The shallow atheist

Thanks to djayt for this link to Penn Jillette’s stance on why he is an atheist. When I first read it, I didn’t think much of it. Then I read it again, I still didn’t think much of it.

I first dismissed Jillette’s musings as those of an entertainer, so I shouldn’t expect him to be very deep or insightful. I therefore ignored his errors of logic, his ramblings, and his self-absorbtion. Then I noticed he’s a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Whatever that is (and I don’t know), I guess it’s supposed to make me think that he is someone with something to say. After all, he’s lectured at prestigious universities, written books, and produced TV shows. I’m not sure how the TV shows fit into all this, but I’ll just go with it.

Ok, so let me deconstruct his points. Jillette claims he’s beyond atheism, which he defines as “not believing in God”, whereas he claims to “believe in no God”. If there is a distinction between the two positions, Jillette’s doesn’t make it very well. Whether you say, “I don’t think anything is there” or “I think nothing is there,” you are making this point: “If you look, you won’t find it.” Word games aside, Jillette is an atheist. Why try to get fancy and say something different?

(One point in Jillette’s favor: at least he acknowledges that his atheism is a belief system. By saying, I believe there is no God, he is making a statement of faith, and it’s refreshing to have someone be so open about it.)

His second paragraph begins with a conclusion which he has not established in the least: “So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God.” At best, this is an arbitrary starting point. What reasons does Jillette give for doing this? Absolutely none. How frustrating to have a conversation, even one like this, with someone who presents only conclusions!

Ok, frustrations aside, let’s briefly examine Jillette’s technique for finding God. “She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power,” he says. This is such a backward way of discovering God, although it has been tried for (literally) millennia. If you want to discover natural things, you observe nature, which can be (although not always is) done objectively. If you want to discover supernatural things, you observe….super-nature? How can this be done objectively? The god of our major religions claims to be a spirit; how can a spirit, or the actions, motivations, and effects of a spirit, be observed objectively? If you want to discover whether there is a god (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or other), then the solution is to pursue him/her/them passionately, fervently, with a hope of finding that which you seek. Oops, hope isn’t objective. See? You can’t get there from here. (Side point: has Jillette actually searched for this evidence, objective or not? He makes no claim to do so. Instead, he makes a statement of faith: “I believe in no God,” then proceeds from there. Sigh.)

I feel sympathy for Jillette. He sees the truth staring at him, yet doesn’t realize it. He describes his wonderful life (love, blue skies, rainbows), and acknowledges that he has “won the huge genetic lottery” and needs nothing else. To summarize: I have a happy life on earth because there is no God. That is apparently good enough for Jillette, what about those among us without earthly happiness? More on them later.

Jillette impressed me with the word “solipsistic.” I had to look it up. Then I wondered if Jillette looked it up. The definition I found was: “The theory or view that the self is the only reality”. Now, Jillette is saying that his atheism keeps him from being solipsistic. So he’s saying that believing in no God keeps him from viewing himself as the only reality? But isn’t the opposite true? By saying, “I have found no objective evidence for God, therefore no God exists,” Jillette is claiming that his is the only reality, his experience is the only one that matters, and that if something is outside of his perception, it either does not exist or is irrelevant. Sounds like a pretty good definition of solipsistic to me.

It bothered me that Jillette took pot shots at religious people. My children, who have studied logic, would call this a Straw Man Fallacy. Jillette describes religious people as those who say, “How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means [sic] more to me than anything you can ever say or do.” If Jillette has had the misfortune to associate with that type of religious person, I understand his distaste for religion. However, that’s like hating Ray Kroc because a McDonald’s employee treated you poorly. Don’t blame Ray for the ignorance of his employees, and don’t blame God because some of his followers are idiots. And especially, don’t deny His existence because of it.

The Straw Man of an ignorant religious person is easy to knock down. How about taking a shot at Mother Theresa? That’s not so easy to do.

Finally, Jillette gets to what apparently is his real point, which is the old “If God were as good as I am, things would be much better on the earth” complaint. I don’t have much to say about this for Jillette, because he just finished telling us how his life is so great precisely because he doesn’t believe in God. Now he says that the lives of other people are so bad that they also demonstrate there is no God. Can you have it both ways? Apparently, if you’re a research fellow at the Cato Institute, you can.

3 thoughts on “The shallow atheist”

  1. As a theologian, he’s quite a magician. Jillette’s partner, Teller, never speaks, and thereby avoids this kind of hubris. The two of them have an HBO show where they “debunk” all kinds of things including, semi-famously, the Bible.

    The sad thing here, beyond Jillette’s own status, is that it’s such a trendy, easy, intentionally rebellious thing to say. I’m afraid many psuedo liberal Land Rover driving radical millionaires will hear this on NPR from their 8 speakers and nod patronizingly. My temptation is to dismiss them out of hand and leave them to their bought and paid for self satisfaction. I need to try hard to remember that they matter, too.

    That said, I appreciate your breakdown of the flaws.

  2. I agree, djay. Apparently, Jillette is as important to God as I am. This realization is what keeps me from preening my feathers as I read what he has written. I would like him to turn his creativity and resources to “doing justice, loving mercy” — and so I, too, must be doing the same, or else I will end up with the same kind of self-satisfaction, just for different reasons.

  3. I almost wish all anti-religious people, not just Atheists, (or should that be a lower case a?) would be so forthright with it.

    On a show you may not have seen, Tyra Bank’s America’s Next Top Model, one of the judges is pretty much a full-on transvestite, and very effeminate. Some of the people I watch the show with at work were put off by this, but I thought it was brilliant. I wish all the people who chose such divergent lifestyles would be so blatant. It makes it much easier to identify and them and proceed sensitively.

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