Monday, July 15, 2013

God, no! Signs you may already be an atheist and other magical tales

By Penn Jillette

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

If you already know about Penn Jillette, this will not come as a huge surprise: This book is full of "filth" — off-color words, off-color references, and so much coarseness and profanity that if you are easily offended by salaciousness, avoid this book. Jillette doesn’t mince words at any point. He is lewd, rude, vulgar, and foul. He tells it (whatever "it" is) as he sees it, and uses his colloquial language. It is the language he uses every day of his life. He confesses, "I’ve always sworn . . . a lot" (p. 45). Despite his crudeness and vulgarity, Jillette says, "I never used obscenities around my mom and dad" (p. 44). But, he didn’t mind being explicit, offensive, and outrageous with his readers!

The second thing you should be aware of right at the outset is that the book has little to do with atheism and is full of Jillette’s ramblings. If you are surprised by this, then you didn’t read, nor take seriously, what Jillette said in his introduction: "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. Some of the stories have nothing to do with atheism directly, but they will give you a feel for how one goofy atheist lives his life in turn-of-the-century America" (p.xix).

One case Jillette made for atheism was through his sister and brother-in-law. They contended that when you see church (Christian) people acting like they do (in this case, forcing a female pastor out of her job for something that was none of their business (that she was a lesbian)) it makes a case for atheism: "‘These are church people acting like this. That’s wrong. There’s so much suffering and unkindness in the world. There’s no god’" (p. 45). It certainly doesn’t require an issue as strong as lesbianism to witness church people behaving badly. Sometimes it is the pastors themselves. It happens often; thus, the case for atheism is repeated frequently.

I thought Jillette was having fun when he said that atheists "need to help believers. Someone who believes in god is wasting big parts of his or her life, holding back science and love, and giving ‘moral’ support to dangerous extremists. If you believe something, you must share it; it’s one of the ways we all learn about truth" (p. 62). His argument for proselytizing was a spoof of the charge all evangelicals face, but it got him into some trouble. His description of all of this is certainly interesting.

It is hard to believe that Jillette has "never had a sip of alcohol or any recreational drug in [his] life" (p. 23). It seems clear, however, he makes up for this in the language he chooses to use and the sex he enjoyed.

Here are a few things I found fascinating. I loved Jillette’s contrast (in Las Vegas) of his (Penn’s) and his partner (Teller) with Siegfried and Roy (pp. 3-10). Delightful! His description of Extreme Elvis (p. 21) may be accurate, but it is truly foul. As the description continues on pages 22-23, it gets better and quite funny.

I thought his characterizations of his family, where he lived, and how he grew up was worth reading. His story of the masked magician was fun.

His discussion of the difference between atheism and agnosticism was priceless (pp. 75-79). Of course, you get a preview of his point of view in the chapter entitled, "Agnostics: No One Can Know for Sure but I Believe They’re Full of Shit." There are no chapter numbers in this book.

Going Zero-G (pp. 83-94) was exciting. Penn Jillette is a great story teller — obscenities and all. And he doesn’t flinch on the description nor mince words on the details! A good example is his letter to Penthouse (pp. 116-120). Then there is the story of getting homecare for his parents and how he had to lie to them so they wouldn’t know he paid for all of it (pp. 141-144).

The third thing you should realize about this book is that there is little structure to it. Oh, he uses the ten commandments for titles to parts, but then he includes chapters within these parts that appear to readers as having little relation to the part title. On top of that, he offers cute stories within chapters that seemingly have little or no relationship to the chapter or part. He occasionally makes connections, but sometimes they make little difference — or sense. He rambles. Now, it may be that Jillette really knows how all the parts fit together, but I felt much of it was stream-of-consciousness. As long as you know this in advance, and you are willing to dispense with any thought of some superior organizing principle, you will enjoy the book more — and the stories (if you don’t mind the obscenities) tumble out, one after another, and (for the most part) they are engaging and enjoyable.

Don’t worry about Jillette’s position on god or politics. Get over all the obscenities and professed debauchery. Stop getting disjointed about all the preaching and the use of his bully pulpit. Forget all the digs made about other entertainers (especially those who think they are magicians or psychics). Don’t become unglued about a fellow who grew up in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a "failing public school student" (p. 183), making pronouncements about things far outside his expertise ("I accused Richard Nixon of crimes" (p. 183). Never allow his use of the Internet (watching porn) or the music with which he identified to bias your thinking. Don’t even think about his cockiness, self-assuredness, and egotistical self-absorption. In this way, you clear the path toward enjoying this entertaining (and unique) book. I have never read anything quite like it.


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