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…


Matt Hodge says:

Amazingly, one of the most persuasive calls to evangelise I’ve ever seen and it comes from an atheist. Will be pondering that one for a while…

David says:

I concur. He accuses Christians of “picking and choosing” what they proclaim and in the same breath does the same thing. He’s obviously appealing to fellow atheists and ignorant doubters and not to thoughtful Christians. Not very convincing.

Arthur says:

Yeah, I figure the charge that Christians pick and choose from the Bible is not really a charge that the actual content of the Bible is being misrepresented, but a charge that the Bible itself is a pick-and-mix cacophony.

But in one sense I think Penn’s ‘it’s all tribal’ comment is quite true! :D Although the Bible has all humanity in its scope, its attention is persistently on God and his people…