Penn Jillette There Is No God Essay

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. You can't prove that there isn't an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word "elephant" includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

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 e-mails to often are still stuck at this searching stage. The atheism part is easy.

But, this "This I Believe" thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life's big picture, some rules to live by. So, I'm saying, "This I believe: I believe there is no God."

Having taken that step, it informs every moment of my life. I'm not greedy. I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it's everything in the world and everything in the world is plenty for me. It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day.

Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I'm wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate. 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." That's just a long-winded religious way to say, "shut up," or another two words that the FCC likes less. But all obscenity is less insulting than, "How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means more to me than anything you can ever say or do." So, believing there is no God lets me be proven wrong and that's always fun. It means I'm learning something.

Believing there is no 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.

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

Penn Jillette is the taller, louder half of the magic and comedy act Penn and Teller. He is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and has lectured at Oxford and MIT. Penn has co-authored three best-selling books and is executive producer of the documentary film The Aristocrats.

Penn Jillette of the magician duo “Penn and Teller” has given an interview (back in 2005) to NPR on why he does not believe in God. Along the way, he evinces some misunderstandings and fallacious appeals. What are those misunderstandings?

First, Penn claims atheism is “not believing in God.” Aside from the fact this is the non-traditional definition, it also ignores the fact that theism is the proposition “God exists,” while atheism is negating that proposition. The position he describes more closely resembles that of classic agnosticism. Further, he fails to distinguish atheism from agnosticism on this view (what makes one different from the other on this view?).

Next, he oversimplifies when he claims one cannot prove a negative. First, this is self-refuting, for “one cannot prove a negative” is itself a negative proposition. So, either it is false or we must conclude that “one cannot prove a negative” strictly cannot be proven. In either case we need not believe it. But perhaps what he really means is only in the realm of existence. That is also false. If a being can be shown to be incoherent, then it is logically impossible for it to exist, and hence one has proven that being’s non-existence.

Perhaps then Jillette would say God’s existence is coherent, but yet one cannot prove a logically coherent being does not exist. As his example, he postulates an elephant in his trunk. Yet such a being is defeasible in the sense that all one must do is open the trunk. That is one way to prove a being does not exist; if the parameters are of a sufficiently limited scope, one may examine those parameters and see if such a being exists. He then proposes to redefine elephant to include abstract properties and a “spare tire.” But in that case we can still prove the non-existence of a being. If a being has the essential property of being a spare tire, and there is no spare tire in the trunk, then there is no such being in the trunk!

Third, Jillette admits his belief that no God exists is a leap of faith. The reasons he gives for not believing in God are mostly pragmatic and are at times puzzling. For instance, he offers that his atheism does not prevent him from being happy. But why think that what one ought to believe in order to be rational comports with happiness? Or that if a belief makes you happy, it therefore ought to be considered true, or at least not plausibly false? He also claims atheism prevents him from being solipsistic. This is truly baffling, as there seems to be no link between belief in God and belief in other minds, except to say that if one believes in God then he believes in other minds!

He continues on to set a straw man, implying Christians claim belief in their “imaginary friend.” I know of no Christians who think God is imaginary. He sets up a false choice between no God and a God who “causes” suffering. He simply does not bother to show why this must be the case. He then claims that no God means the possibility of less suffering in the future. But this is not at all clear. After all, on atheism, sooner or later, man will go extinct and the heat death of the universe will take over. Ultimately, suffering and death win. There is no physical possibility to avoid it. Penn’s view is really just rhetoric, and not particularly good rhetoric at that. It’s what passes for New Atheism these days.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *