What’s my reaction to Penn Jillette’s book. Let’s talk about it today on Deeper Waters.
Ironically, this title aptly describes my reaction to this book. I had read it thinking I might actually find some kind of argument. Going through this was a labor of love. I beg my readers to please not bother. After reading a book like this, I feel like I need to take a shower to wipe the dirt off of me. There is rampant profanity throughout and some parts I would label as soft porn. Instead of an argument about God, you will more often than not just find Jillette describing his life. You can be sure you will at least get a lesson on total depravity.
Of course, there are parts where Jillette talks about his relationship with his family, and it is touching, and I did think some of the political theorizing was interesting, but more than anything else, there is nothing in this book that is really argumentation. The book was written in response to Glenn Beck’s challenge to write an atheist ten commandments, but one wonders what the heck the atheist ten commandments have to do with each of the sections.
Definitely, going through this and finishing it was a labor of love.
We get a revealing statement on the page xv where Jillette talks about how he will get in touch with Richard Feynman, a famous physicist, and ask for some quick tutoring on physics so he can pretend to say he’s read his books. Unfortunately, this seems to be the usual tactic that atheists have when it comes to understanding Christianity. Rather than read the material, just read what a fellow atheist said about it, hence Bart Ehrman, Dan Barker, and John Loftus, being representatives of biblical knowledge.
So on the start of page Xvii, Jillette asks what humility there is in being a theist. Jillette says none, because that is to claim to know, and the only way one knows is faith. It’s this repetitious meme that keeps going between new atheists. They seem incredulous to the idea that theists have reasons often for what they believe, regardless of how many debates that take place. Now an atheist could say that the theist has bad reasons. Okay. That’s another line. I’d say it’s false, but it’s something different. What will it ever take to convince the new atheists of this belief that they simply hold without evidence all the while condemning believing something without evidence?
And in fact, I don’t think it’s prideful at all. What is prideful is to claim that no one can know. There is nothing prideful about claiming to know something necessarily. There would be in claiming to know everything if you did not, but it is not humble to deny something that is true about yourself. Humility rests in being content with who you are. It is realizing your place in the universe. It is not downing yourself.
On page xviii, we read Jillette on morality. Politically, Jillette is a libertarian and thus says “And if you’re a libertarian atheist, there can be no commandments. There can be no edicts. It’s all down to the individual. No one knows what’s best for other people. I don’t even know what’s best for myself.”
Although it’s apparently best for people to be humble and not claim that God exists.
Scary thing is that I believe Jillette’s opinion is fully consistent with atheism. This does not prove atheism false of course, but it should be seen as something that is a logical conclusion. If good and evil cannot objectively be said of anything, then there’s no sense telling about what is best for everyone or even for oneself, the concept ultimately just makes no sense. If you’re someone like myself who does believe that there are some objective goods in the world, then you should be concerned about this.
On page 41, Jillette starts a chapter about growing up in the United Church of Christ and having a lesbian pastor. At this, several people in the church disagreed, which stopped his family from going to that church. It seems totally foreign to Jillette’s thinking that such a thing could be wrong. Of course, he knows some people thought that, but that some people would actually seriously think that he does not seem to be able to believe.
This, of course, after being told we cannot tell what is best for anyone. If there is nothing that is objectively good, then the church’s stance on lesbianism is just as valid as the stance on what color the carpet should be. Neither really make a difference. All we can gather is that a personal preference is being disagreed with.
When we get to the chapter on the start of page 59, we actually do get a breath of fresh air. Jillette does think people should proselytize. If you really believe God exists and people are going to Hell, you ought to be out there evangelizing. It is annoying he thinks, but it is the proper behavior to do. As an indictment of the church, he does admit how he said this in a video and before too long, churches everywhere were playing it. Only one organization wrote to him for permission to use the video and that was Campus Crusade for Christ. He agreed with it. Jillette had a problem with others not bothering to check rights to intellectual property, and frankly, who can blame him? We Christians should be doing better.
With the chapter that starts on page 75, Jillette goes after agnostics who say not just that they don’t know if God exists or not, but that they don’t know what they believe. Now I am more lenient here in that I can think someone can honestly say they’re really not sure which way they’d lean at this time. Jillette again uses the same canard of faith saying that unlike God, when it comes to the people he believes in, he can show photographic evidence. Generally, we accept that people have families today, but it is not because of photographs. After all, my wife and I like to watch “Fact or Faked” and if you’ve seen it, one thing you know is that just because you have a photograph or video of something does not prove it is real. Many people today say that it’s convenient Jesus did not come in an age of video tape. Well of course, but as soon as a video came up, people would say “Faked!”
On page 128, he starts a chapter to atheist parents. How do you keep them from believing in God? It sounds odd that the position that is common sense is something that has to be repeatedly enforced. Jillette says you have to remind your children every chance that you get that there is no God. Why do you have to do this? If it is so obvious and there is so little evidence, one would think that this would be much of a problem. Now I have no problem with atheist parents wanting to do this, but Jillette is clear that if this is not done, the other side will win.
The next chapter on page 132 is about Santa Claus. Jillette gives the same argument about Christmas being based on pagan holidays. See the link at the bottom for a response to that. Also, we find more of how his emotionalism comes in. Jillette writes that atheism was a real comfort when his mother and sister died. He could never have understood that as part of an all-powerful God’s plan. To begin with, this assumes that everything that happens is God’s direct will and plan and he is the cause of it all. The worse problem with this is that it assumes that the truth will automatically be what we agree with.
The Mrs. and I are in a tough financial situation right now. Would it do good to go to the bank and say “I don’t care how much you say we have in our accounts. Let’s take a look at what I want to be true.” If God exists and does something you don’t like, well He did something you don’t like and that’s it. You have to deal with it. Now that does not mean that I don’t think the gospel is good news. I do. The first question to ask is not “Is this good news?” It is “Is this true news?”
Finally, in the last chapter, we have talk about people of faith and while Muslims are the ones Jillette focuses on doing the crimes, he believes all religions that claim to be Abrahamic are the problem. Jillette says that if you believe something is true because you feel it, then what can you say to Charles Manson? Indeed, what can you say, but this would only be a problem if all one had was feeling, which would be a problem for a moral relativist. Think back to the statement at the beginning about not knowing what is best for everyone else.
Of course, there is the statement on page 227 that Jillette is not even sure that Jesus ever lived. That alone should tell us all that we need to know.
In conclusion, one will not find anything in here in the way of sustained argument. One will in fact find total depravity, if one bothers, but I simply recommend my readers go elsewhere, unless you want more evidence of total depravity.
For the origins of Christmas, see here.