Book Review: God, No!

(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Just what you’d expect from its author: outspoken, boisterous, crude, frequently vulgar, often hilarious. Unapologetically atheist, but more about Penn Jillette the person than about atheism per se.

God, No! is written by Penn Jillette, the louder half of Penn & Teller who’s well-known for his skeptical and libertarian views. He’s also known for being outspoken, boisterous, crude, and vulgar, and the book embodies all these traits in equal measure – although I have to say that it’s often uproariously funny as well. Although many of the chapters have a strong atheist bent, I’d say it’s less a book about atheism per se and more of a loose autobiography, comprising Penn’s life, his professional career, and his views on family, show business, and whatever else he feels like writing about.

The book is divided into ten sections, each of which comprises several chapters roughly themed around one of Penn’s proposals for a secular set of ten commandments (hmm, where have we heard something like that before?). Most of them I quite liked, such as “Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings.” It’s not hard to conclude that Penn’s moral view is superior to the Bible’s, though of course the same is true of pretty much anyone alive today who has a modicum of education and common sense.

So, let’s start with the disclaimers: This one definitely isn’t for the prudish or the easily offended. Aside from the ubiquitous swearing, some chapters were explicitly pornographic, especially the scuba-diving one and the one about Penn’s visiting a gay bathhouse. (It’s not what you think.) There was also quite a lot of nudity (mostly Penn’s own, sometimes others’). Penn claims he’s never drunk alcohol or tried any other kind of drugs, and given some of the exploits chronicled in this book, that would be hard to believe, except that he clearly isn’t the kind of person to hold back any details about his personal life, however embarrassing. There was the aforementioned chapter about the bathhouse, as well as one about a hair dryer that’s likely to have all his male readers cringing. (It’s not what you think – or maybe it is…)

But mixed in with all that, there was a powerful and well-written atheist message. One of my favorite chapters was the one about Penn’s friendship with three former Hasidic Jews – an amazing story about three different people who each had the courage to escape from one of the world’s most oppressive and insular religious enclaves. One of them had as brilliant and poignant a deconversion story as I’ve ever read: he approached Penn after a show and explained that he was in the midst of leaving his religion. He wanted, of all things, to taste a bacon cheeseburger for the first time in his life, and he said it would be an honor if Penn would accompany him for the meal – and he did exactly that. This story could easily have been ridiculous (and okay, maybe it is, a little), but the way Penn writes it, it was unexpectedly moving. Seeing a man deliberately break a religiously-imposed taboo for the first time in his life, as a symbolic proof of his newly freed mind, is a powerful statement.

I do have to mention, as if you didn’t already know, that Penn is a libertarian. He mentions both his libertarian views and skepticism about climate change, although he doesn’t really explore either of them at length. The whole chapter about libertarianism is only three pages, and basically boils down to, “Even though I think funding cancer research is a good thing, it’s still wrong to make me support it by paying taxes.” (There’s this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.)

The chapter about climate change, likewise brief, is in the context of one of his talks at a convention. He says that he doesn’t know enough to know if it’s real, if it’s dangerous, or if there’s anything we can do to stop it. Fair enough, not everyone can be a climatologist; but if you really don’t consider yourself qualified to render an opinion, then you should stay out of the debate altogether. If you say “I don’t know” and use that as the basis for policy, then you have rendered an opinion whether you like it or not. And it’s not a big leap to guess that the reason for Penn’s refusing to render a verdict is that, if climate change is a real threat, preventing it would require collective action of a kind that his libertarian philosophy says is never necessary. Claiming to be perpetually unsure is one way to avoid this cognitive dissonance.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • penn

    I read some of the first chapter of the book in Barnes and Noble. What I read was good, and I’ll probably go back and read the whole thing. I just want to state that his position on climate change is disingenuous. Most of us can say what he says about climate change about most areas of science. Most of us are entirely unfamiliar with the primary literature on evolution. But, if someone claimed they didn’t know enough to know if evolution is real or if intelligent design was a reasonable alternative, we wouldn’t accept that as real skepticism. We’d probably think they had some ideological reason to doubt evolution, and I think the same thing is obviously true about Penn’s stance on climate change. Skepticism in the face of ignorance doesn’t mean giving every available opinion equal weight.

    I doubt he’s knowledgeable enough to tell if a plane is flight-worthy, but he still gets on them because he trusts the people that do know those things.

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    Many libertarians are atheists, or so it seems, and that puzzles me. While it may be one thing to place one’s trust in an imaginary, all powerful man in the sky, is it any better to assume the attitude that any thing which directly benefits society at a relatively small expense to the individual, is somehow evil.

    I’ve seen a lot of people who started out with a socialist attitude when they were poor, turn libertarian when they became sucessful. A former coworker of mine, Believed we should not have public school, and that people shouldn’t have children if they could not afford to pay for private tuition.

    There are a lot of fallacies with this thinking, but on the whole, if you are an arrogant greedy selfish person, I suppose it makes sense.

    While I agree with many of Penn’s ideas on science,I think he places too much faith in greed as a motivator for good. He seems to blindly support the pharma industries ability to self regulate, while recent events tell otherwise. As with other industries, when maintaining quality in products, and putting the customers first inteferes with increasing profitability, corporations will always choose the money.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    (There’s this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.)

    Your understanding of the social contract as a critique of Penn’s view is incorrect. The social contract refers to how men may legitimately be governed, and various thinkers over the years have come up different justifications. The American Founders were heavily influenced by Locke’s conception, which asserted that governments were legitimate insofar as it protected an individual’s life, liberty, and property.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    @Niklaus

    You wrote, “Many libertarians are atheists, or so it seems, and that puzzles me.”

    Your puzzlement, puzzles me :) Why should you think atheism necessarily leads to any one political or economic philosophy? Atheists have run the gamut from Ayn Rand to Karl Marx, two examples of individuals who hold diametrically opposing views.

    You asked, “is it any better to assume the attitude that any thing which directly benefits society at a relatively small expense to the individual, is somehow evil.”

    I don’t think this is the libertarian view.

  • http://www.politicalflavors.com MissCherryPi

    His episode of “Bull$hit!” about climate change was bullshit. He explained that his skepticism came from a brief interview withe inarticulate and uninformed representative of the Rainforest Action Network (let’s see him pull that with Carl Pope) and some grave misunderstanding of Bjorn Lomberg – an economist who admits that anthropogenic climate change is a disaster but also thinks that any attempt to mitigate it is ultimately futile and so governments should spend money elsewhere.

    It was the inspiration for my Senior Thesis in college, so something good came out of it.

  • Andrew T.

    I was aware that Penn Jillette was a self-declared libertarian, but not that he was a borderline climate denialist. Would it take too much introspection to admit, “yes, there’s overwhelming scientific evidence this exists, but to do anything about it would thwart me from fulfilling my goal of keeping my pocketbook exclusively to myself, damn the consequences?”

    With Teller, Penn has done a lot to further atheism in the popular sphere and encourage skepticism towards some legitimate delusions, and economics are a minor point in his book. But I guess you could say I have the same reservations towards him that I do towards Christopher Hitchens: Given his popular prominence, it sometimes embarrasses me that his approach to critical and long-term thinking, humanism, and a baseline of opportunity goes 2/3 of the way and then stops.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    There’s this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.

    Your assumption is that the social contract, if this exists, covers tax-funded cancer research. Different views of the social contract do exist, including that the concept is incoherent, purely hypothetical or entirely invalid. Hobbes’ social contract supporter absolute monarchy, for instance. Other social contract theory advocates constitutional monarchy, representative democracy, etc. Yours is a presumably a social democratic welfare state.

    If you say “I don’t know” and use that as the basis for policy, then you have rendered an opinion whether you like it or not.

    Perhaps in this case he believes the evidence has not been rendered sufficient to deliver that “verdict”, at least personally?

    And it’s not a big leap to guess that the reason for Penn’s refusing to render a verdict is that, if climate change is a real threat, preventing it would require collective action of a kind that his libertarian philosophy says is never necessary.

    His particular libertarian philosophy in fact does not say collection (state) action is never necessary. Indeed, he supports this for police, courts and national defense, at minimum. There is also nothing which prevents voluntary collective action in this philosophy, the key distinction for libertarians.

    Many libertarians are atheists, or so it seems, and that puzzles me. While it may be one thing to place one’s trust in an imaginary, all powerful man in the sky, is it any better to assume the attitude that any thing which directly benefits society at a relatively small expense to the individual, is somehow evil.

    I might even venture to guess that a majority are atheists. Can you really not see how the comparison between disbelief in God and disbelief (or at least distrust) in government could find parallels? God is the ultimate power. If God does not exist, the state is. This is not to say this reasoning is explicit or the main one, but it does shed some light on the question. For them, placing your trust in the very real, not all-powerful but still very powerful statesmen is even worse than placing your trust in an imaginary all-powerful man in the sky. Because after all, God at least does not exist. The state is quite real. Your characterization of libertarianism is in any case a strawman, since most do support at least a minimal state benefiting the individual at small cost. In any case, the value system is different enough for both sides to have a difficult time understanding where the other is coming from.

    I’ve seen a lot of people who started out with a socialist attitude when they were poor, turn libertarian when they became sucessful. A former coworker of mine, Believed we should not have public school, and that people shouldn’t have children if they could not afford to pay for private tuition.

    I started with a socialist attitude while poor and have since become libertarian, while poor still. Is that anecdotal evidence any more on point? As for not having children, isn’t it generally decried that our world is overpopulated?

    I hate to see the same logical fallacies in debates over politics from atheists (whether progressives, libertarians, or socialists) that they decry the religious for. We can do better.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Penn claims he’s never drunk alcohol or tried any other kind of drugs, and given some of the exploits chronicled in this book, that would be hard to believe, except that he clearly isn’t the kind of person to hold back any details about his personal life, however embarrassing

    That’s kind of an odd statement, no? Why would it be hard to believe?

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    I have only drunk alcohol a few times, and never used any other drugs. I guess that’s unusual now days.

  • Jormungund

    If I remember correctly, Penn does at least occasionally smoke. In my opinion nicotine is a relatively hard core drug. So I take his claims about a lack substance use with a grain of salt.

    There’s this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.

    Advocating a policy change from funding cancer research to not funding cancer research is not a violation of the social contract. Advocating lower taxes in general is also not a violation of the social contract. I can’t imagine what definition you are using for ‘social contract’ that makes advocacy of a reduction in spending a violation of it. Did Penn advocate illegal tax evasion or something?

    But then I generally don’t put much stock in appeals to the social contract.
    Person A: “I don’t think we should have a tyrant, a representative democracy would be better. We should reform and make a legislature”
    Person B: “Oh you democracy advocates, haven’t you heard of the social contract?”
    This is a valid use of the social contract. If someone advocated overthrowing a tyrant, appealing to the social contract is a way to argue against them. I don’t think that is a valid as an argument, but that is how the social contract is meant to be used. I suppose some other definition must be used in order to make advocating for a cancer research policy change a violation of the social contract.

  • keddaw

    You Americans and your blinkered view of libertarianism as a free market, selfish state of affairs.

    In (non-UK) Europe there are a lot of libertarians that are very left wing, socialist even. How does that measure up to your narrow view of libertarianism?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_socialism

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Looks just as unrealistic and ill thought out to me.

  • http://ntrygg.wordpress.com random ntrygg

    the bacon cheeseburger is a great symbolic act.

    I think it’s why in many early made by and for lesbian movies – had haircutting scenes – the haircut was the symbolic shearing away social expectations and norms

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @Comment#11:

    You Americans and your blinkered view of libertarianism as a free market, selfish state of affairs.
    In (non-UK) Europe there are a lot of libertarians that are very left wing, socialist even. How does that measure up to your narrow view of libertarianism?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_socialism

    Personally I am well aware of it, and once self-identified as libertarian socialist. Many are not so aware of the European usage. Then again, many terms mean other things in Europe. No one owns words. Free market libertarianism has a very different view from libertarian socialism unsurprisingly, and both have criticisms of each other, just as adherents of these ideologies generally.

  • Polly

    He wanted, of all things, to taste a bacon cheeseburger for the first time in his life,

    Now THAT is oppression. Take my foreskin, but don’t forget to pass the bacon.


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