know that Islam is not one thing, it is many things, both in space and in time, and that interpretation of the Quran and the traditions surrounding the life and sayings of the prophet Muhammad are defined in the same terms. Anyone who is learned in the particulars of the subject matter and primary sources rarely falls prey to the sophomoric temptation to, like Harris, conflate what is clearly phenomenologically separate and distinct into one politically convenient grand-whole.

The hypocrisy here is spectacular as Harris ridicules the fallacy of conflation then demonstrates and models it, all with a straight and condescending face. Whatever else one might build on top of a false premise, it is, by definition, fallacy or as Harris himself suggests, “Intellectually ridiculous.”

All the intellectual jargonese in the world cannot mask the fact that Harris’ problem is not, or should not be with Islam. Intellectual honesty should demand that his proper target be his own personal inability to process along sound orthodox, deductive methodological lines. Once Harris’ thinking errors are established, it is fair to conclude that he is either among Maher’s stupid people or he has a nefarious, perhaps hidden agenda. And because the either/or characterization is itself fallacy ,he may more appropriately be seen as a curious combination of the two. Intellectual honesty is important and if our public intellectuals cannot be trusted to comport consistent with same, then the public they claim to serve should be concerned.

Richard Dawkins

The sad truth is that the intellectual sophistry of entertainers like Maher and the public intellectualism of people like Harris, Dawkins, Krauss, Hitchens and even Stephen Hawking of late with his incredibly naïve blast that science is the end of philosophy, start with a demonstrably unestablished premise, then work outwards. For whatever reason all of them, to a person, endeavor to argue that science renders the idea of a primal first cause redundant and that religion, by definition, is not only counterproductive and antithetical to reason, but dangerous. This series of conclusions and extrapolations, given an objective reading of the evidence, is untenable, fatuous and ironically, itself dangerous. As a philosophical presentation of ideas, the atheism and anti-theism of the public intellectual is not just pretentious, it is overly aggressive and mean. Indeed, the appeal to authority that informs its meta-narrative serves not only as a functional fallacy but as a public battering ram calculated to destroy all in its path.

The curiosity is that for all the references to scientific method and fact, the public intellectual appears to be less interested in facts and more interested in religion-bashing, paradigm-busting and tradition-deconstructing sensationalism. Given these incongruities, it doesn’t take a degree in neuroscience or physics to conclude that there may be a dollar or some vested interest hidden in there somewhere.

Perhaps there is a silver lining in all of this. Instead of taking these public intellectuals and their foils in the entertainment industry at face value, perhaps their agenda-informed presence and curious, even inexplicable lack of obedience to the rules of critical thinking, will prove to be a flash-point for the consumer. It is not OK, it might be argued, for people of letters or with bully pulpit forums to sell us a false bill of goods based upon personal bias, prejudice and self-interest.

As much as it is easy to invite Maher into the house at night, a lack of critical thinking skills, the selling of hate, and the sophistry of public intellectualism may be a bigger and more pressing problem than ever Islam was or is. Especially when same may be used to fool and manipulate others for shadowy and entirely selfish purposes. The enemy within may prove a bigger threat than the perceived enemy without.

By: Matthew R. Fellows


You Tube 1

You Tube 2

YouTube 3


Sam Harris (2004). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Christopher Hitchens (2007) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Richard Dawkins (2006). The God Delusion.

Lawrence Krauss (2012). A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing;

Lawrence Krauss – contributor (2009). The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does It Continue?

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010). The Grand Design.

Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith (2014) Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America

Top Photo By: Brenda Clarke Flickr License

Second Photo By: Archman8 Flickr License

Third Photo By: Steve Jurvetson Flickr License

Bottom Photo By: Matthias Asgeirsson Flickr License