Some people are quite rightly appalled that Bill Maher won the Richard Dawkins Award from AAI, and is at the top of the list of speakers at the AAI conference. I sympathize; Maher certainly has some wacky ideas, and I even gave him a mixed review on his movie, Religulous. (I also must repeat a clarification: the Richard Dawkins Award is not given by Richard Dawkins or the Richard Dawkins Foundation: it is an award by Atheist Alliance International, named after Richard Dawkins.)
However, let’s be clear about the obvious. He is being given this award for making a movie this year that clearly promotes atheism and mocks religion, and that’s all that is being endorsed. Not many people have done that, and it’s especially unusual in that it was a movie entirely about ridiculing religion, and it was a mainstream movie with wide circulation. That’s it. It would be difficult to ignore, and it’s something AAI would like to promote.
Let’s be clear about something else. This is atheism: we have no dogma, we have no infallible leaders, everyone is naturally flawed, and we recognize that within our ranks there is a huge diversity of opinion. Our strategy for dealing with these ideas is the same as the scientific approach — constant, relentless criticism. There is no Atheist Supreme Leader. There is no Atheist Pope. There is no Godless Ruling Council, no Atheist Inquisition, no Freethought Dogma.
What that means, of course, is that it is open season on everything and everyone. Everyone going to the AAI convention should be enthusiastically prepared to cheer wildly when Maher says something right and reasonable and even funny about religion, and if he brings up anti-vax woo or anti-research fluff, you should be equally prepared to pull out the rhetorical knives. I think anyone speaking at this convention should be aware that they are not there to receive unthinking hugs and kisses from an adoring audience of fans — they should come with ideas to make everyone think, and they should know that they will get arguments.
So that’s our answer to the other, most unfortunate idiocies which Maher espouses. Let’s make him uncomfortable. Don’t be shy about asking pointed questions and making him squirm. It’ll be fun. It’ll also be safe, because a majority of the audience will be feeling the same way about him.
This is also true for all of the other speakers*. They’re supposed to make you think, and you’re supposed to make them think. Keep ’em all honest.
*Well, except for me. You can just show up for my talk on militant atheism (title so far: “Don’t Tread on Me”) and blow me kisses.