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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is atheism standing in the way of an Emmy for Bill Maher?

Bill Maher has been hosting Real Time with Bill Maher for nine years on HBO, and he still hasn’t won an Emmy, despite receiving six consecutive nominations for the show. And he’s missed out on winning on numerous other occasions. In fact, he’s now the losingest Emmy nominee ever, far outpacing legendary loser Susan Lucci: She won on her 19th nomination; Maher just lost after his 26th.

Clearly, lots of people simply don’t like Maher — as the comments thread at this Gold Derby post about his losses indicates. But Maher himself thinks something else is at work preventing him from taking home an Emmy, as he tells ABC News:

A panel of, like, 10 people watches one tape. If half of those people are religious, that probably eliminates me right there. A lot of people wouldn’t vote for such an outspoken atheist, someone who made “Religulous.”

But Hollywood is supposed to be liberal! Is atheism simply too liberal for not-really-liberal-at-all Hollywood? Is atheism too extreme for American mainstream entertainment? (Just asking this question makes me wish I could see the BBC quiz show QI more: what little I have seen of it shocked me with its rampant intellectualism and freethinking… and it airs in primetime on BBC One, not on an obscure, little-watched cable channel in the middle of the night. And it’s hosted by Stephen Fry, a known atheist!)

Is atheism standing in the way of an Emmy for Bill Maher? Even if that’s just a convenient excuse masking other reasons for Maher’s losses, why isn’t atheism more prominent in American entertainment?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • bitchen frizzy

    Even if that’s just a convenient excuse masking other reasons for Maher’s losses, why isn’t atheism more prominent in American entertainment?

    Rule #1 of entertainment: Give the people what they want.

    “More prominent” than what? It’s represented about proportionately to – if not more proportionately than – market share.

  • Brian H

    Ever notice how we atheists are always billed as being ‘militant’?

    Am I not allowed to be a passive atheist? A slacker atheist? Couch potato atheism would get a lot more converts.

  • But Hollywood is supposed to be liberal! Is atheism simply too liberal for not-really-liberal-at-all Hollywood?

    Now that’s an interesting question. Is atheism automatically liberal? Is conservatism automatically tied to religion? It always seemed that way to me, but then I stumbled on this:


    I’d never really thought about that before. Huh. Learn something new every day.

    As for Maher: I don’t think his explanation is implausible. It’d be interesting to see if any of the Emmy voters actually admit to being turned off by his outspoken atheism.

  • JoshB

    Can’t speak for Emmy voters, but I have my own problems with Maher:

    Western medicine misses a lot…Viruses are always mutating…I know a lot of people on the conservative side don’t believe in Evolution

    Yes, that’s Maher trying to use Evolution to support his New Agey dislike for science-based medicine.

  • RogerBW

    Television and film producers mostly make what they think people will buy. A religious-loony campaign against your product generally, in the USA, does more harm (millions of fellow-travellers who won’t see it) than good (people whose interest gets perked up by the fuss). (Everywhere else that Christianity has been predominant, the religious loonies have died back enough that they can mostly be ignored. Though they seem to be making a sad comeback in Australian government.)

    Occasionally someone will get through this barrier, but it tends to be with a fairly militant product – like Religulous – rather than “hey, we’re nice normal people who happen to be atheists”.

    (This of course leaves religious people who aren’t loonies, and indeed Brian H’s slacker atheists, without a voice. The joys of the Overton window.)

  • As recently as three years ago, polls showed that a majority of Americans are still prejudiced against atheists.


    As of 2007, America was less willing to vote for an atheist for President than any other group included in the poll. And the percentage that indicated that they wouldn’t vote for an atheist tells me that people are still quite comfortable admitting that prejudice. I’m sure that plenty of people would falsely report that they’d be willing to vote for a black man or a woman, even if they never really would, even in an anonymous poll. Very few people these days want to think they’re prejudiced against blacks or women. But Americans apparently still don’t fear being seen as bigoted against atheism.

    (Interestingly, “Muslim” was not included in that Gallup poll. I wonder how that would fare these days, as it’s become disturbingly acceptable to be prejudiced against Islam.)

    So it’s entirely possible that such prejudice may be getting in the way of an Emmy for Maher.

  • Zari

    I hadn’t appreciated just how many of the American population are religious. I’m British and my default position is to assume anyone I meet is an aetheist unless there is reason to think otherwise. However, religion tends to be a private matter so perhaps there are more religious people about than I thought. Being religiously inclined/aetheist has no correlation with political viewpoint in Britain.

    What about QI is “freethinking”? I find it just fun banter with some intersting snippets of information thrown in. It doesn’t strike me as being anything out of the ordinary.

  • MC

    Brian, in other polling Atheists were thought to be less trustworthy than Muslims.

    And aside from the atheism, I don’t think Maher’s work on the feminist side of things is helping matters either.

  • @MC: Sigh. I wish I were surprised about those poll results. I guess the only thing worse than a different flavor of Sky Cake is no Sky Cake at all.

    Oh, Sky Cake. Why are you so delicious?

  • I keep meaning to watch QI one of these days, but never get around to it. Doesn’t surprise me that it would be more freethinking than American shows; IIRC Britain is now the least religious country in Europe. And the U.S. is much more religious than most other developed countries. Couple that with the perpetual butthurt of a certain very, VERY vocal minority of religious folks, and yeah, I can completely see Hollywood having an anti-atheist bias. Certainly there’s a very clear anti-skeptic bias, and while they aren’t identical by a long shot, there’s a lot of overlap between skeptics and atheists.

  • Fuggle

    Isn’t it also possible that a long string of nominations isn’t worth a win on its own, and maybe it’s just because his show isn’t particularly noteworthy?

    Full disclosure: I am an atheist/agnostic, I dislike Bill Maher, and I’ve never seen Real Time, largely because I don’t go out of my way to track it down or casually watch HBO – that said I still think “would he still lose even if he wasn’t [x]” is a fair question to ask.

    And if the answer to that is yes, or even maybe, then the answer to the QotD is “probably not” or even “no.”

  • MC

    Yeah, when you are tackling the same subject matter as the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, well, you have to be exceedingly good to beat that… especially lately, because they are both really excelling at what they are doing. I could totally see that argument.

  • Rob

    It might also just be that some people find his personality and the manner in which he presents his opinions rather off-putting. I often find myself sympathizing and/or agreeing with what he has to say (I’m extremely liberal myself) but finding the precise way he does it to be so obnoxious (self-congratulatory, smarmy, bitter) I almost wish I didn’t agree with him. Jon Stewart manages similar commentary while also managing to be witty and amiable.

  • DaveTM

    I think he’s overreacting but that seems to be his thing. I agree with others that he’s being beaten out by The Daily Show and Colbert Report. What I wonder is how many people look at Bill Maher and think oh theres an atheist? I certainly don’t but then it doesn’t really matter to me that he is. I’m sure alot of people think he’s a smarmy prick but does that have anything to do with him being an atheist?

  • Is atheism standing in the way of an Emmy for Bill Maher?

    Of course, it is. Just as Catholicism is apparently the sole reason Teddy Kennedy never got elected President. ;-)

    Seriously, atheism hasn’t exactly stunted Stephen Fry’s TV career–he has now appeared on TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic–nor his literary career.

    Nor has playing an openly atheist character stymied Hugh Laurie’s career.

    And aren’t many American celebrities like Madonna who have gotten famous not only despite their penchant for religious chain-yanking but also because of it?

    A religious-loony campaign against your product generally, in the USA, does more harm (millions of fellow-travellers who won’t see it) than good (people whose interest gets perked up by the fuss).

    Actually I’m old enough to remember the Fox TV show Married…with Children actually becoming more popular despite such a protest though if you wish to argue that protest doesn’t count because it wasn’t necessarily religious, that’s your prerogative.

    Come to think of it, Life of Brian prospered despite such a campaign as well.

    Anyway, it’s not like many of the most critically popular shows have the type of excessively pious devotion to religion that would have been quite common back in the 1950s. It’s not uncommon to see even openly religious characters like the Booth character in Bones indulge in behavior that would have been scandalous fifty years ago and, of course, Bones‘ title character regularly makes House-like pronouncements about religion without ever getting the type of comeuppance she would have received in earlier generations.

    Yes, the times are a-changing–but apparently not fast enough. And if it’s any consolation, many of the serious Christians I know kvetch about a lot of modern-day TV shows as well.

    So if neither hardcore Christians nor atheists are happy with the status quo, who is?

    Personally, I suspect Maher is more likely to be facing an unspoken political backlash for the same remarks about the 9/11 hijackers which got him into trouble earlier in this century. Of course, that isn’t right but it still makes more sense than “hey, I’m being held back by the same society that made stars out of Madonna and Hugh Laurie because I’m a damn atheist.”

  • mortadella

    It’s hard to say, though, I’d be surprised if anyone but a religious extremist would spend time actively hating an atheist.

    I’m generally ok with Maher, except that he’s replaced religion with a weird sense of healthism that’s borderline superstitious. He’s mentioned that he’s afraid of eating microwaved food, is scared of vaccines and thinks certain food should be taxed to discourage obesity. He’s also really obsessed with corn syrup….it’s like, dude, we know, it’s like sugar except it’s made from corn. He’s ok with alcohol and weed (and who isn’t? ;)), but he thinks people are nuts if they eat a hamburger every once in awhile. Then he claims to be pro-science.

  • Knightgee

    I’m hesitant. While atheists are certainly treated poorly by mainstream America, Bill Maher has done plenty that would keep even other atheists and non-judgmental religious folks from liking him, so there could be perfectly valid reasons, his atheism aside.

  • PC

    Like Zari, here in Australia you assume most people you meet are atheists, have some nebulous view about god/heaven or are involved with some church for charity or social reasons (put my mom down for the last one). QI is my wife’s favourite show on TV though I agree it is more free association than free thinking. Fry’s personal fight against depression has got a lot of air time over here from groups trying to raise awareness and get a better deal for people fighting mental illness.

    Having said all that, its amazing what can bring religious zealots out of the woodwork. In Oz, school kids are required to have one period (40 minutes) a week of religious education from the religious sect of their choice. With the majority of the population openly atheist these days this means more than 50% of kids doing absolutely nothing for 40 minutes so the Parents and Citizens Association suggested the blindingly obvious: Lets hold general ethics classes for the non-religious kids.

    Despite a highly successful trial, a vocal group of religious leaders and politicians are probably going to stop this. Their argument in a nutshell is, “Morality and ethics come from following a set of rules set down by [insert your religion here] so therefore atheists have no morals and no ethics and how dare anyone attempt to teach them otherwise!”

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Yeah, maybe, but I doubt it.

    I mean, if he’s constantly competing with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, then he has about as much chance as Dreamworks running against Pixar in Best Animated Pictures Oscars.

    He seems to have this “Oppressed genius” schtick about him that’s kinda off-putting; while it may be fun to hear him mock and deride the positions he disagrees with as being moronic when I agree with him, I can’t help but realize he has that exact same attitude even when he’s clearly talking out his ass. I think that anti-establishment streak is part of what led him to get evolution right but medicine wrong.

  • markyd

    In America, it is assumed that you are religious. More specifically, a Christian.
    This is why I have become such an outspoken Atheist. I’d rather not be lumped in with the folks who believe in invisible sky daddies.
    I like Bill Maher, but never watch his show. I have no opinion on whether it deserves an Emmy or not.

  • Lady Tenar

    He seems to have this “Oppressed genius” schtick about him that’s kinda off-putting

    Tell me about it. I am so sick of his whiny, narcissistic, I’m-so-persecuted bullshit. Maybe he doesn’t win because, as someone else pointed out, there are others, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, doing what he does better. Maybe he just isn’t that funny.

    I’m sorry, but the way he’s always going on about how it’s so incredibly tough to be an atheist and how Ignorant Middle America just can’t handle his brave, transgressive envelope-pushing makes him sound like every other rich, privileged white guy pissing and moaning about how the PC police are after him.

    Also, I’m sorry, atheists just aren’t that marginalized. I feel like I’m always hearing either loudmouth Christians or loudmouth atheists yapping at each other. Want to know who’s really invisible? Agnostics and liberal religious people, especially if they’re belong to religions besides Christianity. As a progressive, modern, yet practicing Jew, I am not welcome on either side of this particular culture war and I wish both sides would just shut up already.

  • Muzz

    I haven’t watched a great deal of his stuff, but he’s not terribly popular with the American liberals whose websites I frequent (mostly for reasons JoshB has aluded) and after a clip or two his overbearing smugness does come across and his interview style isn’t a whole lot better than Bill O’Rielly (minus shouting most of the time though, I guess).
    There’s people, as mentioned, who are more incisive and witty who never give the religious right a break.
    Maybe he’s just not as popular as he thinks he is.

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