Magician Penn Jillette Says 'God, No!' To Religion Penn Jillette frames his new book, God, No!, as the atheist's Ten Commandments. He joins NPR's Neal Conan to discuss the humility of atheists and his respect for believers.
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Magician Penn Jillette Says 'God, No!' To Religion

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Magician Penn Jillette Says 'God, No!' To Religion

Magician Penn Jillette Says 'God, No!' To Religion

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NEAL CONAN, host: Penn Jillette describes himself as a hard-core atheist, which he defines as not even believing that other people believe in God. He doesn't have much use for agnostics, or for the magic of David Blaine or Criss Angel. He loved his trip on the Vomit Comet and his visit to a Brooklyn restaurant called Treife. The louder half of Penn and Teller tells stories, argues, and lays out an atheist's 10 commandments in a new book. If you'd like to talk with Penn Jillette about atheism, libertarianism or about magic, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website,; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Penn Jillette joins us here in Studio 3A. His new book is "God, No! Signs You May Already Be An Atheist, and Other Magical Tales." And thanks very much for coming in today.

PENN JILLETTE: Well, it's so great to actually - this is one of the only shows I'll be interviewed on that I actually listen to.

CONAN: Well, that's nice of you to say.

JILLETTE: When I'm driving to the show, I put you on. So it's wonderful to hear your voice, and see that some of that stuff about Facebook and Twitter, you do have memorized.


JILLETTE: You look up from the page. You've actually said it enough ...

CONAN: Enough times...

JILLETTE: ...that you know where you can join the conversations.


CONAN: Your book begins with a short prologue. I'm going to read it so we all have a sense of where you go. Here - if God told you to kill your child, would you do it? If your answer is no, in my booklet, you're an atheist. There is doubt in your mind. Love and morality are more important to you than your faith. If your answer is yes, please reconsider.

JILLETTE: Well, you know, one of the things that amazes me is how many people live their lives as though they were atheist. The number of people that when they read a news story about somebody who was mentally ill doing some atrocity because God told them to, they don't even consider the possibility that God told them to - even though the Bible is full of atrocities committed in that way. And I - in my run-ins with Christians after doing those stuff on our "BS!" show on Showtime - that's rather skeptical about that - I find that they really are good, moral people, and we overlap on everything. And they don't seem to be the kind of people that are waiting to hear voices to tell them what to do. So mostly, I wrote this book after doing "BS!" for eight years, and really appreciating religious people and how really good they are.

CONAN: How really good they are?

JILLETTE: Yeah. You know, one of the things you end up doing is, you end up - when you're an atheist and out of the closet, outspoken atheist, is like I'll sit around with Richard Dawkins, you know, and I'll sit around with Trey Parker of "South Park," and we kind of brag about our hate mail. You know, this one guy in Montana wrote that he wanted to parboil my whole family to let us know what hell was going to be like. And then Dawkins offers up his stuff, and then Trey offers up his stuff. And you kind of brag that way. And I realized it was really very, very dishonest and unpleasant to do that because what you're talking about is seriously mentally ill, psychotic people who happened to add some God stuff to the end of it. It is not coming out of Christianity.

It is not coming out of religion. It is someone who is danger - probably not dangerous, but certainly sick and very unpleasant with a lot of troubles, but it doesn't relate to the religious. Well, I just stopped doing that, and concentrated on the hundreds of letters we would get from "BS!" that say, I disagree with you. I'm a strong Christian, but I love the passion. I love the jokes. I love the marketplace of ideas - because most of us do agree on that level. And it's a great thing. So I've stopped talking about the very, very small number of, you know, hate messages I get.

CONAN: In - there was an interesting part, in fact, you - in writing about the Hasidic Jews you meet who are fallen from their faith. But you say in a way, you missed the community. You understand what they have lost.

JILLETTE: Oh, you know, my mom - and I was raised in New England, western Massachusetts, in what was called the First Congo Church - First Congregationalist Church - and it was fabulous, you know, the coffee clubs afterwards; the, you know, the baked bean and sugar on snow eats, as we called them; the ham dinners were fabulous.

And my mom, who was your classic New England, churchgoing woman - with the hat and the whole thing, and did everything just right - and my dad, who ran the choir, and my sister who worked, you know, doing all the bookkeeping for the church, everything about the church was wonderful, and they loved it. And then my mom just started saying, you know, I really believe that when you die, that's it. And all we've got is what we have right now. And I don't really believe that, but I love wearing a hat to church. And I really think that you can't - a lot of the problem with...

CONAN: I think I would have been sold on the coffee jello.

JILLETTE: Coffee jello, did - you ever heard of coffee jello before?


JILLETTE: Oh, it's the - it is this weird New England speed freak thing. And I think it's only known in Western Massachusetts. If it's any place else in the country, let me know. But these women, at the church, would take these urns of leftover black coffee from Sunday, and they would put it in those like, big, industrial, brownie sheets. And they would add to it Knox gelatin - not even Jello, not sweetened, nothing - just Knox gelatin and distilled black coffee. Just that industrial...


JILLETTE: ...jangly, you know, crystal meth coffee. And they would jell it up. And then on Tuesday night, for the bean supper or the ham supper, they would serve these jiggly squares of speed...


JILLETTE: ...that they would put like, a little bit of Cool Whip on, and some sugar. And that would be dessert. And I remember, as a child, I don't - I've never had a drink of alcohol in my life. I've never done any recreational drugs. I don't drink caffeine. But I remember at the age of 15 when all my friends were doing, you know, acid and the hard-core drugs, and I had done nothing, going to one of these church suppers, having jello for dessert and just being...


JILLETTE: know, like a biker in Fresno.


CONAN: What happened at that church, though, the - there was a woman minister who lived with her partner.


CONAN: And then the elders of the church decided that this was not a good idea.

JILLETTE: It was a horrible, horrible story. And this is not when I was a child. This is recently - in the late '80s or early '90s. Whenever the United Church of Christ opened - had their vote for open and affirming. And the minister that was very kind to my parents, and very kind to me and wonderful, named Pastor Shirley, lived with her partner, who was a woman. And when the open and affirming vote came for the United Church of Christ - and someone knows that exact date, but I'm not the best historian on the United Church of Christ - she just voted yes, you know, without talking to the church elders.

And the church elders, which in this case were really elders, thought that since Greenfield, Massachusetts, was so close to Northampton, and Northampton was so close to San Francisco - except for the gender...


JILLETTE: ...that if they had open and affirming in our church, that every lesbian and transgendered person from Northampton would drive 20 miles north and come to the Greenfield church. And so they fired Pastor Shirley out of the church.

And the wonderful thing - my mom at that time was, I guess, in her mid to late 80s, and she just said - I remember - and you have to remember, this is a New England woman that never, ever swore, ever, once. And I don't mean - not even hell or damn, not even things you can say on NPR.

CONAN: You make up for it.

JILLETTE: Yeah, I do. I do. I do my best. She said - when they said that, you know, homosexuality was frowned upon in the Bible, she said the strongest thing she could say - which was, phooey on your Bible. And that's when my mom left the church. It was the way they treated Pastor Shirley, who was a wonderful person - even to an atheist.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation...


CONAN: ...800-989-8255, and Alan(ph) is on the line from Nashville

ALAN: Hello, Neal. Great show, a huge fan of you, Mr. Jillette...

JILLETTE: Thank you.

ALAN: ...and love "BS" and everything. My question is, is do you think that there is a positive role in society for religion? I mean, great works of art and great pieces of architecture have been done because people said they were inspired by a god, or their god, to do so. So instead of it being something that is to be proud not to believe in, do you think that there is some place in society for a religious belief?

JILLETTE: Well, you know, I'm a big fan of gospel music, and you cannot be a fan of rock and roll, you cannot be a fan of country western music, and you can't really be a fan of jazz without listening to a lot of music that's religious. And you also listen to, you know, "St. Matthew's Passion" by Bach, all the Bach stuff references God, even if it's not directly. I may be lying to myself, but I believe that that incredible talent, that incredible power, that incredible passion is from the people who created it. And I believe that they would find passion in something else if not for the church.

We certainly should not throw out religious art because it was inspired by that. But I believe that - that had Bach - and, you know, this is impossible to say, and I have no authority to say this at all - but you're asking me what I feel, and I can tell you that. I believe had Bach not been inspired to write the "St. Matthew's Passion" about Christianity, that he would have still written the most beautiful music on the planet for some other ideal - maybe for his family, maybe for love, maybe for truth. And you know, "The Art of Fugue," which is my favorite thing by Bach, does not actually explicitly reference religion. So what I would say is, I'm really happy with all the art that was inspired by religion. And I think I'd be tickled to little, tiny pieces if art in the future was inspired by other wonderful things.

ALAN: Well, thank you so much, Mr. Jillette.

CONAN: Alan, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is Jeffrey(ph), Jeffrey with us from Bowling Green, Kentucky.


CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY: Hi. And I have a question for you.


JEFFREY: I'm a magician myself and...

JILLETTE: Don't blame yourself.



JEFFREY: I find that in my own personal performances and with other magicians I've spoken to, a difficulty is connecting emotionally or on a deeper level to audiences, you know, the way more conventional forms of theater often...


JEFFREY: ...and I was wondering if that's a difficulty you encounter, and how you deal with it in your performances.

JILLETTE: It's a built-in problem. It's a built-in problem with the idea of modern magic. Because with modern magic - as opposed to people who are lying and claiming supernatural powers - but with modern magic - or conjuring, as it's called - you are telling the audience up front that you're lying to them. And when Bob Dylan comes out on stage, when any - when Frank Sinatra came out on stage, Elvis - you know, you talk about people and the other forms - they come out completely showing a piece of their heart. You know, Lenny Bruce came out and just said: Today, my divorce went through. Here are my court papers.

It's as direct and honest and visceral as possible. And magic cannot be that. Magic has to have - it's disingenuous. It's a lie to begin with. You have to be doing one thing while you're saying you're doing something else. And that's going to put a wall between you and the audience. And if you couple it with what most magicians do - which is best described by Jerry Seinfeld, who said all magic acts are here's a quarter, now it's gone; you're a jerk; now it's back, you're an idiot; show is over - if you do it that way, it makes it even worse.

So the problem that always has to be dealt with by magicians is, how can you have the art and the ideas be absolutely pure to your heart and touch people while they know you're lying to them? And that's a really difficult thing.

CONAN: Jeffrey, thank you.


CONAN: All right. I'm talking with Penn Jillette about his new book, "God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales." You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I wanted to follow that up. There's an interesting - the book is discursive...


CONAN: ...but there's an interesting conversation you have with David Blaine...


CONAN: ...about the difference between magic and a trick.


CONAN: And it's interesting because in a way, you tie it to your theories on religion. But go ahead.

JILLETTE: Yeah. I think that, you know, when - if you - the great thing about magic is having - you know, referencing the last caller, somewhat - is that it's OK to lie if you were in a proscenium. It's OK morally. It may put up a wall emotionally, but morally it's OK if the proscenium is there.

And there are some magicians working now - and David Blaine is one example, and Criss Angel is another - who very much like to muddy that line. And I've talked to David about this forever, and he has very good points on it. I mean, his argument is, I believe, as valid as mine but just different. His argument is that the joy of magic is having that line blurred, wondering if David Blaine can really hold his breath, if he really can go without food, if they really can do this. And that's the joy. He doesn't want to use the word trick because he wants people to slopify(ph) their view of what's possible.

And my point of view is that trick is a beautiful word. It tells people honestly what's happening here,within this proscenium, is not true. And I believe that the mystery in the real universe that we're proving is so great, it doesn't have to be monkeyed with by a guy like me. I mean...


JILLETTE: ...why would you worry about how David Blaine does a card trick when you can't even understand the basic idea of light not being able to escape from the event horizon of a black hole? Take that one sentence, I can't understand it. The rest of my life, that's enough mystery forever. And then there's the whole universe behind that. So the few things we do understand, which is that David was doing a top change and a palm...


JILLETTE: ...we can be honest about.

CONAN: Let's go next to Wader(ph) - Nader(ph), excuse me, in Little Rock.

NADER: Yes. Thanks, Neal. Thanks for having the program. And thank you so much for - it's a great program so far. I have a question for your author. I'm an atheist here in, you know, having grown up in the Bible Belt of Arkansas. That's, you know, pretty interesting but...

CONAN: What a performer would call it a tough room.


NADER: Yeah. Yeah. Something like that. But I've always had an interesting conversation with my friends who are religious, and that is whether or not we think there would be conflicts with the absence of religion. And I want to pose that question to your author. And I mean, what we have kind of come to a consensus to is that, you know, mankind fights because mankind can fight. We use religion as it is now, because that's what we used to justify ourselves. But in the absence of religion, we would just come up with some other ethos or something else to justify the wars and everything else that we go into. And I think...

CONAN: Not all wars are religious, but go ahead.

JILLETTE: You - not all wars are religious, exactly. And Matt Stone of Trey and Matt, who do "South Park" and also did "The Book of Mormon" - Matt Stone, in many of my discussions I've had with Matt about religion, makes that point. There is going to be X amount of fighting and killing. And with or without religion, that's going to be there.

Sam Harris in his book - and you probably had him on - "The Moral Landscape" - he really does explore morality outside of religion. And I think that Sam Harris' argument is pretty strong. And Dawkins has also talked about this, that there is a morality innate in humans without religion.

AAnd I also think that it's just unfair. I mean, you very much want to, as a religion - as an atheist to blame all wars and conflicts on religion. But you really can't do that because the tribalism and the money and just the general hatred of people different from ourselves seems to crop up even without that. So I think maybe your religious friends are right. But I'm such an optimist, I'd like to keep fighting against it.

CONAN: Nader, thanks very much for the call. Penn Jillette, thanks very much for your time.

JILLETTE: Thank you. I hear the music coming up that I'm so used to. That means the guest will now shut up.

CONAN: The guest will now shut up.


CONAN: Penn Jillette's new book is "God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales." Tomorrow, we'll take another look at the ever-changing field of Republican presidential candidates. This is NPR News.

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