“I don’t know what’s best for other people,” says Penn Jillette, the “larger, louder half” of the famous Las Vegas magical duo Penn & Teller. Their award-winning Showtime show, Bullshit!, which ended in 2010 after an eight-season run, applied Jillette’s brand of skepticism—along with a healthy dose of profanity and dozens of scantily clad assistants—to subjects ranging from environmental regulation to faith healing. Now Jillette joins the ranks of renowned atheists Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great, 2007), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, 2006) with a breezy new bestseller, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales (Simon & Schuster).
Jillette, 56, is a graduate of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. He says reading the Bible in high school made him an atheist: “By the time you get to about the middle of Leviticus, you’re out.” His conversion to libertarianism was more gradual but rooted in the same fundamental skepticism: “I don’t go with pragmatic arguments at all.…I don’t go for the arguments that the free market is magic, and that if we left it alone everyone would be better off and happier. I always go to a pure, ideological, moral point of view: I just don’t know.”
In this September interview with reason.tv Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie, Jillette parses the difference between cynicism and skepticism, rejects the “God is dead” claim as insufficiently hardcore, and talks about his personal and political development. For video of the interview, go to reason.tv.
reason: What is your big goal in publishing God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales?
Penn Jillette: Glenn Beck—who I disagree with on everything, but we’ve managed to be kind of friends—was talking to me about how he thought the Ten Commandments transcended religion, which is a very odd argument for a religious person to make. He’s making the argument that morality does trump religion. Religious people usually don’t make that argument. But he was making the argument that the Ten Commandments were important, and he asked his atheist friend, which is me—I mean, that’s the end of the list—what the Atheist Ten Commandments would be. I wrote up my take on the Ten Commandments for Glenn Beck, and to his credit he handed out my article, my strong atheist article, at all his rallies. I started writing more, and it started to seem like fun.
reason: So are you hoping if you can get Glenn Beck to announce that God is dead, you will have accomplished your goals?
Jillette: There never was a God. “God is dead” is a halfway measure I won’t go with [laughter].
reason: This is a good time, arguably the best time in human history, to be an atheist.
reason: You think so?
Jillette: Oh yeah.
reason: Were atheists on the top of the New York Times bestseller list with regularity in 1890?
Jillette: I believe so. I believe the three highest-paid lecturers in the 1890s, at the end of the last century, were Robert Ingersoll, who was speaking exclusively on atheism (he had also a lecture on Robert Burns and Shakespeare, but those weren’t as popular). Second place, Mark Twain, who at that time was reading Letters From Earth, all speaking on atheism. And third was Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s pit bull. Boom! Boom! Boom! There was gold in them there hills! And then Emma [Goldman] came along, grabbed atheism, pulled it into socialism, and then we go to hell in a handbasket. Once you associate atheism with socialism, I’ll let go of atheism.