Sunday, September 11, 2011

Penn Jillette's "God, No!": Book Review

Inspired or goaded by Glenn Beck’s request that Jillette (the garrulous, skeptical, subversive half of magic duo Penn and Teller) “entertain the idea of an atheist Ten Commandments,” he does simply that. Of course, being the talkative partner, as anyone familiar with his shows on stage or television knows, Penn provides lots of anecdotes, barbs, and trash-talk. As a family man and committed defender of commonsense over belief, he adds a thoughtful, and even touching, admission of how perhaps “The Penn Suggestions” might translate into a secular version of life, albeit one penned by a ranting, roaring “libertarian atheist”.

He insists—even when refusing to affirm the existence of man-made global warming—that the declaration “I don’t know”, remains a more honest response than turning to an answer drawn from a faith. However, science remains his foundation for what he confirms as true; if religion vanished tomorrow, it would be replaced, but not by the same belief system. Science, by contrast, would be eventually created all over again, Penn reasons, more or less as we know it.  His chapters, logically ten, enumerate through loosely (if often so loose as to evade immediate recognition) linked episodes from Penn’s encounters and experiences, illustrating how each of the Ten Commandments can be replaced by a secular suggestion.

First, respect for “human intelligence, creativity, and love” emerge as ideals to counter “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. The generosity of Siegfried and Roy, despite Penn’s jibes, and the evasions of David Blaine, represent magician peers who stand or fall on stage by their performances and their conviction.

“King of the Ex-Jews” takes a long detour that brings a Hasidic man via Penn’s chat after a show into an admission of atheism, and then an invitation by Penn and his crew for “Moishe” to dine on traif non-kosher fare, at the Rio in Vegas (which gets a lot of plugs in this narrative). Penn tells “Moishe”‘s secular journey with insight as well as raunchiness.  He acknowledges the existential distance this ex-Hasid must travel from his family and friends, who stayed “behind with his imaginary friend” in Brooklyn while he braved the loss of his god, and of his community, to stand up for not his own happiness, but for the pursuit of his inner truth.

The second chapter swerves into a celebration of humanity, and how it delights in companionship above things or ideas. Idols are taken down, and by the examples of his unbelieving mother and his sister’s lesbian Pastor Shirley (a long story), and of “Auto-Tune, tattoos, and big fake tits”, the joy of camaraderie and the exultation of the body’s alterations over the limits of nature illustrate Penn’s interpretation of human goodness.

Instead of not taking the Lord’s name in vain, oaths give way to self-accountability. Penn wryly tells how evangelical Christians took his video blog encouragement of proselytizing for rationalism in the “marketplace of ideas”, as if he were condoning preaching the Word. He’s as generous in his credit to those who took his message in its context, as he’s belittling of those who distorted it. Still, he recognizes that he cares for those “bugnutty freaky whack jobs” who come up after shows to tell him they are praying for him. All the same, Penn insists that faith wastes time, holds up the potential progress of science and love, and gives aid to “dangerous extremism”.

He launches into a long tale about being the model with Teller for gray suits in a GQ shoot, an example of his skill at self-deprecation, given his heft and girth, even if the link to non-idolatry appears less obvious, unless it’s about not making yourself into an idol.

This segues into his disdain for the wishy-washy agnostic, even if Penn agrees that admitting one’s uncertainty remains the best one can do in a wonderfully vast universe. He denies that atheists are arrogant, and he counters: “It’s not arrogant to say that you can’t figure out the answers to the universe with your internal faith.” He affirms the love of friends and family as enough for a human being, not the desperation of those who invent invisible figures to call to—who after all make our favorite football team lose.

However, the Sabbath rest, as it is such defined, remains a sensible option, as time to reflect and relax. Penn’s idea of such may be not yours, as he launched into “learning to fly, strip, and vomit on a 727” that induces both crushing gravity and weightless moments for him and, of all people, guitarist Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. A visit along with another straight man to a gay bathhouse in 1981 San Francisco is told with wit and verve, and his attempts to have sex while scuba diving follow in unpredictable spirit. He appends the Penthouse Forum letter he wrote about the rendezvous, which I suppose proves not all such letters are invented.

At the halfway point, honoring one’s parents earns powerful elucidation. He tells with compassion and hard-earned maturity, for once, of the life and deaths of his older sister, his father, and his mother. He revamps a chapter about atheist parenting that veers predictably into his trademark snarkiness. Yet, he makes cogent points: “Reality exists outside of humans. Religion does not.” He warns how “the bad guys” need to cheat. “Government force, propaganda, and hype are the tools you desperately need when you’re wrong. Truth abides.” He concludes: “Truth doesn’t live in the closet.” He figures, besides, that atheist families have more time on Sundays to laugh and dance together.

This merges into a section denouncing Santa Claus, with practical advice on how to lie to children without hiding them from the truth, and that our time as a family together is cruelly limited. Atheism, he tells, comforted him when his parents and sister died, for he knew that their pain had ended, and that their ends were not part of a cruel god’s “plan”. He integrates the story of his parents’ respective slowdowns and deaths carefully, and this wide-ranging, well-told chapter shows Penn’s reflective side alongside his usual bluffing and boasting.

The sixth chapter, about protecting and respecting human life, wobbles. His defense of libertarianism demands its own book, frankly. Penn needed more space to explore his notions from Max Weber “that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.” Penn resists the power wielded by the majority over the minority, even in the pursuit of good, but this complicated idea merits more than a few paragraphs. The chapter skips across some other non-conformist thinkers and doers, and veers into an anti-TSA (Transport Security Administration) rant.

On the matter of theft, Penn returns to his fellow magicians, this time his aging nemesis The Amazing Kreskin, and then a surprising defense of Nixon who, despite being the ideological opposite of Penn, reveals Nixon’s knack even as he prepared to resign in telling jokes, in revealing the basic class underneath his personal tragedy. As with Penn’s family, here he shows his ability to let down his carny patter and reveals in his admiration for what some folks can come up with while under pressure.

Lying, discussed in the ninth chapter, also earns a mixed array of examples. Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy earns a section, but it left me baffled about its placement here; “Would This Seem Crazy if You Read It in a Book” sounds in fact, crazy; a shaggy-dog tale about an encounter with a sexy “whack-job” that turns in on itself. Penn’s refusal to agree that global warming exists without proof (or what he deems as lack of proof) may appear odd, given his sustained defense of science, but his ingrained skepticism accounts for his inconsistent consistency. He sums up that he is no expert, and he should not be held accountable for his honest admission that he cannot be totally correct.

Finally, coveting the neighbor’s such-and-such and so-and-so finds a clever translation: “Don’t waste too much time wishing, hoping, and being envious; it’ll make you bugnutty. (Man oh man, that MILF at my child’s school sure looks hot, but I have work to do.)” This prepares us for his admiration of Bruce Springsteen and the far-from-titillating saga of his ex-girlfriend Heather, her lesbian roommate, their bathroom in “the college-student-like full of hate apartment,” his naked body, and a hair-dryer. He tells this with aplomb.

The book concludes with two short vignettes, perhaps to help ease our mental images after that previous anecdote. Marty Allen and Steve Rossi, once stars, are seen by Penn and Teller. By now, the former duo are long-faded, while the magicians headline in the same Atlantic City. Penn relates his partner’s acceptance of what will happen to them, as they follow the show business arc someday, back to the humbler settings they left behind.

Penn’s afterword asserts atheism against religious terror. I write this review as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 nears; Penn revises some conventional Western wisdom to remind readers how faith itself is the common enemy, not Islam or god or any people. He reaffirms love and respect of every person, but he calls on us to “hate and destroy all faith”. As with the critiques of authors he mentions, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, the tack Penn takes spreads to condemn all faiths rather than just one.

He figures that only atheists can speak out against religious terrorism, for they stand apart from belief in what cannot be proven. I suppose, in Penn’s reasoning, climate change will be or will not be proven as due to the direct causes set in motion and accelerated by humans. Faith, by contrast, can never be proven. Therefore, “safety in doubt” counters the dangers perpetrated by those celebrating beliefs as foundations for morality, and as justifications for policy.

Penn dashes about and harangues plenty in this brisk book, and it is likely few readers will come to this impassioned, ornery, profane screed without knowing its larger-than-life author’s persona. It may frustrate those looking for the calmer rebuttals of Harris, Dawkins, or Hitchens, Yet, for a presumably less patient if equally skeptical audience, God, No!: Signs You May Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales entertains and educates, in a brash, nagging, braying tone that remains Penn’s irascible shtick.

But at its contemplative moments, this narrative incorporates Penn’s humanist pride in one’s own accomplishments, free of divine intervention or religious subservience. Penn reminds the reader of love, family, art, time, and “an impossible universe full of awe and wonder. We have an infinite number of questions we can work on. We have all the glory that is real and is us. We must stop glorifying faith.” Of course, after this he uses a common vulgarism as an imperative, followed one final time by the word “faith”. It’s that kind of rational argument, after all.

(8-30-11 to Amazon US in slightly altered form, already preceded by twenty-seven reviews, but mine's more in-depth. Published on 8-29-11 at PopMatters as above.)

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