Title: God, No! Signs You May Already Be and Atheist and Other Magical Tales
Author: Penn Jillette
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Penn Jillette may be best known to the world at large as a world-class magician, the larger (and louder) half of the magical duo, Penn & Teller. In atheist circles he is also known as an outspoken advocate of atheism. And he may be known to some as the author or co-author of five previous books. In his latest book, God, No! Jillette offers his atheistic take on the Ten Commandments of cinematic and biblical fame. The book’s introduction opens with these words:
You don’t have to be brave, or a saint, a martyr, or even very smart to be an atheist. All you have to be able to say is, “I don’t know.”
Jillette moves from that statement to contrast atheism as a position of humility with theism, which he describes as an arrogant stance that purports to know, not merely believe, what a god or gods expect of humankind. As an example of theistic arrogance, Jillette discusses prayer:
Some think that god will answer prayers. They think that their prayer can influence the behavior of an omnipotent, omniscient power….
The idea that someone can claim that they know there’s a god because they feel it, because they trust a book that they were raised with, because they had an epiphany, and then ask this god to change its mind about its plan for the universe is arrogant.
Jillette also provides as clear an explanation of atheism as one will find anywhere:
Being an atheist means you don’t believe in god. When someone asks if god exists and you humbly say, “I don’t know,” you’ve answered honestly.
Once you’ve answered “I don’t know” to the existence of a god, the answer to whether you believe in god pretty much has to be no. That doesn’t mean you’re saying it’s impossible for there to be a god, or that we couldn’t have evidence of a god in the future. It just means that right now you don’t know. And if you don’t know, you can’t believe.
After a strong start in the introduction, Jillette organizes the heart of his book into ten chapters, one for each biblical commandment, which Jillette offsets with “one atheist’s suggestions:”
The Bible’s Commandments
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol…for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God….
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy god in vain….
- Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the lord thy god…For in six days the lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.
- Honor thy father and thy mother….
- Thou shalt not kill.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not lie.
- Thou shalt not covet….
One Atheist’s Suggestions
- The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity, and love. Respect these above all.
- Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings.
- Say what you mean, even when talking to yourself.
- Put aside some time to think and rest.
- Be there for your family. Love your parents, your partner, and your children.
- Respect and protect all human life.
- Keep your promises.
- Don’t steal.
- Don’t lie.
- Don’t waste too much time wishing, hoping, and being envious; it’ll make you bugnutty.
Even though God, No! is well-written and very well-edited, the quality of the book’s content is uneven. Fortunately, the good outweighs the bad. The part that I found least amusing, enlightening or moving was the section in the fourth chapter in which Jillette describes his experiences of having sex while scuba diving. Yes, I get how this account fits into a chapter dedicated to the ideal of taking time to rest, relax and enjoy life, but this section left me feeling like Jillette was working way too hard at being funny and ended up being tedious instead. Another part of the book that I found uninteresting was the sixth chapter, throughout which Jillette strives, with an astonishing lack of clarity and precision compared to the rest of the book, to explain his libertarian political views. I found it ironic that, in the section entitled Penn’s Bacon and a Kiss Airlines, Jillette blatantly disregards his own second suggestion, as he appears to have put his libertarian ideals above the humanity of Muslims. Here’s an illustrative sample:
So at my airline, there would be no embarrassing time-wasting scans and put-downs. No profiling. But before you get on the plane, our lovely host and hostess would offer you a piece of bacon. Nice, fresh, piping-hot, crisp, glorious bacon. If you don’t want to eat the bacon, you don’t get on the airplane without a full strip-search. Eat the swine, or bend over and take the glove.
Now, I realize that this paragraph (and most of what follows in this section of the book) should be read as comedy and not taken literally. And maybe others will find this section sidesplittingly funny. But, I don’t. I just find it tasteless and boring. I find it especially confounding as it comes from the same man who, in the book’s first chapter, writes with striking compassion about the struggles of Hasidic Jews who no longer believe the dogma held by their families and peers in very tight-knit, nearly closed communities. He also writes compassionately about Muslims in the book’s afterword. Given these facts, I’ll just identify this section of the book as a bit of black humor that, in my opinion, misfired.
Having said enough about what I didn’t like about the book, I’ll highlight some bits that struck me as particularly insightful, enlightening, or touching.
In the third chapter (which explores the idea of saying what one means), Jillette takes a position that may surprise some atheist readers: he endorses proselytization. Even though he finds religious proselytization personally annoying, he understands the moral imperative that drives religious zealots to convert others to their ways of living and thinking. Jillette views religious proselytization as one segment of the marketplace of ideas, a segment that he counters by proselytizing for atheism. Later in the same chapter, Jillette takes agnostics to task for being, as he sees it, unwilling to acknowledge their lack of god-belief, i.e., their atheism. In doing so, he puts forward a nice discussion of the differences between questions of ontology (what a state of affairs actually is, i.e., whether a god exists) and epistemology (what one actually knows or believes one knows). He says:
If I ask you, “Do you believe in god?” the question is…specific. It’s asking you to report on your thoughts…. It doesn’t matter how sure you are of your belief…. None of us can really know for sure if there’s a god, but belief is, if not an action, then at least a state of mind you can report on in real time….
“Is there a god?” can be answered, “I don’t know.” “Do you believe in god?” needs to be answered yes or no, even though you haven’t made up your mind for sure. None of us has made up our mind for sure….
Jillette follows this exhortation by challenging agnostics to state their belief positions honestly, and closes by proudly, forthrightly declaring, “I am an atheist.”
The part of the book that I found the most moving and enlightening was the fifth chapter, in which Jillette revealed much about his personal and family life. This chapter offers a deep view into Jillette’s heart and mind. For example, in discussing his mother’s terminal illness and death, Jillette wrote,
Understanding [her] suffering as random was hard for me, but I could never have understood it as part of an all-powerful god’s “plan.” If a god had planned that for my mom, I would have turned to Satan. There’s no plan I’ll get behind that includes that much suffering for anyone.
Jillette makes it clear that, in his view, an atheistic understanding of suffering is far more compassionate than any theistic proposition put forward thus far. If you read nothing else in this book, this chapter alone is worth the purchase price. Jillette demonstrates powerfully throughout the chapter that people don’t need divine directives to teach them how to care for each other. Read it to get a good taste of atheist family values (as expressed by one atheist speaking solely for himself, but in a way that will undoubtedly resonate with many atheists). Jillette makes it refreshingly clear that religious believers do not have a monopoly on affection, respect, loyalty, compassion and love.
Jillette closes the book with an afterword entitled, Atheism is the Only Real Hope Against Terrorism. In his opinion, faith is the enemy that rational people must overcome. He says,
Being religious means being okay with believing in things without evidence…. Once you’ve condoned faith in general, you’ve condoned any crazy shit done because of faith.
Jillette’s counter to faith is this:
The only real argument against religious terrorism is to try to share the reality of the world. The world is plenty We have each other. We have love. We have family. We have art. We have time. We have an impossible universe full of awe and wonder. We have an infinite number of questions we can work on. We have all the glory that is real and is us. We must stop glorifying faith.
I have no doubt that many atheists will agree wholeheartedly with that thought.
Readers looking for profound insights into atheism or killer arguments against theism and other forms of woo and superstition won’t find them here. What they will find is one atheist’s unapologetic point of view. God, No! is not a classic of atheist literature, but it is entertaining and, at times, thought-provoking. Readers who enjoy light fare that strikes a nice balance between chuckles and tears will find plenty to satisfy them in this book.
– the chaplain