Penn Jillette: famous magician, outspoken libertarian, well known skeptic, ardent atheist.
Last week, Jillette’s new book “God, No. Signs you may already be an atheist and other magical tales” was released. I am a big fan of Mr. Jillette and was interested to see his new book. On a lot of topics, he and I agree. I’d like to think we’d get along if we ever met, however I do disagree with his atheism.
Part autobiography, part philosophical exposition, Jillette does explain the context in which he was raised as a church attendee in New England and how he became an atheist as a teenager. The book is peppered with stories of interactions with fellow atheists; “converted” atheists who have been influenced by Jillette; and even how his mother, sister, and brother in law all eventually left the church and became atheists.
What the book lacks in terms of philosophical reasons for being an atheist, it makes up with appeals to emotion and diatribes against religion.
In regards to science, he argues that the truths of science are self-existent. Truth is true regardless of if it is known. “What goes up must come down” was true before people believed it. Likewise, whatever the next great scientific discovery is, it is already true.
While I do agree that scientific discoveries yet to be discovered are already true, I also believe that if God exists, He exists regardless of if a person believes in Him. Jillette talks about reading through the Bible as a young man and not believing it, and this being part of his journey to atheism. Jillette’s book wasn’t intended to disprove religion. It was more assuming atheism and working from there, and setting up an existential philosophy on life without faith.
In the subtitle for the book, Jillette argues that many people are already atheists, possibly unaware of their own atheism. This idea is talked about in the book’s third chapter. For the rest of the book, I kept waiting, waiting, waiting for him to address the matter again, and he did not. Given the prominence of this idea on the cover of the book, I thought that it was going to make up more of a major theme than it did.
He believes that most people who claim to be agnostic are essentially “just cowardly and manipulative atheists.” Jillette is harsh towards agnostics. He views them as being condescending towards the religious and argues that they should just be honest about their atheism. I think that this is an oversimplification and that there are people who legitimately do view themselves as agnostic, and who do not necessarily disbelieve in God. The lack of disbelief excludes one from being an atheist.
One could argue, on the Pascalean line of thought, that agnosticism could be viewed as a theological equivalent to atheism given that if a God who judges does exist and people have not decided, the indecision would be just as detrimental as the decision made by someone who does not believe. But I never really sensed that was where Jillette was trying to go with his arguments.
All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable book. Much of the writing focuses on anecdotes of interactions with various celebrities and other amusing stories from his life. He talks about spending 15 minutes at Zero Gravity with the guitar player from ZZ Top, and the awe and joy of that experience practically comes off of the book’s pages.
In more than one place, it brought tears to my eyes. Jillette shares stories of the losses of his parents and sister, and how his mother had requested that he still perform his stage show that day she died, and the close bond he had with his only sibling, a sister who was 23 years older than Jillette.
The book definitely has its share of funny moments as well. In the final chapter, Jillette tells a story that had me laughing harder than I’ve laughed at anything in a very long time.