Tag Archives: Penn Jillette

Hume, Penn Jillette, and faith v reason

I mentioned I’d been reading Hume the other day. He characterises “religious people” in a slightly well-poisoning way in the midst of his discussion in Dialogues on Natural Religion

“And here we may observe, continued he, turning himself towards DEMEA, a pretty curious circumstance in the history of the sciences. After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every principle derived merely from human research and inquiry… The Reformers embraced the same principles of reasoning, or rather declamation; and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith, were sure to be interlarded with some severe strokes of satire against natural reason.”

This characterisation has become a bit of a meme. It treats all religious belief as outside of human reason, a case Hume attempted to make in his seminal ‘Of Miracles’ in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, Hume argues that because miracles don’t happen, because they are outside of nature, and are almost impossible to verify using a naturalistic framework (a somewhat circular approach to the supernatural), religious belief operates in the world of faith, not reason. He pushes a form of fideism. The belief that reason and faith are in conflict. He does this because he needs to maintain some veneer of being an orthodox Christian, because not being an orthodox Christian in 18th century Scotland is pretty difficult – fideism is a cop out, Hume probably didn’t hold to it – given that his entire academic program contradicted it, and it’s pretty sloppy arguing, on behalf of modern atheists to characterise faith in this way.

Fideism is dumb. Faith might be the belief in things unseen or hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), but it is also based on experience and observation, and not a little reason. That’s pretty consistently been the Christian approach to faith and knowledge since, well, forever. That’s why science was a product of Christians trying to read and understand God’s world better. Seriously. Google Francis Bacon. And it’s why atheistic naturalism’s sweeping claims are devoid of anything that looks like history or philosophy

It’d be great for the thinking, intellectually honest, atheists out there to break free of the group think shackles of this meme, and start admitting they don’t have a monopoly on reason.

But no. It continues. Enter Penn Jillette’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Penn’s a smart guy. He’s funny. He’s been reasonably nice about Christians in the past – while clearly disagreeing with people of faith. But this article perpetuates a false meme. To be fair, he’s answering an equally annoying meme from our side – the claim that atheism is a religion…

Here’s what he says…

Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share.

Faith is a hypothesis, as is atheism, about the question of God’s existence on the basis of evidence – like revelation, history, philosophy, and not a little bit of reasoning on the basis of our own existence.

It’s a positive hypothesis, while atheism is a negative hypothesis. There are plenty of less than good systems of religion built on varying types of faith – but faith itself should never be maintained contrary to actual evidence. It’s just that the evidence that naturalists put forward is so dissatisfying on anything but a purely material level, and in its modern form (possibly since Hume) it fails to consider any alternative frameworks and anything that has come before it. Hume was pretty good at characterising or ignoring the people who made good arguments against what he was saying, his whole project in Dialogues and Enquiry essentially ignores 1,700 years of Christian thought that is relevant to the natural theology exercise. Christians have something to say on how we read nature based on the Bible – and I’m not talking about accounts of human origins, but accounts of human nature, and the application of a Christian anthropology to the scientific endeavour had been serving us pretty well since Christians kicked the scientific process off because they believed God supplied a guarantee that the natural order would continue in the way that he created it to operate.

That is all.

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Ira Glass on Christians, the Christian story, and the quest for understanding

Ira Glass is a brilliant broadcaster/storyteller/journalist. He’s also an atheist. In this video, a conversation with a Christian guy named Jim Henderson, Ira Glass talks about how Christians are misrepresented in pop-culture. It’s nice.

It’s up there with Penn Jillette’s great testimony about a well-meaning Christian who approached him after a show.

Especially this clip…

Glass also talks about the “Christian pitch”… and his investigations of Christianity.

“Christianity is number one for a reason. It’s a great story… and it’s a reassuring story.”

He tells a cool story about how some prison evangelists framed the gospel for the prison kids they were working with… It’s worth a listen to hear an atheist trying to represent Christianity accurately.

Thanks to Cosmo on Facebook for the link to the video.

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Penn and telling: An atheist magician on Christianity

Penn Jillette, half of Penn & Teller, is a famous illusionist who once even guest starred on the West Wing. He’s a pretty outspoken atheist, though he also reserves some praise for Christians who act in a way consistent with their beliefs. I posted a video from YouTube where he praised Christians who hand him Bibles a while ago, here it is again:

He was recently named the most influential performer in Las Vegas by one of the casino state’s media outlets – and in the interview he had this to say about why Penn and Teller don’t go after Islam like they do Christianity (and why they respect Christians for the way they take a verbal beating).

Are there any groups you won’t go after? We haven’t tackled Scientology because Showtime doesn’t want us to. Maybe they have deals with individual Scientologists—I’m not sure. And we haven’t tacked Islam because we have families.

Meaning, you won’t attack Islam because you’re afraid it’ll attack back … Right, and I think the worst thing you can say about a group in a free society is that you’re afraid to talk about it—I can’t think of anything more horrific.

You do go after Christians, though … Teller and I have been brutal to Christians, and their response shows that they’re good f***ing Americans who believe in freedom of speech. We attack them all the time, and we still get letters that say, “We appreciate your passion. Sincerely yours, in Christ.” Christians come to our show at the Rio and give us Bibles all the time. They’re incredibly kind to us. Sure, there are a couple of them who live in garages, give themselves titles and send out death threats to me and Bill Maher and Trey Parker. But the vast majority are polite, open-minded people, and I respect them for that.

This seems true of almost every atheist blog or book I read – Christianity is an easy target, mostly because “turn the other cheek” is a lower risk than “kill the infidels”…

Penn does believe that reading the Bible (or Koran, or any other “Holy Book”) will lead to atheism:

“…if you read the Bible or the Koran or the Torah cover-to-cover I believe you will emerge from that as an atheist. I mean, you can read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, you can read “God Is Not Great” by Hitchens… but the Bible itself, will turn you atheist faster than anything.

Question: Why would reading the Bible make you an atheist?

Penn Jillette: I think because what we get told about the Bible is a lot of picking and choosing, when you see, you know, Lot’s daughter gang raped and beaten, and the Lord being okay with that; when you actually read about Abraham being willing to kill his son, when you actually read that; when you read the insanity of the talking snake; when you read the hostility towards homosexuals, towards women, the celebration of slavery; when you read in context, that “thou shalt not kill” means only in your own tribe—I mean, there’s no hint that it means humanity in general; that there’s no sense of a shared humanity, it’s all tribal; when you see a God that is jealous and insecure; when you see that there’s contradictions that show that it was clearly written hundreds of years after the supposed fact and full of contradictions. I think that anybody… you know, it’s like reading The Constitution of the United States of America. It’s been… it’s in English. You know, you don’t need someone to hold your hand. Just pick it up and read it. Just read what the First Amendment says and then read what the Bible says. Going back to the source material is always the best.”

It’s a shame that such a well thought out guy couldn’t engage with the notion of reading the Bible as a unified work rather than cherry picking stories he didn’t agree with and stories like the one of Lot’s daughter as though God was ok with it because it wasn’t the focus of the narrative… it’s like saying the author of a crime novel is ok with the crimes he describes…