Book Review: God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette

It’s hard to see and hear Penn Jillette without forming some sort of opinion. Jillette, the large (nearly 6 foot, 7 inches tall and approximately 300 pounds) half of the illusionist-magician-comic duo Penn & Teller, is talented, brash and unabashed. He’s never been loath to express his views. And his new book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, is likely to reinforce that what you see is what you get.

One of Jillette’s core principles is that there is no God. Not only is atheism an increasingly common subject on his Penn Point video blog, he has frequently been interviewed about it. Likewise, he’s not shy about it. Jillette even says in the book’s introduction that he’s “a loud, aggressive, strident, outspoken atheist, and I’m an asshole.” (He also admits in it that “there’s a lot of rambling” in the book.)

Jillette says God, No! resulted from Glenn Beck having asked him to entertain the idea of an atheist Ten Commandments. As a result, each chapter here consists of stories, some personal and some not, on the theme of Jillette’s suggestion for each of the Ten Commandments. Many are actually broader in scope than the original. For example, his version of the Fifth Commandment (“Honor thy father and mother”) is “Be there for your family. Love your parents, your partner, and your children.” Likewise, the Seventh Commandment’s proscription on adultery becomes “Keep your promises. (If you can’t be sexually exclusive to your spouse, don’t make that deal.)”

It would be unfair to classify God, No! as simply an attack on Christians. Still, Jillette isn’t afraid to call it as he sees it. “I haven’t found Christ,” he writes. “I’m not even looking for him. I don’t need or want salvation.” Jillette’s main focus is simply that he doesn’t believe it God. He holds his lack of belief so firmly that even agnostics irritate him. One essay is titled, “Agnostics: No One Can Know for Sure but I Believe They’re Full of Shit.” In it, he argues, among other things, that most agnostics “are really just cowardly and manipulative atheists.”

As noted, several of the essays center on personal anecdotes that don’t deal directly with religion or atheism. Thus, we hear of his adventures with ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons on a so-called “vomit comet,” an aircraft flight that provides weightlessness for approximately 30 second periods, or his trip to a gay bathhouse in San Francisco. Yet even these stories tend to shed light on or illustrate the thesis of the particular suggested Penn Commandment. Some might question how unrestrained he is in his language or his discussion of sex. There’s no doubt Jillette’s intentionally blasphemous line about what he would do to Christ’s hand wounds and on his crown of thorns would cause conniption fits in even semi-devout Christians. But Jillette has always been brash and unrestrained. At least we know he isn’t sacrificing any of his style, thoughts or opinions to the god of marketing. His at times scathing humor is also at work in much of the book.

One of the core elements of God, No! is urging atheists to speak out and step forward. This is where the book becomes a manifesto, a call to action. Jillette even takes a page from some proponents of religion, urging atheists to preach and proselytize.

Truth doesn’t live in the closet. You have to make it clear to everyone, including your children, that there is no god. If you’re not doing that every chance you get, then the other side will win. They’ll win only in the short term; but we only get to live in the short term. You don’t have to fight, but you have to do your part — you have to tell the truth. You have to be honest. You don’t have to force schools to say there’s no god, but you have to say it yourself. You have to say it all the time. No one can relax in a closet.

Passages like this and the passion for ideas Jillette displays throughout the book mean he likely will be tagged by many as a “militant atheist,” using the term pejoratively. Yet Jillette probably wouldn’t take offense. He’s equally outspoken about being a Libertarian and, in the eyes of some, militant when it comes to personal and civil liberties. From his perspective, he is simply placing his opinions in the marketplace of ideas, a right that belongs to everyone, asshole or otherwise. And just as God, No! leaves no question about his ideas, it is equally clear that Jillette doesn’t care if you think he’s an asshole, an atheist or an asshole atheist. He just wants you to think.

Tell your children the truth as you see it and let the marketplace of ideas work as they grow up.

Penn Jillette, God, No!

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