"But you believe whatever you want, Steve."
Stephen Colbert, figuratively and literally taken aback (video of this portion, below) seemed almost hurt when his guest, unabashed atheist Bill Maher, maintained "really, we're very opposite." Maher noted that Colbert is a practicing Catholic though the host, anxious to avoid a fight and to alienate much of his audience, replied with the nuanced "I am, doesn't mean I'm good at it."
Few individuals think as well on their feet (or in this case, on his chair) as Stephen Colbert. "I suck at" being Catholic, he claimed either in humility (as he implied a moment later) or as a savvy remark by a brilliant celebrity aware that his multi-million job on CBS' Late Night eventually would be imperiled if that portion of his audience which is unbelieving or even skeptical heard a full-throated defense of Catholic Christianity.
Knowing that Maher was raised as a Roman Catholic, Colbert stated
Come on back, Bill, the door is always open. Golden ticket right before you. All you have to do is humble yourself before the presence of the Lord. Admit there are things greater than you in the universe that you don't understand and salvation awaits you. Take Pascal's wager: if you're wrong you're an idiot; but if I'm right, you're going to hell.
(Colbert, an admirer of Pope Francis, probably wouldn't admit that his emphasis on belief in God conflicts with the pontiff's argument that "God's mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience." Salvation for atheists- an interesting viewpoint for a prelate.)
But Maher was having none of Colbert's invitation, responding "I do admit there are things I do not understand. But my response to that is not to make up silly stories." A moment later, he would add "or to believe intellectually embarrassing myths from the Bronze Age."
The knife surgically inserted, Maher added "But believe what you want, Steve." Rather than defend God's existence- or his own honor- Colbert replied "I could eat a big bowl of this. This is good. See, my religion teaches me humility in the face of this attack." It was a quick and pleasant retort for a guy whose main concern in life is to keep that big payday coming, but when Maher immediately noted "you brought it up," the bleeding was evident.
This was a classic confrontation in which each participant accomplished his objective. Maher sought a confrontation which he knew he could not lose because Colbert could not afford (term of art, that) to tell his guest what he really thought about him and his ideas. He did so by placing himself squarely on the side of rationality and science (truth being a matter of opinion), which Colbert's old audience on Comedy Central would have appreciated. Even the Late Night audience, generally adoring of Colbert, was not squarely in the host's corner.
Having pulled his punches, Colbert, too, had good reason to be satisfied with his performance. Displaying good humor amidst obvious discomfort, he managed to get out of the segment without actually committing to any creed, thereby maintaining credibility with his audience and the network executives. And tas Colbert repeatedly demonstrates, that is mostly what matters.