Interviewed for Book Passage (August 2011)
Zack Ruskin: You must be the only author in history to have a blurb from both Glenn Beck and Richard Dawkins. Your book is about atheism, but clearly you don’t need to be of that opinion to enjoy it?
Penn Jillette: I thought long and hard about putting both of those blurbs on my book. I was afraid that if you drew a Venn Diagram eliminating people who would not ever buy a book enjoyed by Richard Dawkins and also those who would never buy a book enjoyed by Glenn Beck — there might be no one left. I hope, instead, it shows, that even people who disagree strongly can still have a laugh or two together. I guess we’ll find out.
Zack Ruskin: Between your Vegas magic shows, your upcoming television series on Discovery channel and the numerous appearances you make, where do you find the time to write a book?
Penn Jillette: A change is better than a rest. Everything else I do is in public. I’m out there. They’re all interactive. Yes, the book is out in public now, and I hope a lot of people read it, but I wrote it in quiet moments alone. It’s more personal then the more showbizzy stuff. The time I spent thinking about it and typing, is time I need to spend resting anyway. I love writing, and I find it relaxing and restful. So, I wrote this book as a break from the other stuff.
Zack Ruskin: I assume there won’t be a companion book written by Teller arguing for the existence of God?
Penn Jillette: That would be so cool. But, Teller is more hardcore an atheist than I am. He makes Richard Dawkins look like Glenn Beck.
Zack Ruskin: As someone who is known the world over as being part of a duo, do you see your novels and now God, No! as an outlet for creating apart from that moniker?
Penn Jillette: Not at all. I’m proud to be more than half by weight of Penn & Teller and have no desire to separate from that image at all.
Zack Ruskin: How would you compare your book with say, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great?
Penn Jillette: Hitch is smarter than me. He’s better educated than me. He’s better read than me. He’s braver than me. But . . . he didn’t drop his cock in a blow-dryer or get naked with Billy Gibbons in Zero G, and he can’t find a freely selected card in a perfectly ordinary deck — so fuck him.
Zack Ruskin: Do you see any parallels between religion and magic? Both seem to place an emphasis on believing, and asking participants to disregard logic, although I know your show goes to great lengths to acknowledge the deceptions at hand.
Penn Jillette: Religion and magic are the opposite. Religion is wishful thinking and the artistic willing suspension of disbelief dangerously moved into the real world. Modern theatrical magic is the unwilling suspension of disbelief. You watch magic shows, with a chip on your shoulder and enjoy the collision between what you know isn’t true and how it seems. You leave a magic show, with a sense that you must question everything, you leave church thinking you mustn’t question anything.
Zack Ruskin: On NPR, you clarified the difference between being an atheist and believing there isn’t a God. Why is this distinction important to you?
Penn Jillette: This may be a question better answered in the book. What you believe is not what you know, what you believe is your default setting at this minute. When I wrote this book, I didn’t believe in god. Now, I don’t believe in god. Next book? I have no way of knowing. Atheism is the humility of “I don’t know.” And while I don’t know, I don’t believe. But, if you pushed me, I believe there’s no god. I’m further gone than one needs to be to be an atheist.
Zack Ruskin: The common thread in most of your professional endeavors seems to be skepticism: your Vegas show plays on the conventions of illusion, your brilliant TV show Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t debunked all nature of things, and now your new book. Do you derive pleasure in showing why something like bottled water is a complete scam, or is it more an inherent moral obligation you feel you’re fulfilling?
Penn Jillette: Neither. For rhetorical and comedic reasons, my beliefs are stated in the negative, but it’s not the way I feel them in my heart. I feel that an empirical reality that we can share, love, family, friendship, are just wonderful, and all the jive just takes away the pure white light/white heat joy of life. I also believe that everyone should proselytize and play in the marketplace of ideas. That’s what life is and I’m digging it. But, that’s not funny.
Zack Ruskin: Mixing humor in with religious talk is an excellent way to approach the subject, but it also comes with inherited risks. I feel like Bill Maher managed to walk that tightrope in his documentary Religulous. Are there any books, movies etc. you have a particular affinity for that blend faith and funny well?
Penn Jillette: Well, Hitch of course — he’s a funny guy. Mark Twain is hard to beat. George Carlin, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, Monty Python, Randy Newman, Michael O’Donahue — the list goes on and on. I also find Moby Dick to be an atheist book, but . . . I think that might be my own delusion.
Zack Ruskin: Which of the Ten Commandments irks you the most? What would your replacement commandment be?
Penn Jillette: All the ones that put “god” above humans (the first 3) really bug me, but the worst to me right now is the 10th, not because I covet my neighbor’s wife (although some of those MILFs at my children’s school kill me) but because making it a sin to think something seems horrible. It means all believers must fail, and it makes our thoughts not our own, and nothing is worse than that. Not making a separation between what one thinks and what someone does, is insane. There should be no guilt in thinking something wrong, only in doing something wrong. I would suggest “Think what you want, but do good.”
This interview appeared on the Book Passage blog on August 22, 2011.