“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.
reason: Atheists are known for having huge metaphysical certitude that equals or mirrors that of the most fervent believers. Yet in your book, your credo is about how the most important phrase is “I don’t know.”
Jillette: That whole idea that atheists have certainty is, I believe, a complete myth. I know the hardcore atheists. I know Dawkins. I know Hitchens. I know Harris, I know [Daniel] Dennett. I know the guys. And I’ve never heard any of them say that they are certain there’s no God. They say they don’t believe in God. I follow the fundamentalist Christian point of view that belief is active and if belief is active and you don’t know, then you don’t believe. I have a very, very light kind of atheism. Now, I don’t harbor any possibility of there being a God. It never crosses my mind that that would be possible. But that’s different from knowing.
reason: Did you have a particular Damascus road experience where that became clear to you, or is this the work of gradual rationality?
Jillette: That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about atheism. People have epiphanies to become religious. People become religious in horrible, bottom times of their life, cry out to Jesus under great stress. You don’t hear that story in atheism very often. It’s usually gradual; it usually comes from reading; it usually comes from discussions; it usually comes from introspection. For me, it was being in high school and reading the Bible. I suggest to anyone who’s looking for the road to atheism: just read the Bible. By the time you get to about the middle of Leviticus, you’re out.
(Interview continues below video.)
reason: You have a chapter called “Why I Am a Libertarian and Not a Nut.” OK, so explain why you’re a libertarian and why that doesn’t make you nuts.
Jillette: I believe I say “Why I Am a Libertarian and Not Just a Nut.” So I haven’t really taken that away. I remember hearing one lecture put out by P.J. O’Rourke where he was addressing a bunch of libertarians. He said that what we all have in common—and I’m paraphrasing because his wording is always perfect—but what we all have in common is that everyone in this world does not know what is best for everyone else. That’s all we have in common. And [it’s] my whole take on libertarianism. I don’t go with pragmatic arguments at all—the arguments that our whole world would function better. 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.
The question I have is: The 17-year-old girl who’s working at McDonald’s, who is a brilliant mathematician, is on a track to a full scholarship to Stanford, and she is going to be one of the great mathematical minds of all time and she chooses to get knocked up and continue to work at McDonald’s: Is that something that society has to fix, or is that her individual choice? And I was kind of in that position, you know: by no means a genius.…
reason: …and by no means a woman.
Jillette: [laughter] Exactly. But I had scholarships to colleges I wanted to go to, and my high school was very, very optimistic about me doing well in college (because I’d done so badly in high school, I could only move up), and I chose to go to clown college. I chose to juggle, and I chose to make jokes.
The point of view of libertarianism for me is simply that each person has to make those decisions for themselves. I don’t know what’s best for other people. There’s a quality [you see] in Hillary Clinton when she’s speaking, where all her motives are very, very good. I’m not one of these people that believe she’s an evil dragon lady. I think she really does want everybody to be happier and healthier and more successful and everything else. But she knows what’s best for them. And I don’t think there’s anything you can do more insulting than acting like you know what’s best for someone else.
reason: One chapter in the book, which is actually taken from something that you wrote up for reason, is the three dogmas that hurt Americans most. Let’s run through those quickly.
Jillette: God is the first one because if you take God away from the right wing and away from the Tea Party—and by God, I mean all that social meddling—their position is pretty sensible.
reason: The second one you have here is that most people are evil. Who believes that?
Jillette: Every time I have a discussion —and I’m sure you have these too—I’m the libertarian person and I’m talking to a liberal, and they say, “Your basic position is, let all the poor people suffer, let all the sick people die.”
reason: That’s the only way I can see of making a living.
Jillette: [laughter] You say to them, “No, no, no! We’ll take care of each other.” [British journalist and CNN host] Piers Morgan said to me, “One out of seven people in this country is on food stamps. What does that mean to you?” I said, “That means six out of seven people can help them.” And he said, “How do we help them?” And I said, “Go help them.” He said, “We need the government to help them!” I said, “Go help them. I am. Go help them.” He said, “Well, how do we do it?” I said, “I didn’t say we. I said you. You make a pretty good living; there are people that are hungry in L.A. Go out this evening and help them.”
Warren Buffett is saying, “They should take more money in taxes from me.” OK, give it to them! But it’s never that. You say, “Well, I try to help people, and everyone I know that has money—and many people I know that have very little money—try to help people.” They always come back and say, “That’s you. But there [are] all these assholes that’ll just—”
I believe firmly that if you pull a Ferrari up in front of a Starbucks and say to a random person, “My wife’s pregnant, I gotta run in the car with her, I gotta drive her there, my car is out there, just please take it and park it and text me at this number,” and run away, they’re not gonna steal that car. Your vast majority of people are gonna go, “Oh Jesus, I don’t know if I can drive a stick.” And they’re gonna get in there and they’re gonna do that. I think if liberals would just trust people to be better, there’s no problem with them either.
reason: Your final dogma that hurts Americans most—this is from John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Isn’t this the great statement for what it means to be an American?
Jillette: The first half of that is so good. I really believe—and I think there’s some evidence that the Founding Fathers believed this too—that government’s job is to get out of the way. I don’t think we owe anything to our government. We owe things to each other, to our families, and to humanity as a whole. But having any sort of allegiance to the people in power.…I think that not taking anything from the government, not giving anything to the government, and doing nothing wrong, is a fine way to live.
reason: Do you think skepticism toward power is on the rise?
Jillette: [sigh] I always think that this stuff is my age. You know? I’m 56 now, and I think about how—man, things are going really bad. And then I think about my dad in 1971, 1972: The president is crazy; he has gone crazy. We’re in Vietnam, killing people just completely.
reason: There’s a draft.
Jillette: There’s a draft. We’re being taken off the gold standard. The gold standard is gone, inflation is wild, it’s run away, there is a Cold War with Russia, we could all be blown—there’s no comparison to now. I mean, Afghanistan and all the wars overseas are horrendous and terrible, but there’s not a draft.
reason: Is it a good thing to be skeptical toward power, or does it ultimately corrode people’s ability to make decisions or do anything?
Jillette: I don’t think it does at all. There’s this bleeding of words where cynicism and skepticism are becoming synonymous. People like Bill Maher, who brags about being a cynic, it sickens me. I am the least cynical person I know, and I am very, very skeptical. I do not expect the worst from people, but I also think that some things aren’t true. And we have to be careful about that.
reason: To go back to this question on humility in front of the world. You say we all act on things we can’t prove, but that that’s different than faith. Why is saying “I don’t know” better than having faith that something exists?
Jillette: Saying “I don’t know” and going on anyway—which you have to; you have to continue through—leaves the possibility that you can change your mind. It leaves the possibility that you can be wrong.
reason: So you’re open to the idea that something will happen that will convince you of God’s existence?
Jillette: I’m open to that. It seems very, very unlikely.
reason: When you’re dead, we’re not going to find a secret shrine to Buddha or something?
Jillette: It will be to Sun-Ra. Because of all the things I’m skeptical of, I do believe Sun-Ra was from Saturn.
reason: You say the only real argument against religious terrorism is to try to share the reality of the world. How is that? Why is that going to stop people from blowing up buildings just a few miles from where we’re talking?
Jillette: If we share reality, if we talk about things we can prove, the problem of talking about it is you hit this wall: “Why do you believe Jesus Christ is our Lord? Do you have evidence?” “I feel it in my heart.” If you move “I feel it in my heart” out of the equation, terrorism goes away. Completely goes away. You might have military events: “I think my people should be free and here’s the reason why; here [are] our lands that are occupied.”
We’re already there! This is the part that no one ever talks about. If you go to the center of the Bible Belt and you have a fundamentalist Christian judge, and all the lawyers and all the jury are fundamentalist Christians, and they believe completely with their heart—and I’m not doubting them in any way—and someone gets on the witness stand and says, “I killed my whole family because God told me to,” it’s astonishing to me that nobody goes, “Well, let’s look into that.” We have “guilty,” we have “not guilty,” we have “not guilty by reason of insanity”; we do not have “not guilty because God told me to.” And that’s one of the things that I’m obsessed with in this book: the fact that not only do I not believe, but how can that judge read the Bible and see Abraham be willing to kill his son because God told him to, see burning bushes appearing to people, hear people dropping all their worldly possessions and going on to follow.…
reason: …staying clear of linen and wool blends, back to Leviticus.…
Jillette: …what side of the tree you defecate on, and so on. How can they see all that, and then a woman who clearly believes that God told her to do something is completely and utterly dismissed? It’s a nutty thing.
reason: You said you’re optimistic or you’re forward-looking. You’ve got two children; are they going to grow up in a better world than you did?
Jillette: Oh, absolutely.
reason: And why are you certain of that? Are you taking that on faith? How do you know that?
Jillette: The evidence shows you that two things have been true throughout mankind’s history: One, things always get better. Two, people always think they’re getting worse. We talk about the stress of modern life, but we’re not chasing down wildebeest to eat, we’re not being attacked by animals in the night. Unless you’re a Vegas magician, in which case you are. But I think things will definitely be better for [my kids]. And also things are getting more peaceful. I mean, as much as I carry on about “let’s stop killing people overseas,” person for person, we’re killing fewer people than we ever have.