God, No!, by Penn Jillette

Article published on November 6, 2011.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am both a staunch atheist and an ardent fan of Penn and Teller.  As such, there was an extremely high likelihood of my enjoying God, No!  In this book, Penn Jillette (the louder, larger half of the world-renowned magic/comedy/skeptic duo), provides his own non-theistic version of the Ten Commandments, illustrated, often very loosely, with tales from Penn’s life as a performer, family man and public figure over the last few decades.

As Penn acknowledges, greater minds than he have had a crack at the Decalogue.  His friend Christopher Hitchens ran off a characteristically lucid evisceration of them for Vanity Fair some time ago, and the late George Carlin created one of the greater comedy routines of all time with his own effort.  As such, Penn keeps it light and humble, and even refrains from using the word “commandments” to describe his own ten point plan.  His are merely “suggestions,” and take the form of friendly, humanist advice.  The first, for example, is as follows –

The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity, and love.  Respect these above all.

The overall tone then, is in stark contrast to the authoritarian diktats of the Old Testament.  He takes the position that people are not original sinners, but instead, are essentially good.  Accordingly, the themes of honesty, respect and love run through all his suggestions, but this is far from a woolly-headed hippie tract.  Penn is scathing of religion on a level that would not seem out of place in the work of Professor Dawkins, condemning Hasidic ideas as morally and scientifically wrong, lambasting faith as intrinsically dangerous, and bemoaning the homophobia of the Jillette family’s former local church group.

This is no tirade either though, and Penn throws in a liberal (or perhaps libertarian) dose of humour, pondering the philosophical ramifications of “aftermarket” breasts, recounting his failure to attract any attention in a gay bath house in the early 80s, and regaling the reader with a tale of the most unlikely and horrendous hair-dryer related injury ever sustained by anyone.  In fact, while the book is pitched by the dust cover as an atheist manifesto, there are far more stories of Penn’s libidinous antics than there are philosophical points to be made.

Therein will lie the problem for some readers.  As Penn is one of the peripheral lights of new atheism, it would be easy to pick up a copy of God, No! and assume it follows in the footsteps of The God Delusion or God is Not Great.  To all intents and purposes, this is not the case.  Great swathes of the book appear unconcerned with proselytising at all.  This is less a single coherent argument than it is a collection of entertaining fragments from one of the world’s great entertainers.
Entertaining they are though, as well as life-affirming, thought-provoking, and often heart-wrenching.  When talking about his family, Penn is more earnestly candid than any tawdry celebrity bio.  He tells, with great pathos, of the humbling effect his sister’s boundless love had on him, and of his father’s steadfast refusal to deprive his millionaire offspring of even a single dollar.  Us Brits have ever had a tendency to dismiss American sentimentality as disingenuous schmaltz; God, No! should disabuse even the stoniest heart of that notion.

In terms of it’s religious content, God, No! embraces time-honoured secular humanist ideals such as fraternity (or “one nation under a m________ing groove” as Penn so adroitly says) and scientific endeavour, and bundles them up in an agreeably foul-mouthed package.  He is critical of religion, but stops short of giving it the merciless bludgeoning meted out by Hitchens and Dawkins et al.  Rather than a sustained assault, if anything the philosophical strength of God, No! is that it counters the old argument that atheists are soulless killjoys. By offering such an unguarded account of some moments from his life, Penn shows an account of a man who is an atheist, but also fulfilled, ethical, and possessed of a fine sense of wonder.

Overall, if you’re looking for an all-encompassing atheist manifesto, read The God Delusion.  But, if you’re looking for an entertaining, atheistic romp through the worlds of showbiz, strip-clubs, family drama and even a trip to the edge of space, read God, No!  It’s hilarious, caustic, bawdy and brilliant.

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