Why Calling Penn Jillette an ‘Ethical Atheist’ is Not a Compliment

On Sunday’s season finale of All-Star Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump “hired” country singer Trace Adkins over atheist magician Penn Jillette. (Oh! Spoiler: The Apprentice is still on the air.)

Anyway, the two men were pretty courteous to each other throughout the finale. Adkins even said this about Jillette:

Jillette and Adkins

Penn Jillette is the most ethical atheist I’ve ever met. But I’m bringing Jesus!,” Trace had insisted.

“He’s got Teller and they do magic tricks, but Jesus makes blind people see — it’s unbelievable!” he added, saying he “needs Jesus to come through for me tonight.”

Forget the Jesus bit for a moment. That supposed compliment troubled reader GodVlogger, who wrote to me saying that calling someone the “most ethical atheist” is like…

… saying “Wow, that guy is black but he is really smart.” Or “Even though she’s a woman, she’s very good at science and math.” Or “Even though that person is a Catholic, he is actually not in favor of molesting little boys.”

Yes, something favorable is said about the individual in all of those examples, but only by contrasting how the person being flattered does not live up to the negative stereotype that the speaker obviously continues to hold about the group.

That’s it. That’s the problem. Adkins called Jillette an “ethical atheist” as if those two words shouldn’t normally go together — and there’s no reason to think they shouldn’t unless you harbor false beliefs about who atheists are and what we believe.

Imagine if Jillette had said that Adkins was the “brightest country singer” he’d ever met? It’s a backhanded compliment to Adkins that insults all other country singers in the process.

There are many reasons not to watch Trump’s show — and I’m not even saying this is one of them — but it’s something that unfortunately might have gone unnoticed by casual viewers. Adkins probably has no idea he did anything wrong, either; he thought he was being kind!

I’ve said this before but the main reason this site is called “Friendly Atheist” is because I rarely heard those words paired together. But now, if someone says about me, “he’s a friendly atheist,” I get offended. Most of the atheists I know fit that description, too, and to suggest otherwise says more about the person saying it than the person being described.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Bill

    Why we need to be “out” and leading by good example to
    change these stupid (ignorant) stereotypes.

  • C Peterson

    Considering the rather ethically challenged circles Adkins circulates in, Jillette may well be the only [open] atheist that he’s ever met! In his world, atheists aren’t seen as people, but as bogeymen.

  • Revyloution

    The last line in the clip is right on. Jesus is unbelievable, literally.

    • Derrik Pates

      At last, one thing we can all agree on.

  • RobertoTheChi

    I was pissed to say the least when he said that.

  • Art_Vandelay

    At the very least, if he got Jesus to stop making death tornadoes and malaria for a couple hours so he could help Trace Adkins win Celebrity Apprentice, we’ll take it.

  • TiltedHorizon

    “but Jesus makes blind people see”

    Yet Trace can’t see the insult in his statement. it’s unbelievable!

  • Glasofruix

    but Jesus makes blind people see

    I demand evidence

    • http://www.facebook.com/rob.justice.90 Rob Justice

      the “evidence” is in a 2000 year old book…oh the lulz!

      • Miss_Beara

        The evidence is in the bible, the bible is true because it says so in the bible therefore everything in the bible is true. Duh!

    • randomfactor


      “You might want to THINK about that for a bit, Trace.”

    • CrusherBrickman

      So do scientists.

    • helen keller

      Jesus makes blind people.

      • OCRazor

        Or may I suggest, “Jesus makes people blind”

  • Frank

    Trace you rock!

    • GCT

      I thought he was country?

  • corps_suk

    I gues we should just start calling.people “smart Christians” like those two don’t go together either.

    Like wow, you’re actually a smart Christian, I am suprised…

  • NoYourGod

    Well, I *USED* to have respect for Trace Adkins…

    I equate somebody who tries to compliment an atheist by calling them an “ethical atheist” with someone who calls an African American a “good nigger”…. either way, the implication is that the “quality” being attributed to the recipient is one that is normally not found with that recipient’s group.

  • W☮rld Wi☤h☆♥† ☪nd

    To be honest, I think there’s plenty offence being taken on both sides already…

    • Charles Honeycutt

      If you’re less offended by people being treated badly being such a routine thing that most who see it don’t even notice it than you are by the bad behavior being called out…

  • JET

    Jesus really needs to stop wasting time helping out on silly game shows and pay more attention to weather events over the central U.S.
    On a serious note, Penn Jillette will probably release a video rebuttal soon. Like the one where the agreed that as an atheist he murders and rapes as much as he likes… and that amount is exactly zero.

  • Mario Strada

    It would be fun if Adkins told us about all those unethical atheists he knows.

    • doug105

      Atheists have no morals. All one has to do is take a look at the American prison system. Nearly 76% of violent criminals are Christian and NO, most of these Christians did not convert after conviction, they were Christian at the time of the crime. The greatest genocides in human history stemmed from the Christian faith. If you examine secular societies in comparison to religious societies; secular societies will consistently have less crime, unemployment, corruption and more freedom, share of wealth and a higher standard of living. Nearly EVERY single advancement towards morality (I.E: ceasing native genocide, freeing the slaves and women’s suffrage) was OPPOSED by the church and Christian organizations.

      Common lies Christians tell that are ABSOLUTELY FALSE!


  • Phil

    I’ve been called a “reasonable Christian” before and I don’t take offense, because I know what ideas people tend to have about the nature of faith. Isn’t it good to see a person openly confronting their own biases?

    • CottonBlimp

      Seeing someone as the exception to your prejudices is a means of maintaining your own biases.

      • Phil

        Always? That would seem quite cynical. Can’t seeing someone as an exception lead to an overturning of one’s biases as a result of an honest pursuit of truth?

        • CottonBlimp

          No, because that’s not how cognitive dissonance works.

          Trace has two thoughts in contradiction. One is that atheists are evil. Two is that Penn Jillette is not.

          There are three things the mind does to “fix” that contradiction; it can change one of the beliefs, or reduce the importance of one of the beliefs.

          Or, thirdly, it can make up new ideas that “solve” the contradiction without changing any belief.

          Trace is very obviously doing #3. It’s not the precursor to learning, it’s the ALTERNATIVE to learning.

          It’s the same reason people make up pejorative labels like “new atheist”, “militant gay”, or “feminazi”. Inventing this arbitrary distinction between the “good” ____ and the “bad” ____ is just a way of getting to hate people without acknowledging what you hate them for.

          • Phil

            Cognitive dissonance is an interesting psychological notion, but I find it to ultimately be a pretty simplistic take on how beliefs are formed, overturned, or maintained. I can’t say it matches up very well with my experience of myself or of other people in terms of belief formation.

            • Charles Honeycutt

              There is nothing at all simple about cognitive dissonance or the behaviors it forms. And you may wish to Google “Dunning-Kruger”.

              • Guest

                And you may wish to Google some examples of actual wit.

                I’m not pretending to speak authoritatively on the subject, I’m just referencing a bit of fact in response to blind speculation.

                • baal

                  says ‘guest’

              • Phil

                Yes, a simplistic theory can lead to complicated ways of understanding things, no doubt about that. For example, epicycles (complicated) are a consequence of the theory of geocentrism (simple).

    • somewhereintexas

      Was thinking along the same lines – getting too touchy me thinks if find offense at his statement – and there are bigger fish to fry.

      Furthermore, he said “most” ethical atheist. He did not say “only” ethical atheist.

      My 2 cents

      • Gus Snarp

        Then why did he mention atheist at all? Why not just say Penn’s a good man, or Penn’s very ethical, or Penn’s one of the most ethical people I know? The whole point was to say he’s not as good as he might be just because he’s an atheist and doesn’t have Jesus on his side.

  • Bdole

    At least he admits that Jesus healing the blind is “unbelievable.”

    • The Other Weirdo

      That’s not actually as bad as you think it is. To the True Believer™, “unbelievable” is just another way of saying, “confirmation”.

  • Cat’s Staff

    Penn could have asked him “Have ever met any atheists…besides me and Trump?”

    • Gus Snarp

      This is always the question I have. Who are these atheists you know, and how have you concluded that they’re unethical? I mean, I’m an atheist, and outside of the internet and my household, I know exactly one person who is an avowed atheist.

      So I always wonder, are these people hanging out with a lot more atheists than I am? Is being an outspoken Christian the secret to getting to know atheists? Because that doesn’t make sense, I’m a lot less likely to mention my atheism with people who make a point of showing off their Christianity.

      Or is it that he just assumes that anyone who doesn’t go to church, preferably of his denomination, is an atheist?

      Or is it that if someone isn’t publicly thumping their Bible, then he assumes they’re an atheist if he thinks they’re bad and Christian if he thinks they’re good and if they are publicly thumping their Bible then they’re obviously good, whatever their behavior? In which case what is probably true is that the music business if chock full of unethical people who don’t do a lot of Bible thumping, therefore, unethical atheists!

      I expect the answer is a combination of the latter two.

      • Spuddie

        “Is being an outspoken Christian the secret to getting to know atheists?”

        People may just tell him they are atheists just to make him go away.

  • Gus Snarp

    Who’s Trace Adkins?

    • TCC

      An absolutely horrendous and talentless country singer.

      • Gus Snarp

        Isn’t that redundant?

        I kid, I kid. There are talented country singers. It’s just that none of them are under 60 or get any airplay on country radio.

  • Gus Snarp

    I’d say calling Penn the most ethical atheist is an insult to atheists in the same way that calling Trace Adkins the best country singer is an insult to all country singers.

    • Jayn

      Given some of the complaints I’ve heard about Penn’s sexism, it did strike me as setting the bar somewhat low :/

  • Guest

    Is anyone surprised that some redneck/country twanger would say something like that? Really? How about, Trace drools less than any redneck twanger I’ve met in the past 2 weeks.

    • Leigha7

      Yes, because insulting rednecks is the appropriate response.

      Did you know some of the people you’d consider rednecks (and some who’d consider themselves rednecks) are atheists, as well?

  • Artor

    I saw a quote recently, but I forget who said it. Bob Newheart maybe?
    “I don’t mean to denigrate Country music listeners. For those of you who like Country, “denigrate,” means “to put down.”

    • allein

      Yep, Bob Newhart. :)

  • Matthew Baker

    Honky Tonk Badonkadonk is all I have to say about this.

    • Derrik Pates

      I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

  • Anthony

    Mitchell and Webb nail it:


  • compl3x

    I think it subtly underscores just how vilified atheists are in many religious (in this case Christian) communities.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    Bullshit. The Friendly Atheist blog is the most enjoyable and informative atheist blog I have ever visited.

    • Jett Perrobone

      The difference is, blogs are not people. Only people can get offended.
      If I get a negative comment about one of my YouTube videos, it doesn’t really bother me, but it’s a totally different matter if the commenter attacks me personally.

      • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

        Okay, I’ll use a more precise example. You are the most ethical person called “Jett” I’ve ever met.

        Was that a negative comment? Was that a personal attack? Are you offended? What do I generally think of other people called “Jett?”

        • Jett Perrobone

          I don’t think that that comment would offend me, owing to the fact that there is no widespread stereotype that people named “Jett” are unethical. And “Jett” is not really a common name anyway (it’s just a pseudonym I made up).

  • walkamungus

    Whatever you might think about Trace’s sins against country music, the man does an awesome version of the national anthem.

    • Derrik Pates

      If there were such a thing as a “sin”, I think country music would be chief among them.