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Penn Jillette Talks Atheism, Morality, Sarah Silverman and Cars


"In order to have morality, you have to do what's right, from your heart."

Penn Jillette is many things: a best-selling author, a magician, tv show host, musician, and an advocate for atheism, scientific skepticism, libertarianism and free market capitalism. He's the taller/louder half of Penn & Teller; he's hosted multiple television shows (Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and Penn & Teller Tell a Lie stand out), been nominated for over a dozen Emmy awards, co-produced movies such as the legendary The Aristocrats, and the list goes on and on.

Probably most importantly, he is outspoken in his defense of free speech, often pointing out that the concept of free speech is specifically designed to protect the speech that bothers us the most.

Despite how much I've watched and listened to Penn over the years, I was surprised at how genuinely kind he was when I finally got to chat with him. You expect the co-host of a show called Bullshit! where they routinely mock people for their strange ideas, and presently promoting a book called Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!, to be antagonistic when it comes to opposing views.

This was not at all the case, and it's probably why Penn Jillette is such a great social commentator: he defends the people who think differently than him. If only we could all be as decent and fair as Penn Jillette... 

What impact does religion have on modern American politics and society?

Penn Jillette: There's something like 20% of the population who are atheists. If you were to call atheism a religion- which is like calling not collecting stamps a hobby- it would be the fastest-growing religion in American history. 

So, I think that politicians will have to start addressing that. Before atheism got associated with socialism in the early part of the 20th century, one of your big superstars, the highest paid speaker in the country, was Robert Ingersoll, called the Great Infidel. Ingersoll was an atheist who made his living speaking and writing about atheism. And every political figure wanted to be seen with Robert Ingersoll, because they wanted to prove they wouldn't push their religion on the rest of the country. Baptists wanted to make sure they didn't alienate the Catholics, and so on.

I think we've got to start entering a time when that comes back again. I think what you're seeing with the crazy fundamentalism of religious people now is sort of the panicked death throes, because that is kind of going away. I don't know how long before we'll have an open atheist in the White House, maybe not in my lifetime, but it sure is going in that direction.

I know a lot of very hardcore evangelicals, hardcore fundamentalists, some orthodox Jews, some Mormons...and all of them that I know, are mostly Americans. They believe in the marketplace of ideas. I really haven't had anyone try to stifle me or tell me to shut up. They seem to really believe in sharing ideas. I think that's important, and good.

Why does religion seem to demand a claim on morality? Why does one have to have religion to be moral?

PJ: Well, I would argue that, you can make the case that religion and morality are mutually exclusive. If you are doing things for reward and punishment, it is by definition not morality. If you are good to people because you want to get into Heaven, or you're good to people because you don't want to go to Hell, you are not actually making a moral decision. What you're actually doing is just following bribe and blackmail. 

In order to have morality, you have to do what's right, from your heart.

Now, many, many religious people do what's right from their heart. But a really interesting, kind of intellectual point is, people say, "God is good." Once they say "God is good," they've already said there's a morality above God. If Satan were to be God, and we were all being told to do things that were by definition immoral, would we still say "God is good?"

Those people say, "No, God only does good," but once you've said that, you've said morality is above God.

So, the argument of morality with religion is a pretty dangerous one, a pretty hazardous one for religious people.

So would you call yourself a Satanist then?

PJ: No! [Laughs] That's one of the things that's so goofy- and that's changing a lot- but 15 years ago, if you would have said you're an atheist, people assume you worship Satan. No, Atheism is much further from Satanism than Christianity. It is funny, though, how that got tied in, but I think that has been separated pretty well now.

What came first, your magical powers or hatred for Jesus?

PJ: [Laughs] You can't hate Jesus any more than you can hate the Easter Bunny. I came to magical powers a little bit late. I started out as a juggler, and a little bit of card manipulation, but it wasn't until I met Teller, that I really got involved in magic.

What is the best atheist holiday? It's Abortion Day, right?

PJ: [Laughs] Yeah, Abortion Day. Kill the Children Day! I think, for my tastes, the best atheist holiday is Thanksgiving, because there's nothing wrong with eating.

If there is no God, what happens to sinners?

PJ: They have to be sinners; there's nothing worse. I don't think you need karma, you don't need God for that. Doing bad things is its own punishment in itself. It's amazing that you can do well, by doing good; it does seem to work.

Is this book focused on various religions, or just Christianity?

PJ: Well...I think the answer is, when you're an atheist, the religion you address the most, is the religion that's all around you. With a country that is at least 60% Christian, you tend to deal mostly with Christianity. Mostly, I read the Bible, and I'm mostly surrounded by Christians.

I was raised in a Congregationalist church in Massachusetts. Not hardcore, not fundamentalist, not evangelical, but certainly a good, solid, down the middle American Christian.

What part of reading the Bible triggered your disbelief? Was it hypocrisy, or something else?

Penn & Teller and Zz & Mox, at the AFAN charity walk for people suffering with AIDS. My children are sometimes forced to wear pictures of their dad and his business partner's picture on their shirts.  Courtesy of Penn Jillette

PJ: You know...hypocrisy, although wrong, doesn't bother me that much, because if you say one thing and do another, you've doubled your chances of my agreeing with you. 

The part, I think, mostly that bothered me about the Bible, is how disrespectful it is to the family. 

You start with God sending Abraham to kill his son. If anything or anybody said to me, "kill your son," the only answer is "fuck you." 

Then Jesus gets even more so, when he says you must put your family behind you. If your family is more important than Jesus, then you have sinned and will not get into Heaven. That disrespect for the family, I find very bothersome.


Well here's where I question God: I haven't even had the chance to fuck Natalie Portman, Estella Warren, Mila Kunis, Alyssa Milano, Azealia Banks, Kristen Wiig, Sarah Silverman...all these women I've prayed for a chance with.

PJ: And those prayers would be so easy to answer, too! You're not asking for peace in the Middle East.

Well wait, you know Sarah Silverman! So you can probably set me up with her, right?

PJ: Well, yeah, but then I would become God to you, and I don't want that position.

Well...that's fair, and I respect that.

PJ: [Laughs]

How has Obama been for free speech?

PJ: You know, the stuff that Obama's done with the Patriot Act, and with killing people without a trial, and so on, if that were done by a Republican president, there would be riots in the streets. The fact that he's good-looking, he's a really good speaker, and the fact that he's considered liberal, allows him to get away with, what I think are pretty awful things.

I did not have a dog in this fight; I was neither Romney nor Obama, I was for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian. But a little part of me was hoping that Romney would win, just so we would have a peace movement in this country again.

When Bush was in office, we at least had a peace movement, but as soon as Obama got in, even though he's killing just as crazily as Bush, the peace movement has gone away completely.

Do you see that coming back now that Obama won his second term?

PJ: Nope, I don't think so. I think Obama is too loved by people who are usually part of the peace movement, that I don't think it will come back. That's very, very sad, because I'm a real peacenik, and that bums me.

You once suggested that Obama suck off a guy on camera, to make up for his treatment of the gay community. Have you had any feedback on that? 

PJ: [Laughs] Yeah, I'm all for that! I have volunteers, I'd like to set it up. I'll work on you with Sarah Silverman first [Laughs].

How do you reconcile the need for free speech with people talking about "Fucking nigger won again!" and the Republican party even catering to those people?

PJ: Well, like Jefferson said, the solution to bad speech is more speech. I think that, yes, appalling, awful, terrible things can be said, but I'd rather have those above ground then underground. The way we fight that is with more speech, and by telling the truth, and by trying to seek compassion.

Teller won't die, so he's obviously a cyborg. How many of him do you have? Do you have other models?

PJ: [Laughs] I want to say, now, we're on 17, but we should get that up to 25 pretty soon.

Do you have any other models, or are they all based on the same prototype?

PJ: We're trying to do the same thing. We're trying to move the hairline down a little bit, and make him a little shorter, but we can't seem to get all the electronics in a figure smaller than 5'10".

How is Al Goldstein doing these days?

PJ: Al's doing alright. We've got him in a nursing home. He's cantankerous, there's a lot of trouble getting him to interact with other patients and the nurses, but we're keeping him alive, and occasionally in good spirits. And that's more than he had before.

You're a big guy, Penn. How do you fit into a Mini Cooper? Do you get them custom made, or are they just that roomy?

PJ: I'm actually driving a Nissan Leaf now. But Mini's are engineered for 6'6", and American cars are engineered for 6'4". Mercedes and all those luxury cars are also engineered for 6'4". I'm 6'7", so I'm only losing an inch in the Mini, and three inches in American cars, so I fit in pretty well. You can't be too confused by the outside, because the back seat in the Mini is really almost non-existent. There is pretty good room in the driver compartment.  

Do you fit into the Leaf?

PJ: The Leaf is a little harder to fit into, but I love the fact that it's dead quiet. I love driving and it making no sound. 

Is it working out pretty well for you, as far as performance and everything?

PJ: Yeah, cause I just drive to the theater and back. You can only get about 80 miles on it, but I don't go more than 80 miles in a day, so it's fine. I pick the children up from school, go to work, come back. It all works very well for me.

Penn Jillette will be appearing at Track 16 at Bermont Station for an installment of Live Talks LA, on Thursday, November 15, to discuss his new book.

And of course, don't miss the Penn & Teller live show if you're in Las Vegas!




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