"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Penn Jillette: God, what?

It took me a while to get round to buying Penn Jillette’s God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales and it hung around on my Kindle for some time before I got to reading it. The reason for this prevarication was my suspicion that it would provoke the sort of reaction in me that, as a matter of fact, it subsequently did.
For anyone not familiar with Penn JIllette he is the larger and more verbose helping of magical duo Penn and Teller, (in)famous for revealing the working behind their and other’s illusions (almost) and less famously, at least in the U.K, for a sceptical T.V show called Penn and Teller: Bullshit! aimed mostly at debunking pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Jillette is an outspoken atheist and sceptic as well as a political Libertarian and it is his libertarianism that gave me pause before diving into his book.
The first thing I should say is that God, No! is liberally (libertarianally?) peppered with profanities ranging from the pretty strong to the “can you actually print that?” which was to be expected and doesn’t bother me at all, although it might offend some people. However in some contexts the language paints an unpleasant side to Jillette when he uses it while referencing people with whom he disagrees politically or has a personal grudge against. Referring to one woman in particular as a “cunt” betrays a deeply misogynistic streak as in the U.S the word is frequently deployed in a sexist or gender disparaging way which even if he doesn’t like the woman (he doesn’t) seems unnecessary and distasteful.
His sexism also shines through when he discusses women that he likes or has been in relationships with. He is quick enough to describe them as “smart”, “witty” or “intelligent” before going for the inevitable “sexy”, but it is clear which of the adjectives is most pertinent. Now of course it may be the case that he finds smart, witty and intelligent women sexy, who doesn’t? But it seems as though every female referred to in the book is in the context of what Jillette finds attractive about them and when he doesn’t find them attractive they’re just cunts, or In one notable anecdote “scary”: but she was a lesbian…
His sexism is probably more disturbing than his libertarianism but the latter begins to grate after a while too. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to his extreme brand of macho individualism is a socialist in his less than nuanced world view and even where my own liberalism intersects with his libertarianism I find myself wanting to disagree with his reasoning. For example we agree that the vast majority of people in the world are good people and that in the main they can be trusted to do the right thing like support their immediate family and return your lost wallet if they find it in the street. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a welfare policy or a police force. He may have made his own living touring America with Teller, relying on no one else, but he did it using a highway infrastructure that could only exist through collective taxation. Libertarianism always struck me as a juvenile political philosophy but Jillette’s is blatantly so
You may be getting the impression that I am not enjoying God,No! which is not strictly true. Jillette is extremely funny when he is not making you cringe and the insights and anecdotes into his life and his relationship with Teller are fascinating. His atheism isn’t particularly philosophical or insightful and to be honest doesn’t really occupy that much of the narrative despite the book’s title, but his blunt and outrageous style is engaging and something of a guilty pleasure from my perspective.
I suspect that if I was to meet him in person Penn Jillette would be someone whose company I would enjoy whilst not approving of him, but then I have had several friends like that. Also I’m pretty sure that Penn Jillette doesn’t give a fuck about my approval, which is just as it should be.

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