In brief: I'm ambivalent towards Maher getting the award; I applaud those who hope to put the screws to Maher at the AAI Conference, though I doubt they'll really get much of an opportunity; and while I would have respected it if Dawkins had remained silent on the matter (he hasn't), I now think he is obliged to make some kind of clarifying statement distancing himself from Maher's quackademic views.
First, regarding Maher getting the award... I know the reaction to the movie Religulous in atheist circles was mixed, but I loved it. In fact, it was the closing monologue that inspired me to become more vocal about my (lack of) belief and what I feel about the effects of religion on the modern world. For those who haven't seen it, the closing monologue is a denouncement of religion's crimes, together with a call to arms to speak out in the name of rationality, super-imposed over a montage of video of some of religion's more disturbing consequences. My friend Nicole transcribed the monologue when she first rented the movie, and I have included it at the bottom of this post. My favorite line was "Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking." I had never heard that sentiment put so succinctly or clearly before. I know others who were similarly inspired.
So I have no trouble seeing why AAI would want to honor Maher for his contribution. He made an anti-religion movie that is both powerful and mainstream. In a sense, this was as important a contribution as The God Delusion or god is Not Great. I know many of our more pedantic atheist friends hated the movie because, admittedly, it was not particularly deep in its style of argumentation, and was often unfair to the theists interviewed. But really, it was a movie, and an op-ed one at that. And as such, I thought it was highly effective.
I also think that if I were on the AAI committee tasked with choosing the recipient of the award, I would probably have argued against Maher. His alt-med views are not only an embarrassment, but potentially quite dangerous. While I am sympathetic to those who point out that AAI is an atheist group rather than a skeptic group, I think that if the word "atheist" is to meaning anything we must have some shared values. One of those values is a disdain for magical thinking.
Now, the evidence seems to indicate that all of us engage in a certain amount of magical thinking, so it is not a problem if some atheist activists privately hold crazy viewpoints. It would not bother me if the RDA recipient was privately anti-vaccine, but did not agitate for it. However, when someone becomes a mouthpiece for magical thinking, that crosses a line. This doesn't mean everything Maher has done is worthless, of course, nor does it necessarily mean that we can't honor those positive contributions he has made... but if the atheist community is to stand for anything of value, it is imperative that we make known our collective disdain for his alt-med propaganda.
Which leads directly to the next two points: That the atheist community should attempt to put the screws to Maher in a very public way, and that Richard Dawkins should make his disapproval of Maher's health-related views explicit.
As PZ pointed out, Maher's appearance at the AAI Conference is restricted to the award ceremony itself, and I've never heard of a Q&A at an awards ceremony. The grand plan hatched by Orac is not likely to play out effectively -- although I still think we can hope that some will be able to catch Maher privately and challenge him to explain/justify his anti-vaccine and other quack opinions (PZ has indicated a potential willingness to do so, for example) and publicize the results.
Of course, in some way, the blog-o-sphere fury over the award has already made the message fairly clear, and though some will see this as a tempest in a teapot, I am actually somewhat glad to see the amount of healthy debate surrounding this. At this point, I don't think anyone can fairly say (as at least one person did at Orac's blog) that the atheist community is about nothing other than self-congratulatory smugness in our shared disbelief. The sizable fraction of the online atheist community which has spoken out against Maher is itself a testament to the extent to which we value rationality and question authority. To quote another commenter at Orac's blog, "Nothing is sacred," and I think this debate has proven that.
The last point I want to make is that I think now Richard Dawkins needs to say something, even if it's something as simple as, "I think my documentary Enemies of Reason has made clear my position on anti-vaccine paranoia, alternative medicine, and general health-related quackery. Though we may not approve of all of Bill Maher's expressed opinions, nevertheless I join AAI in recognizing his grand achievement in bringing atheism to the mainstream via his movie Religulous." He doesn't need to slam Maher or say he is a bad or irrational person, he just needs to explicitly say "Maher is wrong on vaccines."
I'm going to quote one more comment from Orac's blog, and that will be it, I promise. stinger says:
[M]aybe he doesn't see the point of making a public fuss about an unworthy nominee. Courtesy would indicate that any public opinion he expresses be quietly supportive of the choice, and Dr. Dawkins is an extremely courteous person.
This initially gave me some pause, and I do see some merit in this position. However, I must respectfully disagree, and I'm sorry it comes down to something so minor, but the reason is because of one brief comment that Dawkins made on PZ's blog. I quote it in full here:
The Richard Dawkins Award (RDA) has no connection with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). The RDA was instituted by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) several years before RDFRS was founded, or even thought of. This year, the committee of AAI took the decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher. They asked me, as an individual, if I approved, and I was delighted to do so because I find him, and especially Religulous, very funny. I know nothing of any stance he may have taken on medical questions.
This year, RDFRS agreed to jointly sponsor the annual conference of AAI. The decision to do so had nothing to do with the AAI's decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher.
Here, Dawkins has not only stated his approval of Maher as the recipient, but has proclaimed ignorance of Maher's quack views on medicine. This is unfortunate, because I think at this point it is not fair for Dawkins to plead ignorance. It unfortunately comes across as a bit of a "Lalalalalala, I can't hear you!" ploy. It is highly disappointing for Dawkins to endorse the decision to give Maher the award while completely ignoring the substantive component of the controversy.
I am afraid that this whole thing may give succor to those who falsely insist that "New Atheism" is more about fundamentalism and dogma than it is about rationality. And that's why I feel Dawkins needs to say something.
And now, as promised, the closing monologue of Religulous:
[Standing atop Megiddo, Israel]: It seems peaceful but this is the very spot where a lot of Christians believe life on earth will end. The irony of religion is that because of its power to divert man to destructive courses, the world actually could come to an end. The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people, by irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken.
George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq but he didn’t learn a lot about it. Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about, and those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are intellectual slave-holders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.
Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas, and anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don’t. How can I be so sure? Because I don’t know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble and that’s what man needs to be considering, that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.
This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price. If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers.
If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of a religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let’s remember what the real problem was: that we learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That’s it. Grow up, or die.