Penn Jillette is one half of the magic and comedy act, Penn and Teller. The pair is famous – or infamous – for, among other things, their television series, Bulls##t! Anyone familiar with the show will be aware of his cocksure, arrogant style. While he seeks to debunk various myths (some of which need debunking), he does so in a rude and crude fashion, complete with an endless stream of profanities and – for some reason – women with their tops off. His cynicism and nastiness is telling, and his hatred of religion is especially apparent for all to see.
Several years ago he presented his secularist creed in a brief article. It has since made the rounds of numerous websites. I was alerted to it recently when a concerned pastor said some of his young people had become interested in it. So I offered to have a look at it and share a few thoughts about it. What appears below is the result of that promise.
The piece, variously called “There is No God”, or, “No Heaven, No Hell”, is a rather juvenile rambling of someone who seems to think he has it all together. But it is just a mish-mash of fuzzy ideas and typical atheist assertions, none of which are backed up with any proof or evidence.
He is in fact making a claim that there is no God, although he wants to argue that he is no mere atheist. He is right to say that it is basically impossible to prove a negative, and so he claims that this is not what he is interested in. Yet for all his protestations, that is just what he seeks to do here. And he does it – in true atheist fashion – without providing any supporting evidence or argumentation. He simply throws out reckless assertions and thinks he has made his case.
But in contrast to this, the truth claims of Christianity are based on that which we can test and examine. We can look at the evidence for Christianity and see how it stacks up with reality. Faith does not go against reason and rationality. There is evidence that needs to be looked at and assessed. Like most atheists, he just seems to want to ignore this evidence, and appears to have already made up his mind.
And he has a very high view of himself (“I don’t wrong people,” etc). His biggest sin of course is pride, in claiming that there is nothing wrong with him, and that he needs no help. He is a typical sinner who sees himself as sinless, and not needing a saviour.
He is seeking to be the centre of the universe. He is trying to be fully autonomous and self-sufficient in himself. He is in fact committing another big sin, idolatry, in seeking to take God’s place. By denying God and seeking to take his place, he is on shaky ground. A little humility here would help, but his pride and self-righteousness are in the way big time.
In fact, this is just another clenched fist being waved at God. C.S. Lewis spoke about how we are not just people with some problems, but we are rebels who have rejected God: “fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms”. That is the real issue here: will we let God be God, or will we seek to usurp his rightful place, and pretend that we are the centre of the universe?
All unbelief in the end is simply rebellion against our maker, and the arrogance and cockiness of Penn is an indication of the animus he has against the rightful ruler of the cosmos. As Lewis further says, in the end, there are only two kinds of people: “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.”
As Ravi Zacharias puts it in his brand new book, The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists, the horror of hell “is more the outcome of a heart that seeks to disown God and play God than it is retribution against evil”.
Indeed, evil and its punishment, along with goodness and its rewards, make sense in a theistic universe. But morality makes no sense in the world of the atheist. Yet Penn talks much about morality (kindness, not wronging other people, and so on). But where does this morality come from? Where is this sense of right and wrong derived from? What standard of morality is he appealing to? Christianity explains morality real well but not atheism. We have good answers both for goodness and evil, but not atheists.
He is also left with cultural relativism (he speaks of getting ideas from “all different people and all different cultures” etc). But unless there is something which transcends individual cultures, we are simply left with each person and each culture seeming right in their own eyes. So was the Nazi culture right? Without a transcendent standard of morality, we cannot judge any culture or action or ideology. All are equally valid. He likes “blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards”. Other people may like rape and cannibalism. So what? Both must be equally valid in his relativistic worldview.
He says he can learn when he is wrong. But he is a relativist, who does not believe in absolute right and wrong, or truth and falsehood. So how can he correct wrong beliefs, or even know when and if he has wrong beliefs? To what standard does he appeal if he is wrong? How can wrongness be measured in a world of relativism?
He says there is no God to account for suffering. He even says we can have less suffering in a godless world. But how can suffering be reduced, let alone of any help to us, in the atheist universe? It can be of help in the Christian worldview. Indeed, God suffers with us and helps us to understand the bigger picture. In atheism, crap just happens, and is a part of our evolutionary journey. You can’t do anything about it. You can’t condemn it or seek to remove it. How can selfish genes (Dawkins’ phrase) care about anything or about others?
And he says he can live life to the fullest. What does that mean when we are just a collection of selfish genes? Living life to the full again implies some standard by which we measure whether we are full or not. Where and what is this standard? In Christianity, God himself is the standard.
He says he only believes in what he sees (he is confined to his five senses, that is, his empiricism), but then he talks about “love, truth, beauty,” and so on. But these are not physical things. Truth and love cannot be seen, or tested in a lab or measured in a test tube. Atheism only believes in the material world. Yet he wants to smuggle in non-material things like love, etc. He is being inconsistent here. An atheist worldview cannot allow this. Only those who believe in non-material reality can properly talk about love, justice and truth in a meaningful way.
This piece is just a mumbo-jumbo of clichés and sloppy thinking. It offers nothing of substance. He would be better off reading the Gospels and exploring the truth claims of Jesus instead of pushing his own airy-fairy subjectivism. But the rebel against God will do anything instead of bowing the knee. Again, as Zacharias says of the new atheists, “Beneath all the intellectual verbiage is a covert desire to have a world without God. Why? Aldous Huxley answered on behalf of all skeptics when he wrote that he wanted the world not to have meaning so that he would be set free from all the moral demands of religion”.
And the number one demand of religion – or at least the Judeo-Christian religion – is this: “Thou shall have no other gods before me”. But the atheists want to be God, to call the shots, to set the rules. Like all of fallen mankind, the atheist lives in a world of delusion (Dawkins’ word again) and unreality. He thinks that somehow he is up to the task of both explaining reality and being the sole arbiter of what is true and false, right and wrong.
But we have been down that foolish path far too many times before. Indeed, when the atheists get into power, like Stalin or Hitler, it means misery for millions. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.”
This is just another creed of one who has clenched his fist and shaken it heavenward. Yet when he stands before his maker and judge, all the smugness, cockiness and vanity will melt away in an instant, and utter silence will be the only response. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
The final words of Vincent Miceli’s excellent 1971 volume, The Gods of Atheism, are worth recording here:
“Moses failed to write the following commandment: ‘Thou shall not be an atheist.’ Instead his first commandment read: ‘I am the Lord thy God . . . Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.’ It was as if Moses had written: ‘Atheists are not godless men; they are men addicted to false gods.’ Thus, the battle of love to which the Christian is honourably called today is the struggle to liberate his atheist neighbours from enthrallment to false gods and to help these neighbours find the True God.”