Penn Jillette: Magician. Comedian. Nitwit.

Philosophy Philosophy of Religion

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I like Penn and Teller. They’re a duo of magicians, and they’re really good. They’re funny too.

But philosophers they are not, nor theologians. That’s OK, not everybody is, and I’m thankful for that. But why do people have to pretend? Penn Jillette, one half of the dynamic duo (the fat one), likes to tell everyone that he believes that there’s no God. OK, everyone has a hobby. But please don’t try to wax philosophical without at least consulting some decent sources or learning the ropes.

For example, “I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do.” No, Penn. Your enthusiasm for good definitions is admirable, but you’re wrong. You’re getting agnosticism or “weak atheism” mixed up with atheism. Atheism isn’t just the lack of belief in God. Here’s a quote from the very first (note, the very first) philosophical reference book that I could lay my hands on from my position sitting here at my desk, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.

Atheism (from Greek a-, ‘not’, and theos, ‘god’), the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.

A lot of people who lack belief in God claim that they are atheists, and then insist that they have no burden of proof. This is a mistake, since atheism carefully construed is a claim about reality. This weaker kind of claim about atheism is usually made in non-academic “I have a chemistry degree and that makes me a philosopher” circles. The appropriate correction is to point out that such people are either agnostics, or they are just atheists who are neglecting their epistemic duty.

The appropriate correction is not to just buy this silly “I’m an atheist and I have nothing to prove” line and just go one better by saying “well I’m more than an atheist, I believe there’s no God.” That’s not more than atheism, Penn. That is atheism.

Interestingly, even though Penn says he’s willing to go the extra mile and make a claim in need of evidence, the entire article in which he points that out doesn’t contain any attempt to provide such evidence. What’s the point of boasting about it if it’s so little?

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Glenn August 7, 2006, 2:42 am

    Joe said, “Atheism and theism are about what you believe;” – Yes, that’s the point. They are about what a person DOES believe. Perhaps the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy made a colossal error, but I’m inclined not to think so.

    Now, you might think that Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy isn’t a decent source. For some reason, and I can’t fathom what that might be, you may suspect that the writer of the entry for ‘atheism’ is not really an atheist. You also might be taken with the notion that a website is a much more reliable source of information. Again, I cannot imagine what the reason for that belief would be, and frankly I don’t share it. I notice argument by Google tends to be common in certain circles, but rest assured, it’s not something I would engage in. However, if you do happen to be taken with the view that resources on the internet are more reliable than published encyclopedias, I can meet you half way with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which is reproduced online, and the entry for atheism and agnosticism says that ” ‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.”
    I am familiar with the claim that atheism is a much weaker claim, that one thinks the arguments for theism are inadequate. This itself, however, is obviously inadequate, since there are some theists who have said that (e.g. Karl Barth). I also acknowledged the existence of “weak atheism” which is not atheism proper.

    The claim I rebutted in my post was the claim that in order to deny the existence of God, one has to be something other than an atheist. Now that’s just obviously false, unless you think strong atheism literally isn’t atheism, and if you think weak atheism or agnosticism is literally all there is to atheism. But why would anyone make that claim? Perhaps I can understand why an entertainer like Penn would say it, but that anyone would come to his defense is a little surprising to say the least.

    If philosophical encylopedias in general are suspect in your view (and I really don’t know why they would be), even the wikipedia article notes that only “positive” atheism is really “explicit” atheism. Authors like Michael Martin and Anthony Flew also note that really “weak” atheism has little if anything to distinguish it from agnosticism, and that atheism proper is a denial of God’s existence (something Flew wanted to change, but something that he admitted to be the norm). More general but still fairly scholarly sources like Encyclopedia Britannica are no less clear:

    Atheism, the critique or denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or spiritual beings. As such, it is the opposite of theism, which affirms the reality of the divine and seeks to demonstrate its existence. Atheism is to be distinguished from agnosticism, which leaves open the question of whether there is a god or not, professing to find the question unanswered or unanswerable; for the atheist, the nonexistence of God is a certainty.

    And while we’re at it, take what is in my view a fairly highly regarded philsoophical resource, the entry for “Atheism” in the Routledge Enclyclopedia of Philosophy (which you might find dubious, since it’s a published encyclopedia like that nasty Cambridge one): “Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive belief rather than mere suspension of disbelief.”

    Now, am I “pretending”? Are these people not really atheists, but closet theists? Again, I’m inclined to doubt that very much. Is it really fair to think that some pages on the internet count as a more “decent source” than peer reviewed encyclopedia articles and books that have had to face the hurdles of respectable publication? I just don’t think that’s a real possibility.

    I say that if people want to make differing positions intelligible, then they should, if they claim that we do not know that there is a god, call themselves agnostics accordingly. Sure, they could call themselves “weak atheists,” but it would be a whole lot more understandable if people would keep these boundaries clear, which is why I’m grateful that enclyclopedias and philosophical sources define atheism they way they do.

    But let’s ignore all that. Even if I burned all the books, and just believed Google on faith, what then? Is Penn right? No, of course not. Even someone who thought that atheism was a whole range of positions from agnositicism through to positive atheism, he would still see that Penn was just wrong to claim that the denial of God’s existence is not atheism!

  • Joe August 7, 2006, 2:19 am

    You are mistaken about the definition of atheism. Most dictionaries and just about all books by atheists make room for the broader definition of atheism as simply not believing in gods. Atheism and theism are about what you believe; agnosticism is about what you know (or claim to know, or at least think you can know). The two issues are related, but they aren’t the same.

    But please don’t try to wax philosophical without at least consulting some decent sources or learning the ropes.

    Yeah, it’s a bad idea when people do that. Almost as bad as talking about atheism without consulting some decent sources about atheism – you know, like what atheists actually say about atheism. Why would someone pretend like that?

  • incredulous August 10, 2006, 6:05 pm

    Are you people really arguing about imaginary friends or just the way they’re discussed?

  • Glenn August 10, 2006, 7:01 pm

    Nobody is arguing about God. The blog entry was taking issue with a clam that Penn made about being “beyond atheism” because he denied the existence of God. Any philosophically informed person should take issue with that comment.

    And thanks for confirming the point. Atheism does indeed regard God as imaginary.

  • Ilíon January 12, 2009, 4:13 pm

    Glenn:A lot of people who lack belief in God claim that they are atheists, and then insist that they have no burden of proof. This is a mistake, since atheism carefully construed is a claim about reality.

    Exactly! Atheism, properly understood, is a claim about the very nature of reality, just as “theism” is.

    Specifically, to assert atheism is to assert that there is no Creator-God; it is to assert materialism. It is to assert that *all* things which exist must be fully explicable in materialistic and mechanistic terms. It is, in fact, to assert the denial of all sorts of things we know to be true about ourselves.

    Rather than type it out again, please allow me to direct your attention to a bit of an explanation of the above which I posted recently on the “Raving Theist” (formerly “Raving Atheist”) blog, in the thread: More than Matter at response #177.

  • Ilíon January 12, 2009, 4:21 pm

    Though, I suppose that I ought to first have noticed that this blog entry is 2 1/2 years old.

  • Paul from Canterbury Atheists April 21, 2009, 4:55 pm

    Penn is a comedian, magician, actor, musician, skeptic first and an atheist a distant second.

    As a bit of trivia he’s in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and has contributed with the legendary avant-garde band The Residents (think band members with masks resembling eye-balls)

    He’s an inventor and writer also.

    Just because he doesn’t articulate his philosophy to your set dimensions and definition, is no reason to call him a nit-wit.

    Penn is far from being a nit-wit, he is very complex, taking a few sentences from him is like me taking a few lines from The Bible and shoving them down your throat.

    Please watch this insightful You-Tube video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JHS8adO3hM

    It got my attention and I think it may change your opinion on Penn Jillette.

    Cheers.

    Paul.

  • Glenn April 21, 2009, 5:07 pm

    I guess I don’t mind him holding a mistaken view on atheism. It’s when he tries to be high and mighty about it while being wrong about what he’s high and mighty about that I start to think “nitwit.” But I do find him entertaining and funny (in the good sense, as the professional entertainer that he is).

  • Geoff April 21, 2009, 6:05 pm

    I thought it was an interesting video. I’m currently in a bit of a debate with a number of atheists, and its interesting to find that despite the fact that we agreed on a WHOLE lot of stuff – every major point of the discussion really – they felt the need to insult and berate me, and -feel- like they were being some how attacked…

    Out of the 4 or 5 of them that “ganged up” on me, only one has remained civil. As soon as they found out I am a theist, KABLAM.. everything I say is wrong.
    Heh. Its not “christianity” that is the problem, its people.

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