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My fear is that Bill Maher’s religious-like crusade to wipe out religion is going to wipe out the Bill Maher I’ve grown to enjoy and respect.

His seething intolerance and disrespect for people with religious faith are becoming as offensive as the racial and sexual-orientation bigotry Maher delights in railing against.

Last Friday on his HBO program, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” he engaged his political panel in a 14-minute discussion that focused on his belief that religious people are “deluded.” His panelists, including an author who is an atheist, disagreed with Maher, which served to frustrate him.

Maher’s flippant, dismissive and condescending attitude frustrated me, one of his biggest fans. I know the benefits of faith in a higher power. That Maher does not saddens me. But it does not make me think he’s delusional.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I’m quite familiar with Maher’s view on religion and other issues. I’ve seen his movie “Religulous,” which pointed out much of the absurdity, hypocrisy and violent danger found in organized religion across the globe.

I enjoyed the movie. I appreciated the point he was trying to make: Religious extremists and people who see faith as an appropriate substitute for thought are likely to set off a global nuclear holocaust.

I get Maher. I, too, see the trouble he’s predicting.

That, among other things, is why he is my favorite political pundit. He’s fearless, iconoclastic, hilarious, unpredictable and genuine. He’s confident enough to adjust his positions when presented new information. He’s willing to criticize politicians he supports. And, without scientific documentation, Maher refuses to pretend Sarah Palin’s brain is filled with anything more than marbles.

Maher reminds me of my newspaper idol, Mike Royko, a champion of common sense and an enemy of political correctness. It never mattered whether I agreed with the positions Royko took in his columns. What made the Chicago legend my hero was the intellectual honesty of his perspective and wit.

But Royko did not fancy himself a TV star. He rarely granted television or radio interviews. He peaked as a pundit/columnist in the 1970s and 1980s, long before the TV sound byte ruined political discourse.

Maher, a cable TV star and avid pot smoker, operates in the new world order, where willing-to-say-anything television opportunists such as Glenn Beck lead America’s political debate by stirring intolerance.

It’s sad to see Maher join them. There are rumors that CNN wants to hire Maher to rescue it from irrelevancy. Two weeks ago, ABC gave Maher a seat alongside George Will and others on the influential “This Week” program, a sign that Maher’s profile is expanding well into the mainstream.

Will Maher use his enhanced platform to tell me my mother is “delusional?”

It was faith that gave my mother the strength to work a full shift at a factory and a second job at night so that my brother and I could live in a safe neighborhood with a good school system.

Or will Maher attack my grandmother’s faith?

It was her belief in Christ that allowed her to move emotionally and mentally beyond the racist atrocities her family endured living in the South.

Does Maher believe that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a group of atheists withstood water hoses, police batons, dogs, lynchings, bombings and jail so that dark-skinned citizens could pursue the American dream?

What does Maher believe got Jewish people through the Holocaust or Nelson Mandela through 27 years of incarceration?

Was Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad paved with well-meaning atheists or primarily by white people willing to take great risks because they believed they answered to a higher power?

I have no interest in demonizing atheists. I have friends who don’t believe in God, and they are good people willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others.

I can see why a nonbeliever would focus solely on the negative aspects of organized faith. As a believer and benefactor of religious faith, I can see the good and the bad and recognize that the solution isn’t in the destruction of religion.

Religion is an instrument not much different from a fork. You can use it to feed yourself healthy green vegetables. Or you can use it to gorge yourself on chili-cheese fries before stabbing your waiter with it.

It’s inappropriate for Maher to define religious people by the nuts who launch bombs or fly planes into buildings in the name of Jesus or Allah. It’s equally unfair to define them by the nuts who want to limit the rights of gays or stand in the way of science in the name of Jesus or Allah.

Faith is not the enemy of thought. The lazy and unethical way many of us have been taught to practice religion is.

I thought Maher was smart enough and honorable enough to make this distinction.

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