Penn Jillette’s Signs You May Already Be an Atheist

In August, Penn Jillette’s God, No! was published, to great acclaim. As of October it ranked #273 in Amazon’s book sales category. (Those of us whose books are ranked down in the millions can’t help but feel a little pang of jealousy; it does tell us, however, who is getting read!) Jillette is the vocal member of Penn & Teller, the bad-boy magician duo, and a noted iconoclast. Largely a ramble through his inner monologue, God, No! is the first book to cause me to laugh out loud in years.

Writing, for example, about a zero gravity ride (the “Vomit Comet”) with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, a supermodel, and some very queasy paramedics, creates an almost psychedelic mental image up front. Jillette notes laconically, “I decided to have a Cinnabon (‘You pig!’) for breakfast because I thought it might taste nice coming back up.” Not wanting to give too many spoilers, just let me state that if you can read the hairdryer story without ending up snorting aloud, you’re made of iron.

But does Jillette accomplish his goal of demonstrating the truth of atheism? Probably not. The problem comes in the form of the issue itself: we are all experts when it comes to religion. Not even a magician can convince us we’re wrong.

As the subtitle indicates, Jillette believes atheism is more prevalent than many Americans would care to admit. This may be due to the definition of atheism he provides in the book’s preface: “If god (however you perceive him/her/it) told you to kill your child—would you do it? If your answer is no, in my booklet you’re an atheist.” He later qualifies this a bit, asserting that anyone who can’t answer a solid “Yes” to “Does god exist?” is an atheist. Religious specialists, however, tend to be sticklers for precise definitions. Those who don’t know about the existence of god are agnostics. Toward the end, Jillette has a few choice words about those who refuse to give a clear answer. Either you believe, or you don’t. Agnosticism is for cowards.

Overall, the book is very loosely structured on the Ten Commandments, each with a rewording from Jillette’s unique perspective. That having been noted, the book does not focus on the question of god’s existence; instead it is full of anecdotes from the author’s life—some quite moving—that help to explain why he can’t countenance the existence of god. “Up Your Santa Claus Lane,” which describes Jillette’s response to his mother’s death, cannot fail to move. The devotion to family throughout puts to shame those who populate our headlines with the divine injunctions misguided parents cite to punish their children too severely. Penn may be an atheist, but he would not sacrifice his family, even for “God.”

Few will be surprised that many of these stories are funny, but they are often angry too. Having written on the lack of trust I have in the TSA before, Jillette’s rant in “Penn’s Bacon and a Kiss Airline” was like finding a long-lost brother; another guy who feels it is criminal to be viewed naked by strangers—involuntarily—is a true freedom fighter. This is a comedian with a conscience. He may come down on the wrong side of many traditional issues (global warming and sexual mores, e.g.), but he is keenly aware that too many people suffer. Theodicy in motion.

In the end, most of Jillette’s Ten “Suggestions” are not too far from the mark of those in Exodus or Deuteronomy. For instance, instead of taking the fifth commandment as honoring your parents, his “fifth suggestion” adds a hedge thick enough to make a Pharisee proud: “Be there for your family. Love your parents, your partner, and your children. (Love is deeper than honor, and parents matter, but so do spouses and children.)” In what may raise frustration for religious critics, his ideas here come very close to the traditional words of Jesus.

An academic critic might say this book is not what it seems; it is not just another media figure giving us reasons to hang our pious heads in shame. What does come through in all the vignettes, however, is ethical, libertarian, and very human. It is difficult not to feel like you want to get to know this guy when you put his book down. While those who pick it up as believers or agnostics probably won’t come away changed, they will sense that it—like the magic for which Penn Jillette is so well known—has brought them to an unexpected place. Indeed, the book is full of surprises. (If I told you here, they would no longer be surprises, would they?)

God, No! is not for everyone. Those who object to coarse language or sexual situations will find themselves uncomfortable at several junctures. On the other hand, those who want an honest assessment of the angst religion produces in a thoughtful, forthright, and outspoken atheist should take a look. If they are honest, they will probably have to admit to a smile or two along the way.