Saturday, October 8, 2011

God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, by Penn Jillette

The first thing to notice about Mr. Jillette is that he is quite foul-mouthed.  Really can't seem to stop swearing.   He writes that he never swore in front of his parents, out of respect.   Would that he respected his readers nearly as much.

The title of this book represents a broad theme of the book but most of the text is a somewhat random set of anecdotes about Mr. Jillette's life.   They range from interesting to funny -- the story about how he dried off after a shower using a blow dryer (as there were no towels in the bathroom) made me laugh out loud.

The theme of atheism is supported by the usual arguments, and those are made far more convincingly by folks like Richard Dawkins.

Mr. Jillette starts some of his chapters with an atheist's take on each of the ten commandments.   They map pretty well to an Ethical Humanist's take on appropriate behavior; think of this as the atheist's social gathering, equivalent to a church meeting, and some (like the New York Society for Ethical Culture) have been doing this a long time (in the NYSEC case, since 1876!).

No matter what one's religious beliefs, if any, it is difficult to find fault with Mr. Jillette's list of good behaviors:

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me becomes, "the highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity, and love.  Respect these above all."
  2. Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol... becomes, "do not put things or even ideas above other human beings."
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy god in vain becomes, "say what you mean, even when talking to yourself."
  4. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy becomes, "put aside some time to rest and think."
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother becomes, "be there for your family; love your parents, your partner, and your children."
  6. Thou shalt not kill becomes, "respect and protect all human life."
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery becomes, "keep your promises."
  8. Thou shalt not steal becomes, "don't steal."
  9. Thou shalt not lie becomes, "don't lie."
  10. Thou shalt not covet... becomes, "don't waste too much time wishing, hoping, and being envious; it'll make you bugnutty."
Hard to argue with Mr. Jillette's list of things to do (or not do), independent of one's religious convictions.
As an aside, I find it odd that Mr. Jillette chose to mirror the ten commandments with his equivalent guidance instead of the 613 commandments.   I suppose it would make his book too long.   Plus, both Christians and (non-orthodox) Jews like to ignore the 613 commandments of the bible and instead focus only on 10.  It is way easier of course.  One could comment that once you pick and choose 10 instead of 613 you kind of rule out your options for picking and choosing bible verses which condemn your favorite sinners (e.g., homosexuals), but hey, I don't want to throw rocks.

Also, even the orthodox Jews don't expect anyone else to follow the 613 commandments; in fact they expect non-Jews to only follow the seven Noahic commandments (what god told Noah to do when he was saved from the big flood, derived from the ten commandments of Genesis 9).   These seven are:  establish courts, don't blaspheme, avoid idolatry, no to incest and adultery, avoid bloodshed, don't rob, don't eat the flesh of a living animal.   The orthodox Jewish view is that if a non-Jew follows these rules, then they get a seat in heaven -- with a lot less hassle than their Jewish neighbor in heaven who would have had to strenuously follow 613 rules.   (This is presumably why Jews don't go door to door to recruit, it is a tough sell.)

But hey, Mr. Jillette couldn't ask much more of a sticker price for a book 63 times as long, and besides, who would read it.
One serious point in between the profane stories:  imagine a jury of Christians viewing the claim of a man charged with murder whose defense was that god told him to do it.   Mr. Jillette says there's no question everyone on the jury would consider the defendant nuts, because after all, who would expect god to talk to someone.   Yet these same folks believe god does listen to their individual prayers, perhaps even takes action to affect individual circumstance, and they believe that many biblical figures took direct orders from god which might seem weird (e.g., Noah), or even criminal (e.g., Moses) to others.  

This seems kind of extreme, but current news supports the argument.   Pastor Jeffress of First Baptist of Dallas made some headlines recently when he called Mormon a cult and non-Christian.   Presumably this is because they believe in some items that are "Noah, go build an ark" -style unusual.   It seems pretty clear what Mr. Jillette would make of this:   Pastor Jeffress finds Mormon claims of its bible version (the Book of Mormon) so unbelievable and fantastical as to be dismissed as a cult, and Mr. Jillette similarly finds the claims of the Christian (and Jewish) bibles to be so unbelievable and fantastical as to be dismissed as fairy tales as well.  

As mentioned above though, Mr. Dawkins says it best to theists:  if you don't believe in the god Thor or the god Zeus or the goddess Athena or the god Baal, then you and he are in nearly complete agreement -- he just also doesn't believe in the one (or for Christians, two or three) additional god that you accept.

To sum up Mr. Jillette's book:   if you like a set of rambling stories, don't mind incessant swearing, and aren't bothered by (or embrace) a strong dislike for religion, then you probably will enjoy it.   Else, not so much.

No comments: