Atheist semi-serious about moral obligations

September 2, 2011

‘I am an atheist whack job; that’s my culture,” writes Penn Jillette in this giddily blasphemous chronicle of his religious beliefs, or lack thereof. “This book is just some thoughts from someone who doesn’t know. I’ve tried to throw in a couple of funny stories, and there’s a lot of rambling.”

In truth, there are several truckloads of rambling. It’s fascinating to watch Jillette bounce from topic to topic — letters to Penthouse, nude Elvis impersonators, the Amazing Kreskin — pausing here and there to offer a parenthetical digression or a crisp, witty aside: “Tattoos used to mean you lived outside the law; now tattoos mean you’ve been at a mall.”

The author claims he’s trying to give the reader a feel for “how one goofy atheist lives his life in turn-of-the-century America.” The goofy atheist in question is the larger, talking half of the legendary magic-comedy duo Penn & Teller, and “goofy” seems much too amiable a word to describe him. Penn Jillette the author sounds much like Penn Jillette the performer — sharp and subversive with occasional dark notes, a carnival barker with a blackjack up his sleeve.

Many readers will wonder why the author of previous books such as “Penn & Teller’s How to Play With Your Food” and “Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends” should find it necessary to hold forth on theology. As it happens, Jillette is only the latest in a long line of famous magicians to do so.

Howard Thurston claimed to have abandoned medical missionary work for a career on the stage and expressed lasting pride when his magic was taken up to “illustrate religious truths” from some 500 church pulpits. Houdini spent years crusading against the false prophets of spiritualism, but insisted that “I firmly believe in a Supreme Being and that there is a Hereafter.” One suspects, however, that Jillette is the first to elaborate his beliefs with an anecdote about scorching his private parts with a blow dryer.


‘God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales’ by Penn Jillette Simon & Schuster. 229 pp. $24.99 (Simon & Schuster)

Jillette has made a career as a provocateur, and it is tempting to dismiss this book as another piece of carny shtick, but there is a forceful intelligence at work here that demands to be taken seriously. He has shaped his argument with care, drawing inspiration from the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. He encourages readers to disagree with him and allows for the possibility that he’s wrong and may one day change his mind: “And then I’ll proselytize about that, too.”

The book is largely an elaboration of a thoughtful, provocative essay he delivered on an NPR “This I Believe” broadcast in 2005, titled “There Is No God.” If at times this latest effort feels padded with ruminations on Bruce Springsteen and porn star Ron Jeremy, Jillette never loses sight of his central premise: Atheists, he believes, are “morally obligated to tell the truth as we see it.”

The problem for many readers will be that the book is wildly profane at times, even willfully so.

I’m a longtime fan of Penn & Teller, and my tolerance for this sort of thing is perhaps higher than most people’s. (I believe I’m one of only seven living Americans who has seen the movie “Penn & Teller Get Killed” all the way to the end.) Even so, there were times over the course of “God, No!” when I wished Jillette would stop stepping on his own private parts.

For me, at least, he’s more effective when he dials back the volume, as he does when describing how the beliefs of his parents and sister shaped his own. In one heartfelt episode he recalls how his parents fell away from their church — “the First Church of the Covered-Dish Supper” — when the congregation rose up to dismiss a lesbian pastor. When the Jillettes threw their support behind the pastor, Jillette writes, one of the church elders advised that a closer reading of the Bible might be in order and pointed out passages to suggest that God “wasn’t thrilled” with homosexuality. One can hear the pride in Jillette’s voice as he reports his mother’s answer: “Phooey on your Bible!”

Sometimes that’s all you have to say.

Daniel Stashower, author of “The Beautiful Cigar Girl,” has been a member of the Society of American Magicians for 33 years.

GOD, NO!

Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales

By Penn Jillette

Simon & Schuster. 229 pp. $24.99

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