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Fiction and nonfiction releases from Amor Towles, George Pelecanos, Sapphire, Penn Jillette and Jane Gross.

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Penn Jillette is one half of the magic duo Penn & Teller. He co-hosts a Showtime series, as well as the Discovery Channel's Penn & Teller Tell A Lie. (Simon & Schuster)

Magician Penn Jillette Says 'God, No!' To Religion

Aug 16, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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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.


Interview Highlights

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.

"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."

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Cover of Penn Jillette's "God, No." (Simon and Schuster)

Penn Jillette's 'God, No!': An Atheist Libertarian On Tricks, Bacon, And The TSA

Aug 16, 2011

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[Hear Penn Jillette discuss God, No! on Talk Of The Nation.]

Penn Jillette gets around.

He's half of the magic duo Penn & Teller, which is still headlining in Vegas. He had a Showtime program called Penn & Teller: Bull - - - -, which examined things he considers ridiculous, like alien abductions, bottled water, gun control, the Endangered Species Act, alternative medicine, and ESP. He's a writer, he's a comic, he's an inventor, and he was absolutely terrible on Dancing With The Stars.

He's also an atheist libertarian and an Ayn Rand fan who throws clothing-optional parties and never, ever drinks or does recreational drugs.

There's a lot to unpack when you're dealing with this particular guy, and that's the way it feels to read his new book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be An Atheist And Other Magical Tales. Certainly, some parts of God, No! are thoughtful and provocative. Jillette poses the question to religious adherents: If God asked you to kill your child, would you do it? He proposes that anyone who says no is an atheist, and anyone who says yes is a menace. That may not be a position with which very many agree, but he puts it out there and he explains what it means to him. When he explains why he thinks tattoos and fake breasts are great for the same reasons (but only really cartoonish fake breasts), it doesn't necessarily persuade me, but it's a point of view I haven't heard before.

His discussion of libertarianism is similar: He doesn't believe government has the right to do anything you wouldn't enforce at gunpoint, so (for instance) stopping crime is a legitimate government function, but public libraries are not, since he wouldn't hold a gun on anyone and force them to create a library. Again, some will agree and some won't, but his commitment to this principle is at least something he's prepared to defend.

The vibrancy of Jillette's writing and storytelling — from Vegas stories to sex stories to kid stories to stories of "helping" religious people abandon their religions — is certainly impressive. The man can really tell a story: he is wonderful at finding the right vivid image, the right hilarious detail, and the right confession of his own folly at particular moments.

He's also a very smart guy in a lot of ways. There are moments of crystal-clear insight about kindness, art, magic (David Blaine haters will get an enormous kick out of Jillette's unmerciful takedown of Blaine's "buried alive" stunt), and show business. He is a man who has spent a great deal of time thinking about his philosophy of life, and almost anyone who has put a lot of time and effort into his guiding principles can be interesting to listen to.

The problem with the book is that that same vibrancy, that same exuberance, eventually becomes performative and exhausting. Jillette's adoration of profanity is shared by plenty of great writers, and I absolutely believe in a "well-tempered F-word," as I talked about here. But there are places in this particular book where it feels showy and assaultive, as if the millionth "f—k" will make a duck drop from the ceiling. As much as I enjoy profanity wielded for proper effect, that's how much I don't like it slathered on just to add a gratuitous sense of rebellion, just to rile up the kind of people you want to dislike your book.

Some of the stories are the same: they aren't as interesting as they are dirty. (And there's nothing wrong with a dirty story if it's interesting, provided everyone is on notice that the book contains dirty stories, which this one emphatically does.) His story about visiting a San Francisco bathhouse, for instance, takes forever and is played mostly for the opportunity for a straight guy to talk about gay sex a lot, and when the punch line arrives, it's really not as satisfying as it should be.

God, No! is at its best when it combines Jillette's taste for high-level philosophy (whether you agree with him or not) with dips into his very unusual life (his house had a sex dungeon that he turned into a playroom, if that tells you anything). It's at its worst when his defiance of convention seems to have become, in its own way, very punishing toward other people's individual rights. He proudly tells a story about threatening violence toward a social worker caring for his father to get her to lie to his father the way he wanted her to, and doesn't seem to recognize that for many, his explicit threat to her based on explicitly pointing out how much bigger he was than she was has something in common with the intrusions on privacy and personal autonomy that so offend him. (His TSA rant is predictably vigorous.)

If you've liked Jillette in the past, if you like his no-holds-barred, unadorned, impatient, proudly intolerant (make no mistake; he thinks religious people are dangerous and misguided and agnostics are just chicken) style, the odds are that you're going to like the book. He's delivered a giant, unapologetic dose of — as advertised — libertarianism and atheism and nudism and magic and food and coiled anger at all the people he thinks are ruining the world for people like him. It's a fearless and vigorous piece of writing, and I liked a good part of it myself. I just wish the unflinching eye he casts on society were cast inward a bit more.

Jillette wrote about his atheism for the series This I Believe in 2005, and you can read that essay here.

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