19 August 2011

Penn Jillette & God, No!: Chill, People, It’s the First Amendment

Penn Jillette self-identifies as an asshole atheist libertarian. He has written a new book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be An Atheist and Other Magical Tales, a fast, funny and persuasive promotion of atheism. Lots of believers, mainly Christian, are (to use a Jillette-ism) going “batshit crazy.” I doubt that God with smite him, but I could be wrong.

Jillette’s opinion starts out deceptively mild: “You don’t have to be very smart, fast, or funny to be an atheist. You don’t have to be well educated. Being an atheist is simply saying ‘I don’t know.’ “

Later, he expounds: “Once you’ve answered ‘I don’t know’ to the existence of a god, the answer to whether you believe in god pretty much has to be no. That doesn’t mean you’re saying it’s impossible for there to be a god, or that we couldn’t have evidence of a god in the future. It just means that right now you don’t know. Believing cannot rise out of ‘I don’t know.’ “

He’s right. I don’t know if God is there from objective evidence. As for me, I believe in God and in Jesus, the Christ, but I do not have objective evidence. And I don’t plan on getting irregular about this book.

After all there IS an objective reality. The God, A god, a FEW gods, another power (“The Force”?) or none of the above exist or don’t exist. Jillette’s statements, my rambling, the Pope speaking ex cathedra, and burning bushes (which we only know of through hearsay accounts) will not change the objective reality. So, for Heaven’s sake (my phrase), RELAX.

A favorite hymn is “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” There, “know” is not meant in the mathematical or Boolean sense. If I drive past a farm and see a shorn sheep standing there, what I KNOW is that it is shorn on one side. However, that it is shorn on the other side is way I’ll bet. I KnowThat My Redeemer Lives is a statement of the strength of faith, that I have a strong faith which nourishes me and brings me peace, even absent objective data. Don’t get confused by song titles, nor impeach me with them: After all, One Night in Bangkok does NOT Make a Hard Man Humble. My “knowing” reality is really more like another favorite hymn, It Is Well With My Soul.

Why religion? Well, because it’s true. But there are so many religions out there and they contain lots and lots of mutually exclusive tenets. In any event, that’s the bootstrap argument from Hell. (What is objective is that our language is peppered with religious references.)

A better answer is to look at society or civilization in light of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, shelter, safety and so forth, and the human desire to continue to improve how we meet human need and develop an human culture. The presence of and absence of religion has, at various times, helped and hindered those goals. Religions teach various precepts, the most basic of which usually promote ethical and peaceful interaction. Religions have other rules, and Jillette liberally illustrates God, No! with examples of the silly ones which are at the very least neutral in meeting human needs. My favorite example from the book is the ban on the bacon cheeseburger to the Orthodox Jew. I could add things like the drinking of poisons and handling of poisonous snakes because one of the gospel writers made a single throwaway reference. Pretty clearly, the argument that religion – any religion – has a 1:1 correlation with meeting the basic benificent goals of society is pure bullshit.

Other paths can lead to the same behaviors that society should affirmatively sanction. Eastern religions such as Buddhism promote remarkable peace and order. Humanism and atheism can contain just as beneficial and ethical instruction as any religion toward the goal of advancing down Maslow’s hierarchy. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment gives us the power to practice the system of moral beliefs which works for us, with our own personal freedom.

Locking religion out is just as dumb locking people into religion. Some months back, there were press reports of a judge in Arizona who assigned criminal offenders the task of reading a certain book. This was a book on ethical and moral and LEGAL behavior and was written from a Christian faith-based perspective. Obviously, the government requiring someone to read a single religion-based volume is not a good idea. Simply abandoning the whole book report idea, however, was just about as dumb. There are lots and lots of other good books out there on decent and lawful and productive living from various faith and non-faith perspectives. Among the best are the books of Larry Winget. His specific faith perspectives are the vermouth in my martini – the bottle may be there in the room, but it doesn’t come near the glass.

In addition to the benefits that society receives from those who will follow faith as a path to progress in behavior, religion likewise is a path to internal/personal improvement. The greatest improvement is that of eternal life, but there we’re back to a fact for which there is an objective truth which is currently unknowable. Personally, I think Gandhi made the cut but I know a lot of religions disagree.

Ritual is good for turning one’s mind inward. I am part the denomination known as the Disciples of Christ. One practice of the Disciples is that we come to the Lord’s table (practice communion) in every service. That has great meaning to me. That’s about all I can attest to personally. I do not go with the transubstantiation thing, I do not believe that the wafer becomes human flesh or that the cup turns into human blood or that there is anything else of the magic show to it. It turns my thoughts to this guy whose example should be the rule and guide of my own life. I’m glad we repeat the coming to the table a lot because I never seem to get it right. Jillette talks about a ritual within his own family, annually releasing balloons in memory of family and friends who have died. This is really a touching account in the book. It’s his ritual, and it works for him.

Notwithstanding our disagreement on the “ultimate question,” I cannot help but like Penn Jillette. Oh, he’s an asshole, but so am I. I admire people who fly their own flag. If someone is an asshole, what the hell, just hoist the Jolly Roger. Jillette does.

This is a brash, vigorous offering in the marketplace of ideas. Its presence is a celebration of the First Amendment. I don’t expect to see an Arabic edition published in Saudi Arabia or an Iranian one in Farsi.

Five stars.

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