There is a lot of discussion over at SciBlogs about the recent announcement that Bill Maher is the winner of the Richard Dawkins Award (important note: given out by the Atheist Alliance, not by Richard Dawkins). My opinion on whether Maher should have won the award or not is fairly boring -- I think his lunatic views on vaccines and alternative medicine make him a questionable choice, but I'm not up in arms about it either -- yet one allegation that has come up in the discussion has troubled me: Folks have been pointing out some uncomfortable similarities between Maher's movie Religulous and Ben Stein's pro-Intelligent Design flick Expelled!
I have to say right up front that I really enjoyed Religulous. I thought most of the movie was unfair-but-funny, in a sort of Borat-esque way. No, Maher wasn't using carefully reasoned arguments to critique religion, he was just brutally ridiculing it in a very entertaining way. More than that, the closing monologue, which juxtaposes images of destruction wrought by religion with a call to arms for nontheists to be more vocal about their beliefs, was somewhat of an awakening for me. It was what brought me "out of the atheist closet" and inspired me to finally read Dawkins and Hitchens. I particularly liked the line, "Faith is making a virtue out of not thinking."
I knew that he obtained some of the interviews on false pretense, neglecting to say he was making an anti-religion movie, and it was very clear that the interviews had been edited less for accuracy and more for maximum comic effect (I thought this was obvious enough that to keep it from being truly disingenuous). At the time, this didn't really bother me, because, as I said, it was a bit like Sasha Baren Cohen's technique: his uncompromosing unreasonableness jostles people out of their carefully rehearsed scripts, and gets them to betray their true beliefs, no matter how bigoted or stupid those beliefs may be.
But then there is Expelled!... I was as incensed as anyone about the false pretenses that Stein and his producers used to obtain interviews with Dawkins and Myers which they mercilessly quote-mined for out-of-context nonsense. The "Dawkins believes in space aliens!" canard is particularly galling. It just really, really pissed me off.
So how is that any different from Religulous? Maybe it's not. Maybe I am employing some pretty hypocritical double standards here. Or maybe, one's intention really does make a difference... maybe it really is okay to be a little unfair when you are taking down bigoted and unthinking authority figures? But then, I suppose that's how Stein's Creationist fans view his actions... Does that mean that I have to choose between enjoying Religulous and labeling fans of Expelled! as hypocrites?
I dunno... it's troubling. I think ultimately I'm going to be a bit of an absolutist here: Maher's conclusion was right, despite his questionable methods, and that justifies a little shenanigans. Stein's conclusion was wrong, which makes his questionable methods all the more egregious.
Maybe that's a double standard, but I think I am at least consistent in applying this double standard... if that is possible. For instance, Michael Moore's movies kind of fall in the middle for me, i.e. I guardedly agree with some of his conclusions but have a problem with others, and not surprisingly I am more troubled by his methods than I was by Maher's, but not enraged the way I am at Ben Stein's dishonest idiocy.
Bah, I suppose in the end, it doesn't matter. I enjoyed Religulous and found the end inspiring. Do I really have to decide whether it is "okay" or not that Maher had to be a big liar to make the movie?