Magician Penn Jillette Says 'God, No!' To Religion
Even if you believe in God, you might still be atheist. That's what Penn Jillette argues in his new book God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.
The louder half of the magician duo Penn & Teller — of Showtime's Pen & Teller: Bull - - - - — frames his new book as the atheist's Ten Commandments. In it, he wanders from rants about the war on drugs to stories of eating shellfish and bacon cheeseburgers with Hasidic Jews.
Jillette tells NPR's Neal Conan that critics of atheism often assume non-believers are arrogant people, but that's not necessarily true. You may not have to be brave or smart to be an atheist, Jillette says, but you do have to be humble. Atheists don't have all the answers, he writes, but they do have the humility to admit they don't know how the world was created, where humans came from or many of life's other mysteries.
On why he actually does respect religious people
"In my run-ins with Christians ... I find that they really are good moral people. And we overlap on everything, and they don't seem to be the kind of people that are waiting to hear voices to tell them what to do. So mostly I wrote this book after doing B.S. for eight years, and really appreciating religious people and how really good they are."
On how hate mail helped him find common ground with believers
"One of the things you end up doing ... when you're atheist — and an out of the closet, outspoken atheist — is I'll sit around with [evolutionary biologist and atheist] Richard Dawkins, you know. And I'll sit around with Trey Parker of South Park, and we kind of brag about our hate mail.
"This one guy in Montana wrote that he wanted to parboil my whole family to let us know what hell's going to be like. And then Dawkins offers up his stuff, and Trey offers up his stuff. And you kind of brag that way.
"And I realized that it was very, very dishonest and unpleasant to do that. Because what you're talking about is seriously mentally ill psychotic people, who happened to add some God stuff to the end of it. It is not coming out of Christianity. It is not coming out of religion. It is someone who is ... probably not dangerous, but certainly sick. And ... with a lot of troubles, and it doesn't really relate to religion.
"So I just stopped doing that, and concentrated on the hundreds of letters we would get from B.S. that say, 'I don't agree with you. I'm a strong Christian, but I love the strong passion, I love the jokes, I love the marketplace of ideas.' Because most of us do agree on that level, and it's a great thing."
On the concept of divine inspiration
"I'm a big fan of gospel music and you cannot be a fan of rock and roll, you cannot be a fan of country western music, and you can't really be a fan of jazz without listening to a lot of music that's religious.
Had Bach not been inspired to write [the] St. Matthew Passion about Christianity ... he would have still written the most beautiful music on the planet for some other ideal.
"And you also listen to [the] St. Matthew Passion by Bach. All the Bach stuff references God, even if it's not directly. I may be lying to myself, but I believe that that incredible talent, that incredible power, that incredible passion, is from the people who created it. And I believe that they would find passion in something else, if not for the church.
"We should not throw out religious art because it was inspired by that, but I believe that had Bach — even though this is impossible to say, and I have no authority to say this at all — ... I believe had Bach not been inspired to write [the] St. Matthew Passion about Christianity, that he would have still written the most beautiful music on the planet for some other ideal. Maybe for his family; maybe for love; maybe for truth.
"I'm really happy with all the art that was inspired by religion, and I think I'd be tickled to little tiny pieces if art in the future was inspired by other things."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.