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.


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