Thursday, March 24, 2011

Human Decency Across Ideological Divides: The Case of Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette (of the entertaining magic duo "Penn and Teller") wrote a blurb for Dawkins' The God Delusion in which he called it "true like ice, like fire." Beyond this, I've not had any exposure to his thoughts on religion--just a vague knowledge that he's an atheist. But when Robin Parry over at Theological Scribbles posted a video message (below) from Jillette, calling it "refreshing," I was intrigued enough to check it out.

I find Jillette's message moving and thought-provoking--and it touches in various ways on themes that are central to this blog. So I thought I'd repost it here and solicit thoughts/reaction from my readers.

In his blurb for Dawkins' book, Jillette says, "If this book doesn't change the world, we're all screwed." I can't say I agree with that, but I do think that if we can't find ways to understand and appreciate each other across the divisions created by different understandings of the world (and ways of living in it), we are all screwed. It may be for this very reason that I don't hold out much hope for the new atheist books changing the world in a positive way. In this brief video, Penn Jillette models for me--in a way that Dawkins, at least in the pages of The God Delusion, does not--the capacity for the kind of understanding and appreciation that we all need to have.

And he expresses this capacity despite being convinced that he has the truth--and that, by implication, the man who proselytized him is wrong ("I know there's no God," he says quite emphatically at one point in the video). Jillette has convictions--he thinks he knows--on matters about which I am pretty sure there is nothing like knowledge to be had. And yet I don't find in him--at least in this personal moment--the kind of dangerous ideological conviction (with its concomitant in-groups and out-groups) that I too frequently hear coming from Sam Harris at one pole and Pat Robertson or John Piper (who likes to excommunicate by tweet) at the other.

While resisting the allure of certainty about our worldviews--either by being agnostic in one form or another, or by holding "lightly" to one's beliefs in the way that Allen Stairs describes (a lightness that, I think, depends on a consciousness of one's fallibility)--seems to be one way of avoiding dangerous ideological division among people, I wonder if Jillette in this video message is modeling another way. And if so, how should we characterize it?


  1. His name is Penn Jillette

  2. Anonymous: Thanks! I was following the spelling on the YouTube video. Correction made.

  3. I am intrigued by the concept of excommunication, actually. How can one pronounce the concept of god a mystery on one hand and then take it upon oneself to be its gatekeeper? At least I assume that Piper and others who excommunicate, like the Pope, regard the essence of their belief as deeply mysterious. So, the best on one can say is that they are policing a social club, (a temporal church), not saying anything really about whether god does or doesn't like the excommunicatee, will save her, etc. But that is clearly not how they would conceive of it themselves.

    This relates to claim of truth, since one has to know truth in order to know enough to reject falsity. The scientific community has labored long and hard to excommunicate creationism, but its own standards of truth/falsity are so high that, (typically for liberals), they don't bring the kind of self-righteous certainty that is more commonly associated with excommunication, and go through the lengthy rigamarole of persuading the public, proving their case to the Nth degree, straining to take their adversary's arguments seriously, etc. Do chess clubs excommunicate? Probably not- they don't claim to own existential truths.

    So excommunication has a lot to do with confidence on one's knowledge- confidence that is typically, and curiously, higher in religious social groups than in scientific groups, despite the actual level of knowledge being, in my humble opinion, rather lower. What leads to such confidence? It isn't a philosophical question, but a psychological one, of great import. I speculate that, true or not, the sharing of a totemic doctrine becomes more important than its truth-value.

    Does Dawkins excommunicate people, as the "pope" of atheism? I don't think so, perhaps because the organization is far looser than the regimented flocks common in religious groups, whom one could say delusion cements together. But also because its approach to truth is not dogmatic, rather more tentative ... god is only "highly unlikely", after all. The whole nature of its truth-finding is deeply different. Though there certainly are disagreements about whether atheists are allowed to be spiritual!

  4. Speaking of stories, truth, and social utility, Religion Dispatches has an excellent piece on the new Mormon show.