Regardless of one’s opinion of Bill Maher — and most objective analyses would most likely agree that there’s plenty worthy of criticism — he did make a very interesting, yet admittedly highly contentious point in this appearance on Scarborough Country that is worthy of further consideration:
Now it’s a bit rich for Scarborough to gloss over the fact that Muslim nations beget Muslim children and Christian nations beget Christian children and that this isn’t merely a coincidence, but let’s ignore that fact for now.
Nevertheless, there’s a very simple way of examining Maher’s point. Indeed there is an even more simple way to achieve this end than by throwing around pesky ‘facts’ and ‘arguments’.
We can test Maher’s hypothesis by examining the utterances of one of the intellectual founders of monotheistically-inspired philosophy: namely, the Christian philosopher St. Augustine.
Simply put, “By their words, ye shall know them…”
In his work, On the Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine wrote about the “serpentine wisdom of man” (no bonus points for guessing what imagery he was attempting conjure up with that symbolism).
You can see the ironic brilliance of this, the seeds of the anti-intellectualism which gripped Europe for over a thousand years after Augustine’s death, in his formulation of the concept.
“Thus in the Wisdom of God the world could not know God through wisdom.”
“Thus the Wisdom of God, setting out to cure men, applied Himself to cure them, being at once the Physician and the Medicine. Because man feel through pride, He applied humility as a cure. We were trapped by the wisdom of the serpent; we we are freed by the foolishness of God. Just as that which was called wisdom was foolishness in those who condemned God, thus this which is called foolishness is wisdom in those who conquer the Devil.”
Now, at first glance, the first quote may not seem as important, but for those of you who’ve read Augustine (yes, I share your pain), and who know the significance of the “City of God/City of Man” dichotomy, you’ll appreciate the significance of this first quote.
This notion continued unfettered on through the dark ages and was demonstrably responsible for the suppression of the recording of history as well as the development of the science of Bacon and Descartes (in fact if you bother to read the introduction to Descartes’ On the Scientific Method, you’ll get a good flavour of how omnipresent the influence of Augustine’s notion is in European society during his time irrespective of which religion ruled).
The notion later spread to the Protestant faith especially by Calvin, but also Luther. Just to get a further flavour for the power of religion to stop critical thinking, the former wrote:
“There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.”
“Man’s mind is like a store of idolatry and superstition; so much so that if a man believes his own mind it is certain that he will forsake God and forge some idol in his own brain.”
Moreover, for those of you who accuse me of picking on Christianity, we can find similar anti-intellectual utterances in the other highly-organized, highly-systematized religions of Islam and Judaism.
So, there’s a reason why we largely didn’t have the scientific method and history and academic pursuits other than theology for the first millennium of the common era. Simply put, that reason, by their own admissions, was religion.
Even the most basic reading of history is enough to illustrate Bill Maher’s point and, what’s more, in a truly free-thinking society, this fact would have been obvious and non-controversial.