Customer Reviews: God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon August 15, 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.
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VINE VOICEon August 16, 2011
Penn is profane and obnoxious, as anyone who's seen him on TV shows such as [and the irony here is that although they can sell it by name, I can't write the actual name without being censored, so let's just say "BS"] knows. And there's plenty of that in "God, No!" What some readers might not be as prepared for are the moments of sentiment, sometimes slipping into sentimentality. Penn is a big guy with a big voice, big opinions, big appetites, and a big heart. He values individuality above most things, and wears his admiration for courageous action and original thought on his sleeve. All of that comes out in this book.

All of it.

And not in any organized format, either, but as it occurs to Penn. And you know what? That's actually pretty cool. I found the book very hard to put down, precisely because of its conversational nature. The one thing I could live without--something Penn also employed in his novel "Sock"--is the more-or-less random use of song titles and quotes.

Sometimes I found myself wishing he were a little less obscene because there are plenty of people I would love to share "God, No!" with, but a sizeable percentage of them would be put off by some of the language. But in truth, that's Penn's style, and even saying one wished things were different sounds like wishing "Lady Gaga would put some damned clothes on." Absurd on its face.

So take Penn as Penn, and prepare to meet an interesting cast of characters from all strata of society, punctuated by a fresh take on the "Ten Commandments" that is unbelievably sane and erudite. But the heart of "God, No!" relates to friendship and family. The "baptism" of former Hassidic Jews into a sort of sacrament of bacon, for example. Or the way Penn's mom left their church because of bigotry against its pastor.

The book ends with a rant against faith that is a funnier, more emotional version of what Sam Harris says in his ground-breaking "End of Faith," and bears some resemblance to what Bill Maher says at the end of "Religulous." But it probably cannot be said too often, or in too many ways. As long as people consider faith--pretending to know something they can't possibly know, using no evidence whatever--a virtue, the bold, the loud, the fearless will have to stand firm and say "eff faith." Penn does so in "God, No!" with not-to-be-missed aplomb.
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on August 29, 2011
I must admit that my feelings about this book are a bit schizophrenic. I do really enjoy Mr Jillette - funny as hell, irreverent, outspoken, unfiltered. All stuff I love. Hence, it was fun to read about his escapades and outlook. Yes, I am an atheist, a scientist (climate change - yes, we exist!) and have an eclectic political viewpoint. So, I am a forgiving reader of Mr Jillette, for sure.
So, first the bad news: The trouble I had is a similar problem I have had with some books of late written by entertainers in which they attempt to tread, at times, on more serious matters with a license borrowed from their celebrity. It is a danger that a big microphone has on many..... they think because the big microphone keeps showing up (because they are funny, sing well, act well, entertain) their view on politics, family psychology, science, etc are equally sharp, informed and worth listening too. This is often just not true (though there are exceptional cases). His libertarian snippets for example...... he falls into the same childish, simplistic view of the world that most unstudied libertarians do. Once you spend any time actually trying to manage anything bigger than a 2-man show or a small business, you quickly learn that the Randian bumper stickers sound great but are for dorm rooms and chat rooms - not serious contributions to actually governing much and just serve to add to the clatter of uninformed opinion.
Similarly with climate change - though Jillette confesses he doesn't know much about it and recounts his overstatements in the past, he does so with the "insult first, then say it was a joke" approach. "I don't know" is indeed an honest position if he had just left it there. But while proclaiming to do that, he plays that "maybe" game that just comes off as manipulative. Hey, just read a few scientific papers and/or talk to some experts who actually do it for a living. But, it is the big microphone problem again .... Why actually work hard at learning about a subject when you can fill the airwaves with opinion riding on the coattails of your "fame". Ugh.
There is a certain irony embedded in the book. A cornerstone of atheism and skepticism is the requirement of evidence and Mr Jillette has long spoken out about the ease with which modern society gullibly swallows religion, hucksterism, false politicians, etc. But skepticism is the initiation of the process of learning. The next step is to roll up your sleeves and build understanding of reality. Why not do that with political theory and earth science? Mr Jillette retires to the same chat room crap that passes for "informed opinion" among the lazy. This is frustrating - a sharp mind filled with wit and creativity should do more before treading on this ground.
The good news? Because the guy is so damn funny and he is sincere in his humility about most of the more bombastic stuff, it remains a worthwhile read. He is a unique spirit and he has brought a bit of edgy art subculture (burning man, performance art) into the lives of people that go to Vegas shows.... A very good thing in a world of homogenization and bland titilation.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon August 16, 2011
God, No! By Penn Jillette

"God, No!" is the irreverent, unfiltered reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments. The "Penn" Commandments takes you through Penn's personal life's experiences through the eyes of an atheist. This 256 page-book is composed of an introduction, the Ten Commandments and an afterword.

1. Be ready to be entertained. Penn's irreverent unfiltered humor is exposed for all to see.
2. Well written, fascinating and even uncomfortable to read at times, but Penn is never boring.
3. A biography of sorts. Interesting, page-turner of a book. The stories are hilarious, crude yet never malicious.
4. Some of the funniest stories I've ever read.
5. Through some of the nutty antics, there is wisdom to be found. "Being proud of yourself, your beliefs, your taste, your accomplishments, and your immediate family and friends seems sensible and right. Being proud of some imaginary group you were born into seems insane and wrong".
6. Some very interesting insight about Penn Jillette.
7. His track to atheism.
8. The love of family is palpable and admirable.
9. The secret to his success.
10. Some celebrity insight.
11. The meaning of tattoos...
12. Interesting insight. "Atheists are also morally obligated to tell the truth as we see it. We should preach and proselytize too".
13. Agnosticism versus atheism.
14. Nutty and amusing behavior..."There was a sex dungeon off the bedroom that has since been turned into a nursery (the wonderful story of my life)".
15. The truths according to Penn.
16. Political insight, "Democracy without respect for individual rights sucks.
17. Social criticism as only Penn can deliver.
18. James Randi.
19. Interesting insight about Nixon and I mean interesting.
20. His views about the Tea Party.
21. Love for Springsteen.
22. Perhaps the funniest story I've ever read and I will not spoil here.
23. And the problem with faith.

1. The crude humor and use of offensive language will put some people off.
2. Sometime rambles too much in a given story for his own good.
3. Some stories and one in particular was too uncomfortable even for an open-minded person like me.
4. Penn was on the wrong side of the global warming debate, so he wasn't on top of the happens.
5. If you are expecting an intellectual book about atheism this is not the book. This book is about the life stories of a nutty, hearty, larger than life entertainer who happens to be an atheist and a libertarian...and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
6. It's not as intellectually stimulating as I had hoped for.

In summary, this is an irreverent book at its heart and it doesn't apologize for it. Penn Jillette has lived and continues to live an interesting life and has interesting viewpoints. He's like that one intellectual nutty friend that everyone has or should have. This book is crude, gritty, but at its essence it has heart and love of life. If you can put up with some crudeness this book is an entertaining treat.

Further recommendations, of course the author's previous book, "The Atheist Camel Chronicles", "God Hates You, Hate Him Back" and " Jesus Lied" by CJ Werleman, "Your Religion Is False" by Joel Grus, and "What Do You Do with a Chocolate Jesus?" by Thomas Quinn. All these books have an irreverent tone that is similar to the book reviewed.
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on September 1, 2011
With the exception of David Mills, Atheist Universe, it is near impossible to write an interesting book on atheism. Atheism is a very simple concept. Atheists do not believe in God or an afterlife. After that statement you basically just get into arguments explaining why theists are wrong. And that is not really what atheism is about.

Penn instead takes the road of someone explaining why they and others don't believe in specific concepts and then goes into stories about his life. The stories are largely funny and entertaining and what this book is all about.

Penn likes to talk about sex. In fact, Penn liked to date strippers and get naked in zero gravity. That's really not my thing, but it is still interesting and written to be funny and entertaining instead of pornographic.

So, I recommend this book as a fun read. Get in the head of Penn Jillette. Find out if Penn has ever visited a gay bathhouse. Learn what Penn and Debbie Harry talk about. And in the end, maybe you'll question your faith a little bit. Questioning is good...and so is this book.
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on August 22, 2011
I like this book quite a bit. In fact, I read it in one sitting, which I've only done one other time. Parts of the book are an interesting and entertaining memoir, and parts are an intellectual argument against faith. These parts are presented in no particular order and often overlap. I just would have preferred something a little more focused. I would have enjoyed a book all about arguing against faith. I would have enjoyed another book that was a more complete memoir. It just seems like this is two books smashed together, neither of which are fully developed. All that considered, it's still an entertaining and often touching read.
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on August 31, 2011
Well, you'll never confuse Penn Jillette with Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins as an author. If you've listened to Penn's podcasts this book is like an extended version of that stuff in printed form, but with a lot more rambling and cussing. I'm a big fan of Penn as his half of Penn & Teller. I pre-bought the book because I wanted it in my hands as quickly as possible. I had high hopes for some intelligent discourse in the book, or at least more funny stories. There was very little of that. The book consisted mainly of snapshots of his life, interspersed with his belief in atheism. I actually agree with most of his points. It's just that he goes all over the place to get to a point that has already been made.
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on June 16, 2015
Penn's usual straight-forward and to the point delivery is there...........and then followed by a bunch of hilarious and funny and surprisingly heartfelt stories that didn't have a whole lot to with the original premise of the chapter. Or at least Penn failed to tie them in well enough to make the point most of the time. I'm an athiest and skeptic myself, and was really hoping for more substance and thought provoking words, and less stories.
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on January 30, 2012
There are so many non-fiction books espousing atheism. As an atheist I can tell you I've read many of them, but this one didn't need to be written. While it's amusing and agreeable in many ways to someone of my ilk, he doesn't say much that hasn't already been said in regards to atheism. It's also a bit self-congratulatory at times, but hey ... if I were Penn I would probably be congratulating myself too.

What IS unique about the book is its fanboy glimpse into the life of a bigtime Las Vegas magician, and his opinion of other magicians. If you're a fan of Penn & Teller, you should read it just for that.

I genuinely like Penn Jillette. I would love to hang out and drink a beer with him. Better yet, scotch. And a cigar. I'll even buy. But hopefully this book won't come up in the conversation.
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on December 17, 2011
It's funny, it's Penn, it's lots of terrific stories. What it is not is insightful about the promise made by the title. If the title were "Penn talks about lots of stuff," I'd give it five stars.

I think Penn is very smart and was really looking forward to his insights on atheism--but that is only about 15% of the book. The rest is just random stories from his life. I enjoyed the stories, and laughed out loud several times, but was disappointed that there wasn't more intelligent discussion of the realities of being an atheist.

At the end of most chapters I thought, "Well that was funny, but what was the point?"
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