Penn Jillette’s book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales is a book about what it’s like to live as an atheist, plain and simple. Jillette expresses admiration for the other (relatively) recent books published by high profile atheists, such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, but God, No! is really nothing like its counterparts. It is not a scientific or philosophical argument for atheism, or a treatise condemning the dangers of religious belief. Instead, it is mostly a memoir with an atheistic philosophical bent, as well as an evaluation of the Ten Commandments, which provide the chapter headings, and are rewritten for the secular crowd.
It is written with Jillette’s characteristic raconteur delivery, and is liberally spiced with his (equally characteristic) expletives, so it reads as though Penn is in the room speaking. The most enjoyable parts of the book are Jillette’s recollections, such as hot-tubbing nude at his house with Ron Jeremy, visiting a gay bathhouse in San Francisco in the eighties, and – why it’s included, I’m not sure – getting his penis caught in a red hot hair dryer after showering, while on a trip to win back an ex-girlfriend. Oh, and there’s a reference to the horror film The Human Centipede. If you don’t get that reference, I suggest being careful with your Internet searches to find out.
There are a few parts of the book that are tremendously touching, and make the entire thing worthwhile by themselves. Jillette speaks of himself and the cast of Penn & Teller joining in the “reverse baptism” of a man leaving his Jewish faith by way of bacon cheeseburger in a sportsbar at the Rio in Las Vegas. His chapters on coping with the aging and eventual death of his parents and his sister are deeply moving, and are a valuable read, given the frequently cited comfort that faith is supposed to provide after the death of a family member. In that sense, it really is a book about living as an atheist, and these personal memories form the backbone of that thesis.
However, the most significant part of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter on agnosticism. As a belief system, agnosticism is often promoted as a more rational and moderate alternative to atheism. Indeed, Christopher Hitchens’ good friend Martin Amis is a strong proponent of this viewpoint, and it tends to carry fairly significant intellectual weight simply because it appears to be so rational. Penn addresses it with characteristic subtlety: “you’re an atheist, and just say that, you fucking pussy.” Agnosticism tends to deserve relatively little discussion in the books written by atheists (just as moderate religion receives little treatment) and it is refreshing to see the topic tackled for its pretentious humility.
Otherwise, there are a few things that I found lacking. I’m a huge Penn & Teller fan – I’ve seen them live in Las Vegas, have seen most of their television specials, and own seasons of their acclaimed ShowTime series, Bullshit! There was some mention of Penn’s relationship with Teller, but it seems to end rather anticlimactically, as he declares they are really just “business partners” who socialize relatively little outside of their show. I would liked to have seen that relationship explored more, especially since Teller has credited Penn with bringing him out of the closet as an atheist. It just seems like there is a little more to the Penn & Teller story. It is also slightly hard to follow, since Penn’s storytelling is a bit rambling, and it is sometimes tough to make the intellectual connection between Penn’s stories and his atheism. Nevertheless, what might be lacking in consistency and coherency is easily made up for because the whole book is hilarious, and the occasionally strange insights into Penn’s life make the book truly special.
As well, there is a very consistent theme of libertarianism that runs all the way through, and it was actually Bullshit! that first sent me down that philosophical track. It is enjoyable to read Jillette expound upon his views on civil liberties, airport security and the use of drugs and alcohol, even if you don’t necessarily agree with his suggestion that airline travel should be deregulated, such that the good guys have more firepower than the bad guys, preventing future airplane hijackings.
Oh, and it turns out it’s possible to have sex while scuba diving. That part reads like a porno. Good luck.