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A moderately amusing ramble
on August 16, 2011
God No! is, I think, about the possibility of being a good person without believing in a supreme being. When Penn Jillette stays on point, he uses humor effectively to make meaningful arguments. When he rambles and digresses -- which he does frequently -- he dilutes that message. In the introduction, Penn tells the reader that he rambles, but the admission should be in all caps, printed in bright red ink, surrounded by stars and preceded by a WARNING sign.
Penn tells us that he is an atheist, not an agnostic, because anyone who doesn't know whether there is a god necessarily doesn't believe in one and must therefore be an atheist. It seems to me Penn defines agnosticism out of existence. Most people I know who call themselves atheists deny the possibility of a deity while those who argue that the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being is unknowable tend to call themselves agnostics. Penn understands the distinction but rejects it; in his words, "If you're not willing to pretend that matters of god can be certain, you're an atheist." I suppose Penn can define his terms any way he wants, but he didn't persuade me that "Do you believe in god?" is a question "that needs to be answered yes or no." I think it's a question that can legitimately be answered however an individual wants to answer it (including "I have no belief either way"), even if Penn thinks that any answer more nuanced than "yes" or "no" is "a cheesy grade school dodge."
Definitions aside, there is something to be said for Penn's larger point: It is possible to live an ethical life based on rules derived from shared experiences that are not dependent on biblical commandments. This book, Penn tells us, is a response to Glen Beck's challenge "to entertain the idea of an atheist Ten Commandments." Penn offers ten "suggestions" that, to a large extent, parallel the Ten Commandments. He illustrates each of his suggestions with a group of funny stories -- or, more accurately, with stories that are intended to be funny. Some are, some aren't, some are funnier than others. While Penn's sense of humor isn't always on key with my own, I found many of his stories to be at least moderately amusing. My favorite is a very funny story about battling the TSA over his right to drop trou. Despite his general abrasiveness, some of his stories, particularly about his family, are sweet. I also appreciated his ability to use self-deprecating humor to tone down the preachiness of his message.
I can't quarrel with the "suggestions" Penn offers in place of "commandments" but I do think he made some odd choices to illustrate them. For instance, his first suggestion is "The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity, and love. Respect these above all." After positing the suggestion, Penn launches into a lengthy discussion of Siegfried and Roy. Penn loves Siegfried and Roy despite belittling their glitziness, their animals, their magic, and their music, because of the "desperate purity" of their desire to be onstage. They may have invented "a new art form," as Penn argues, but if Siegfried and Roy's Vegas act represents our highest ideals, we are in serious trouble.
Despite Penn's occasional takes on atheism, God No! is less about religion than it is a stream of consciousness ramble about the people Penn knows (including a surprisingly large number of strippers and porn stars) and the random events that have shaped his life. If you're a Penn & Teller fan, you might enjoy the backstage stories, the gossip about other magicians, the venting about Kreskin, or the descriptions of Penn's house and the parties he throws.
I imagine someone will post a "review" of this book without reading it, complaining that the book is anti-Christian. It isn't. It could be viewed as anti-religion (Penn skewers a variety of religious beliefs) but his larger point -- that religion isn't a necessary component of an ethical life -- is not a concept that depends upon hostility to religion. The book doesn't have a mean-spirited feel (although religious people might be offended by some of the things he says). One of Penn's precepts is that most people are fundamentally good, whether or not they belong to a religion. Penn is actually meaner to self-described agnostics (who, in his view, "are really cowardly and manipulative atheists") than he is in his discussions of sincerely held religious beliefs.
While nothing in this book offended me, neither did much of it delight me. I don't hold it against Penn that he doesn't believe tax money should be used to fund libraries or cancer research (he's entitled to his opinion, after all) but I wasn't impressed with his defense of those positions, among others. In the end, I was indifferent to much of the book and a bit put off by its rambling nature, but I liked enough of the stories to give it 3 1/2 stars.