Simon & Schuster invited us to review Penn Jillette's newest book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. We were flattered and excited to get the advance copy and read it several times over the last couple of weeks but resisted writing a review.
Our resistance was not logical. After all, we promised we would write it up and we try to stick by our word – as long as it is convenient or makes us look good. Also, we always need copy for the internet's number one web site with a domain name that includes the words "magic" and "inside" and is not about Walt Disney's properties, a NBA franchise from Orlando, or images depicting things that may be "magic" but are a bit too "inside" (some images are practically "internal" or even "interstitial") for our refined taste in exploitive media web sites featuring three-day trial subscriptions for $1.00.
Our hesitancy was more at the sub-conscious level. As many readers of Inside Magic know, we obtained an advanced degree from a prestigious seminary with a focus on scripture and patristics (study of the church fathers). The experience was grueling and in many ways more difficult than our later studies at law school. Seminary and law school shared epistemological philosophies if not content. The first year of law school challenges students to think like a lawyer. We learned to assume nothing is true without proof of sufficient strength to withstand an opponent's best challenge. We gained the ability to identify significant issues and methods to either use them to our client's advantage or blunt their impact on our client's position.
Seminary dedicated the entire first year to challenging the reasons for our faith. The professors wanted to be sure our spiritual world-view was not based on superstition or self-deception. We were being taught to think like a lawyer as well as theologians.
There is a significant drop-out rate among first years students in seminary and law school. Some leave to follow a different career path, some fail to adopt the mindset needed, and some just fail out for academic reasons. At the end of our first year in seminary, we were convinced we had been stripped of our faith. The cozy intimacy we felt with the subject and persons of Christianity was gone. Within one academic year, we were left to ponder deeply and constantly questions we thought were long resolved.
Did God exist? Assuming existence, was God anything like the entity we thought we knew? Should we care whether God exists? What is the reason for suffering and pain in the world? Was Friedrich Feuerbach right when he claimed in The Essence of Christianity that God is nothing more than man's projection of his best hopes, highest ideals personified as a transcendent being? When man prays to God he is speaking to his alter-ego?
We continued our studies and pressed on with the hope (and faith) that everything would come into balance.
And so the point? How does this have anything to do with Penn Jillette's newest book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales?
We think it is related to our hesitancy to write this very review.
We enjoy Penn Jillette's writing and performing on any subject – even magic or atheism. His style fits neatly into our 8-bit processor size brain and is always just the right mix of irreverence, hyperbole, out-of-the-box thinking, humor and substance. Unlike the class clown who is always "on," Penn Jillette has the courage to not be funny on every page and in the description of every event.
His cadence never seemed forced or the result of sophisticated and marketing driven editing. The reader is given a chance to meet Penn Jillette without apology or shading. The writing had us laughing out loud in our high-pitched, embarrassing, girl-like screech and within two or three pages we were in tears, unable to speak due to the lump in our throat.
When we tried to read portions of the book aloud for friends, we were often incoherent either because of our laughter or tears. Penn Jillette's recounting of his father's passing and his own battle with hospital social workers was unexpected, moving and impossible to read out loud.
So far, so good. The book is a wonderful read for magicians or lay folk. Yes, the language is a bit salty but we doubt you expected anything else. If the book was nothing more than an enjoyable grouping of stories about this incredible performer's life and passions, it would be well worth the cover price. But the book is more – at least for us.
The purpose of the book is to convince the reader that Atheism is not just valid alternative to Theism and more specifically Christianity and Judaism; it is the only explanation that holds water. To be an atheist, he writes, you don't have to be smart, brave, a martyr or a saint. You need only to say "I don't know." Of course there is "I don't know" and there is "I don't know (and don't really care)." He distinguishes the Atheist's "I don't know" from the Agnostic's in a humorous but superficial way. And that is okay. Agnosticism does not hold much sway for Penn Jillette. He essentially rejects it as a serious school of thought within the first chapter.
Atheism and Theism are significant philosophical / theological concepts that have occupied the thoughts of great thinkers over the centuries. This book adds nothing to that legacy. But we think it was never intended to advance discourse on such a lofty subject. We are guessing Atheism was forced to fit over the story collection to provide an apparently unifying theme that just happened to be a great title for a book written by someone like Penn Jillette.
In the late 1970's, Yul Brynner's The King and I was brought back to Broadway for one of many revivals. One of the most annoying television commercials ever made was played constantly on television channels targeted by the producers. It began with Yul Brenner and the wonderful dance troupe twirling around the stage to a packed house. That part was not annoying – even though Yul Brynner wasn't wearing any shoes or socks but was within close proximity of the concession stand. The editing then jumped to audience members voicing their praise for the show and Yul Brynner's barefooted expression of a role he seemed born to play. The very last audience member to give an opinion was a boy of about 15. In his distinct and irritating crackling east coast accent, he pronounced loudly "For a kid like me to like a show like this, it's gotta be good."
That phrase is stuck in our cerebellum and refuses to leave or even mutate into a more pleasing tone or different subject. And when we were reading Penn Jillette's God No! the phrase returned with greater frequency and emphasis. Perhaps our brain was trying to tell our mind that for a seminarian tortured by doubt and intellectual onanism to like a book like this, it's gotta be good.
We highly recommend it to all interested in magic, magicians, Las Vegas, Hollywood, logistics, families, hope, fears, death and, of course, Penn & Teller. Ironically, we would not recommend it for serious students of Atheism as a school of thought. But fortunately, Penn Jillette provides his readers with leads to the more definitive authors on the topic for reference.
As we mentioned, we have read the book several times now. The stories are wonderful, funny and poignant. And while the title suggests a loftier subject, our take-away from the book was the importance of honesty. By sharing the incredibly personal stories of love, family, children, life and death, Penn Jillette shows he is not afraid to be honest or candid. His willingness to share is the reader's gain.
Read more about Penn Jillette's newest book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.