Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame contributed an essay to NPR’s “This I Believe” series. His piece is titled “There Is No God”, and in it he (not surprisingly) discusses his atheism. He makes a point to emphasize that he is a “strong atheist”, meaning he actively denies the existence of a god or gods rather than simply lacking a belief in a god. The latter position is usually referred to as “weak atheism”. I respect the fact that he takes the strong atheism position, since it is a position that actually makes claims about the world and therefore is more interesting than it’s “weak” counterpart.
However, when he starts spelling out the implications of his belief, he seems to simply be asserting that he is very open-minded. That is all well and good, but open-mindedness is in no way dependent upon atheism. Atheists can be just as close-minded as theists. Likewise, theists can be just as open-minded as atheists. An open-minded person would be able to recognize and acknowledge this, but that would make it more difficult to be condescending.
While I certainly expected at least a bit of condescension from the article, I didn’t expect this:
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.
When exactly did theism dictate that one can’t read different ideas? Did I miss a memo or something? That statement is so wrongheaded it’s embarrassing. Huston Smith is religious, and I would be surprised if he were less well read on different cultures than Mr. Jillette.
And does he honestly believe that atheism allows people to agree on reality? Well, they certainly agree about the existence of god, but that is basically as far as the guaranteed agreement goes. Jillette should take a look at the debate over consciousness sometime. Searle and Dennett are both atheists, but they hardly agree.
Where he really loses me though is this section:
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.
How exactly would the existence of God preclude our helping others with their suffering in the future? It seems to me that theists could seek to reduce suffering just as easily as atheists. I think some of them even set up charities to do this that.
I guess it is easy to see that I didn’t really like Jillette’s essay. I probably wouldn’t have been bothered by it as much if I didn’t like him. I’ve caught his cable show a few times, and he seems to be fairly clear headed when discussing issues there. So I expected a little more from him than the usual stereotypes.