The Devil probably isn’t making him do it, but professional illusionist and troublemaker Penn Jillette is still bent on turning as many souls away from The Almighty as he possibly can. His latest release, God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, is a humorous re-envisioning of the Ten Commandments for our modern—and more profane—age.
Read more new and notable nonfiction books for August.
After a day of drowning Teller in a tank full of hungry piranha and torching a bunch of trees with a jet engine for an upcoming Discovery Channel special, the vocal half of the Penn & Teller was finally ready for a wide-ranging conversation. Read on for his thoughts on the solace of atheism, the Lady Gagas of the late 19th century and the usefulness of obscenity.
Ultimately, do you want to be proven wrong about God?
My desires don’t really matter. I think honest discussion is really important and whatever the truth ends up being, that’s what matters. More important than that is being able to share reality with other people.
One of my major problems with faith is that it says, “Believe this regardless of the world around you.” And I think that the most important part of being human is to decide to share the world around you. That’s what I want to do, and wherever that leads I’m fine. I’ve changed my mind on so many things over the years. And that’s always a wonderful feeling—it’s a fresh breath.
Is facing your own mortality an easier proposition as an atheist?
I think it’s much, much easier as an atheist. I have lost my father, my mother and my sister. When my mom died I found that the only comfort I got was from atheism. We loved each other so much, and I still love her. It’s a terrible pain to lose the person closest to you.
But if I had to believe that there was a spook show on top of that and there was a power that could have stopped this but chose not to, I don’t know how I would have taken it. Of course, religious people will tell you they don’t know how they would have gotten through without their faith, but I just don’t understand it.
What’s the religious pulse of the nation right now?
I think that we’re seeing the biggest rise in non-religion that’s ever been seen in the history of the United States. It’s close to how it was it the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s when your top superstars were all atheists. You had Robert Ingersoll, Mark Twain and Thomas Huxley. They were the highest paid speakers. That was Lady Gaga. They did very, very well.
I don’t think people have gotten more atheist, but they’re coming out of the closet more. It’s almost certain that the number of atheists in this country is nearly 10 times the number of Mormons. All atheists have to do is say that’s what they are, and they’re automatically a majority. No single sect comes close to that.
Twenty years ago, the religious people of this country were very comfortable and very smug. Now they seem desperate. They seem to be clutching onto things. Reality is pretty wonderful. And love is pretty wonderful. And people are pretty wonderful. And that’s very scary for the religious.
This new book displays your rare talent for obscenity. Can you talk about how you’ve used it in the past?
My friend [Screw magazine founder] Al Goldstein told me if you don’t want to get sued don’t ever call someone a liar, call them a motherf**ker. Don’t ever say they were cheating, call them an asshole.
So, when we first started [our cable TV show] Bullshit!, we went to the lawyers and told them what we were going to do. I said, “We are going to be showing people who have not told the truth, and I’m going to have to say something about them. If I say liar, we will get sued, and we will lose. My friend Al Goldstein says we can use obscenity and that’ll make it much harder [for someone to sue].”
The lawyers thought about it and said, “Yes, if the show is called Bullshit! anyway, let’s go with heavy, heavy obscenity. That will cut down on lawsuits.” We were the only show that would get official marginal comments back on our scripts by lawyers that said, “Can you please call this guy a c**t-pickle instead of this because we don’t want to get sued.” The obscenity, in a sense, was a kind of legal dodge.
One story in your new book describes an unfortunate incident with hot blow dryer and your genitals. Any remorse about potentially scarring an untold numbers of male readers?
Every male reader that I know that has read the book or heard the story has enjoyed it tremendously. This is a story happening to somebody else so that makes a big difference. You know, if it happens to you, it’s tragic. If it happens to me, it’s funny.