Scott on December 20, 2005 at 8:44 pm
Referencing Article: This I Believe: There Is No God
Penn Jillette is an idiot. To be clear, I use the term in its very narrowly focused definition meaning a foolish person. However, other synonyms for idiot might also apply including: ass, fool, nitwit, jackass or twit. Now, I’m not a “drive-by verbal abuser” who shouts invectives at anyone who looks at me funny. In this case, I believe it aptly applies to the taller half of Penn and Teller.
Why the rant against Penn Jillette? Well, to understand you have to read his commentary on NPR from November 21entitled “This I Believe: There Is No God” It’s fairly short and moderately entertaining. Penn’s commentary is part of the ongoing series sponsored by NPR in which they invite a wide variety of people, both famous and not-so-famous to comment on life. Their observations are shaped by the lead “This I believe ” Past writers in this series include Bill Gates (Unleashing the Power of Creativity), John McCain (The Virtues of the Quiet Hero), and Gloria Steinem (A Balance Between Nature and Nurture). There is some really interesting reading in the collection of commentaries and I highly recommend it to anyone as an entertaining and stimulating diversion.
In his November 21 piece, Jillette lays out his case for being an atheist. He doesn’t try to address the various philosophical twists and turns one must make to get to the point of moving beyond being agnostic (unsure of God’s existence) to being atheist (absolutely sure that God doesn’t exist). He is, I assume, simply trying to demonstrate to the reader HIS path to his enlightened view of reality.
He begins with, “I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy-you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do.”
With this bold, proud beginning, Jillette has put himself in the same category as Nitzche, Arthur C. Clark, Ayn Rand, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sagan. Jillette has placed himself in the constellation of Uber-Atheists who are so enlightened that they can’t understand why it is that us poor, common folk aren’t as enlightened (or let’s face it, as smart) as they are. Golly, I wish I were as wise as Penn Jillette, as smart as Penn Jillette, and as philosophically astute as Penn Jillette.
Oh, wait, I am! And I’m not alone. There are millions of people who believe in God who are highly educated, highly intelligent, and extremely rational.
So how is it, then, that Penn Jillette and I have reached diametrically opposed opinions about the same life-shaping concept? I think I know.
As I said before, it’s because Penn Jillette is an idiot and, well, I’m not!
One of the first things that bugs me is this whole myth-crutch of the smart-ass-atheist that “you can’t prove a negative.” Unfortunately for the smart-ass-atheist (read “Penn Jillette”), you CAN prove a negative. Richard Carrier (an atheist) does a great job dispelling this myth in Proving a Negative. In part, Carrier explains:
“As it happens, there really isn’t such a thing as a “purely” negative statement, because every negative entails a positive, and vice versa. Thus, “there are no crows in this box” entails “this box contains something other than crows” (in the sense that even “no things” is something, e.g. a vacuum). “Something” is here a set restricted only by excluding crows, such that for every set S there is a set Not-S, and vice versa, so every negative entails a positive and vice versa. And to test the negative proposition one merely has to look in the box: since crows being in the box (p) entails that we would see crows when we look in the box (q), if we find q false, we know that p is false. Thus, we have proved a negative. Of course, we could be mistaken about what we saw, or about what a crow is, or things could have changed after we looked, but within the limits of our knowing anything at all, and given a full understanding of what a proposition means and thus entails, we can easily prove a negative in such a case.”
PENN IS AN IDIOT REASON #1: He can’t get his basic philosophical reasoning straight. I mean, if he is going to write something that is out on the internet and read on National Public Radio for everyone to read and hear, he should at least double check himself to be sure that what he is saying is verifiable and accurate. To hear him speak, you would think that everything he is saying is incontrovertable,…but think again!
Moving on, our good Penn continues
“So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power. All the people I write emails to often are still stuck at this searching stage. The atheism part is easy.”
First of all, did you notice the really clever, subtle jab he takes at some people (probably conservatives) by his use of “herself” and “she” rather than using “he” or the preferred “he/she” or the ubiquitous generic “they.” What a great way to show that he is not only uber-smart, he is uber-enlightened and on the side of women!
And WOW! Look how many people he has alienated and negated with his phrasing “anyone with a love for truth has to start with no belief in God.” He has just thumbed his nose at: Antony Flew (former high priest of atheism, now turned theist), St. Anselm, Renee Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, Joseph Swinburne, R.C. Sproul, etc, etc, etc. Thousands of well-known, brilliant, and highly respected people have just been given their papers and shown the door. Man, I wish I were as smart as Penn Jillette and as wise as Penn Jillette (did I already say that?).
By the way, what about guys like Antony Flew and C.S. Lewis who DID take Penn’s advice and start with a belief in NO GOD and followed the evidence which ended up at a belief in God (or in some supreme being/controlling force in Flew’s case). Don’t these two amazingly intelligent examples prove Jillette wrong or at least cast doubt on his over-confident analysis?
Mr. Jillette seems to think that an enlightened woman should BEGIN with the assumption that there is no God and then try to prove it by spending a lot of time and due-diligence to see if there is evidence to contradict her initial assumption. That must have been a mistake on his part, because I believe that most people know that to actually form an enlightened position one starts in the middle (or at zero, depending how you look at it) with a suspension of opinion and then begin to shape conclusions based on the evidence. I guess Penn was too busy being clever and uber-smart to catch that faux pas. (By the way, did you notice how I, too, cleverly worked in the female perspective with “woman” and “her,” also proving my sensitivity towards the feminine?)
PENN IS AN IDIOT REASON #2: A flawed understanding and thought process about objective conclusions. He mistakenly believes in first forming a conclusion (there is NO god) and then observing to see if there is any evidence out there to change his mind. Instead, logically he SHOULD HAVE started with a balanced-scale perspective with both sides being equal, and then evaluated the evidence to see which way the scale tips.
Next we are given some astounding evidence of Penn Jillette’s amazing intellect and influence. “All the people I write emails to often are still stuck at this searching stage.” Golly! He has PEOPLE who he writes to, people who are obviously less intelligent and philosophically astute than he is, who he seems to pity. And he says they are ALL stuck at the same place. In other words, EVERYONE that he writes to regarding this matter are stuck at the same place in the philosophical landscape, unable to find a shred of evidence in the existence of a deity of some kind. You mean to tell me that NOBODY that he emails with has reached the opposite conclusion? Wow, he MUST be good! I hope he never talks with Billy Graham or the Pope, or we’ll be in serious trouble!
PENN IS AN IDIOT REASON #3: An ego the size of California and an over-inflated sense of importance. (No explanation needed).
Jillette then goes on this long, ridiculous soliloquy of how his atheism imbues his life with joy and meaning. Honestly, I’ve never heard anyone discuss their atheism in quite this way. It’s almost like listening to Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of “A Christmas Carol” talk about living his life as though it were Christmas each day. Scrooge bubbles forth on the benefits of believing in and holding to Christmas, in the same way that Jillette bubbles forth extolling the virtues of atheism. He is basically saying that because there is not God he is free to love and laugh and give and enjoy life because believing in God doesn’t allow people to love and give and laugh and enjoy life. (Maybe his problem is that at some point, he tried to believe in the evil God of the alternate reality-universe in the original Star Trek where Spock had the cool-looking goatee).
PENN IS AN IDIOT REASON #4: An over-the-top use of hyperbole and a ridiculous flair for the overly-over-dramatic. Great, make your point, but don’t muddy your process of arguing your position with ill-founded, poorly explained sentiment. I think he missed his calling. Penn Jillette needs to write for a soap opera! I heard that Days of Our Lives is hiring.
And THEN (finally) we get to the heart of the matter. Penn’s atheism stops him from being “solipsistic,” meaning that atheism refrains him from being someone who believes that self is the only thing that can be known and verified, and thus is the only reality. That is an ironic statement, since atheism and humanism walk hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm down the path of philosophy, with humanism (secular) defined as a philosophy that advocates the use of reason, logic and scientific inquiry within a worldview centered upon human beings.
I guess he is saying that those damn believers and religious nuts are too closed minded and only believe what they want to believe, no matter what the evidence and no matter if someone else believes something different. I have to say that I guess Jillette is too clever for me, because I would swear that he is doing the EXACT SAME THING!!!
PENN IS AN IDIOT REASON #5: Blindness to his own blindness. Ironically, it seems appropriate to pause here and advise Mr. Jillette to follow the leading of Jesus in the book of Luke when he talked about the hypocrisy of trying to help a friend with a speck in his eye when you have a huge piece of wood in your own. In this case, Penn Jillette is wanting to point out how closed-minded believers in God can be about atheism, when he demonstrates the he is equally closed-minded about theism (or more so).
Next, I love it when he says, “I don’t travel in circles where people say, ‘I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith.’ ” Funny, I don’t travel in those circles either. That sounds like a straw man that Jillette can prop up just to knock down. I guess he likes to pretend that everyone who disagrees with him disagrees on that basis. I’m sure it makes him feel better, and it gives him some great comedy material for his act.
PENN IS AN IDIOT REASON #6: Philosophical and logical dishonesty. The weaknesses of an argument can always be spotted when someone becomes logically and/or philosophically dishonest in their justifications.
The sad part of Penn Jillette’s piece is at the end…
“Believing there is not God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.”
I agree. There are SOME belief systems that hold to God being a very vindictive and even capricious deity who is willing to cause pain and grief, or who is willing to allow pain and grief to happen without compassion. But it is the height and depth of ignorance to put all belief systems that hold to belief in God in the same boat. For example, an centered, balanced and informed Judeo-Christian belief system would say that suffering that occurs in the world isn’t caused by God. It is a product of free-will and choice, just as the ability and power to nullify and solve the difficulties and problems of the world come about through free-will and choice.
To say, “No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future” is so backwards. The idea of “no God” puts humanity as the final arbiters of Right, Wrong, Truth, Honesty, etc,. Since all humans will see Right, Wrong, Truth, Honesty, etc in terms of their own best interests, there will be 6 billion versions of “less suffering in the future” with the end result that everyone will be victims of someone else’s reality.
To the contrary of what Jillette thinks, “less suffering in the future” comes about with the application of true and honest morality based in a belief that men and women are less than they could be, but still ultimately valued by the God who created them and who gave them free will to choose the paths in life.
PENN IS AN IDIOT REASON #7: Misplaced/Displaced anger, frustration and grief. Penn Jillette is looking for someone to blame for things that he sees and experiences in life that he doesn’t understand. God becomes the most likely target. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to consider that he could be looking towards God for explanations and understanding, rather than looking to God for blame and excuses.
Though I believe that Penn Jillette is an idiot, let me also say this…This I believe: There is hope for Penn Jillette.
Category: Atheism |