(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.