Penn Jillette expatiates on Hitchens and other atheists

February 3, 2014 • 2:53 pm

This new 9-minute video, for which embedding has been disabled, shows magician Penn Jillette relating engaging and affectionate stories about fellow atheists, beginning with Hitchens, when Jillette (a teetotaler) tried to prevent Hitch from bringing booze into Jillette’s house. He then gives tidbits about Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss, and mentions an upcoming bit that Penn and Teller will do in Vegas combining “physics, astrophysics, particle physics, and atheist propaganda.”

It looks as if Jillette was answering a post-lecture question about his interactions with famous New Atheists.

I know a lot of people are turned off by Jillette’s libertarianism or the fact that he comes on strong, but I kind of like the guy—even though I’ve never met him.  And, as the video shows, he’s a good raconteur.

45 thoughts on “Penn Jillette expatiates on Hitchens and other atheists

  1. Penn is a smart guy but he kind of freaks me out. Maybe it’s his stature. I should meet him and see how I feel afterward.

  2. I find Penn endearing. Still, I regard some libertarian ideas as evidence that we are much more closely related to rats than people think.

  3. Not just his libertarianism …

    But it’s hard to dislike someone of his stature (celebrity, not build!) who’s happy to stand and chat with the audience in the hallways after a performance.


  4. Great video, especially about Hitch and the bottle of booze. I could not understand what he said he would not allow in his house: liquor and what was the 2 nd thing???

    1. Pretty sure he said (due to being at high-school in the 70s) that he didn’t want to be around liquer, or listen to The Grateful Dead.

  5. I’ve met him and Teller a few times, I even got to do a trick on stage with them. I don’t agree with everything Penn says but he is friendly enough in person. Both will give you plenty of time for a photo or to chat after a show.

    I think if I had an afternoon to kill, I would rather hangout with Teller.

    Even if you don’t like their politics, their show is fun.

  6. The clip is taken from An Evening with Penn Jillette: ‘Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday!’
    hosted by the Centre for Inquiry Canada. Saturday, November 2, 2013. Toronto, ON

    Penn’s FULL TALK IS HERE I’ve set up the link to start the Youtube video at the point where Penn begins his superb 80 minute spiel.

    The info in the description:-

    …An exclusive evening with the skeptical funnyman talking about his experiences as a skeptic and atheist, and discussing his new book: ‘Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday!’

    Penn Jillette is a cultural phenomenon as a solo personality and as half of the world-famous Emmy Award­ winning magic duo and Las Vegas headliners Penn & Teller.

    His solo exposure is enormous: from Howard Stern to Piers Morgan, from Oprah to Glenn Beck, to the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He has appeared on Dancing with the Stars, MTV Cribs, and Chelsea Lately, and hosted the NBC game show Identity. As part of Penn & Teller, he has appeared more than twenty times on David Letterman, as well as on several other TV shows, from The Simpsons, and Friends to Top Chef and Jimmy Fallon.

    He co-hosted the controversial Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, which was nominated for sixteen Emmy Awards and was the longest-running show in the history of the network. He most recently co-hosted the Discovery Channel’s Penn & Teller Tell A Lie and was part of the most recent cast of NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.

    Together since 1975, Penn & Teller’s live show spent years on Broadway and is now the longest-running headliner show in Las Vegas where it plays nightly at The Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. In 2013 the pair was once again awarded Las Vegas Magicians of the Year.

    Penn’s latest book, “Every Day Is An Atheist Holiday,” takes an insightful and very humorous look at holidays from an Atheist’s perspective. His previous book, “God No! Signs You Might Be An Atheist and Other Magic Tales,” spent six weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list upon its release.

    His new podcast, Penn’s Sunday School, was the No. 1 downloaded podcast on iTunes during its debut week and was named by iTunes as Best New Comedy Podcast for 2012.

    As a philanthropist, his efforts have resulted in raising thousands of dollars for Las Vegas-based charities AFAN (AID for AIDS NV) and Opportunity Village. The annual “Penn & Teller’s 13 Bloody Days of Xmas” continues to be the most successful blood drive in the Vegas Valley resulting in an average of 4000 pints donated every holiday season.

    In April of this year, Penn & Teller were given their very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

    1. Correction. The video I’ve linked to is not from the same device as the clip JAC linked to. The sound is much clearer in “my” clip with the audience coughing & cheering less of a distraction. “Grateful Dead” for example can be heard clearly.

      1. Thanks for posting that. It’s an excellent talk. One of the best explanations of why accommodationism is patronizing/disrepsectful and contemptible, (esp. from around 38 mins but the whole thing is essentially on that topic).

        Really worth a listen.

  7. Many libertarian ideas, roughly speaking, consist of some familiarity with basic ideas of welfare economics and the evidence contributing thereto. Ignore at your own closed-minded risk.

    1. Huh? Basic familiarity with “welfare economics”?

      Libertarians seem to be against human welfare (except their own) but to be in love with certain a priori hypotheses that they refuse to test or abandon.

  8. I know a lot of people are turned off by Jillette’s libertarianism . . .

    and by his rejecting what 97% of climate scientists say about AGW?

    Shallow skepticism is how I have seen his views described.

    1. Yikes! Maybe Sam Harris should be emailing him trying to convince him of that instead of atheists using the word, “spiritual”.

      1. As far as I know, he retracted that — at least I recall a BS episode where they climbed down from their earlier position. He was taking a lead from some other prominent skeptics who should also have known better.

        1. Indeed he did. It’s one of the few BS episodes that he stated later he was wrong about. That honestly made me respect him more, it’s a rare thing these days to see a public figure admit they were wrong like that.

  9. Penn Jillette can be a real stubborn jackass at times, as he was when he treated Hitchens as if he were some irresponsible punk, but he has some admirable qualities as well.

  10. I read his book “God, No!” where he talks about Hitchens and other things. I did enjoy his “This I believe” essay for NPR but I didn’t like his book that much (he’s a decent storyteller but a poor writer). Penn purports to be a vocal skeptic who is completely comfortable with admitting “I don’t know.” That’s all fine and good but what I find most objectionable is that he often doesn’t know because he hasn’t done the work to educate himself on subjects which science has learned a great deal. “Penn doesn’t know” should not conflated with “there isn’t strong evidence and knowledge on the subject.”

    1. “…That’s all fine and good but what I find most objectionable is that he often doesn’t know because he hasn’t done the work to educate himself on subjects [about] which science has learned a great deal…”

      Nail hit upon head.

      To plagiarize AronRa for a second, ignorance isn’t just what you don’t know; it’s what you *won’t* know.

  11. I have never had a problem with Penn (although I haven’t met him yet). He would be the first to admit that he is a brash a**hole, but I really think his heart is in the right place. Just my opinion. And he can be awfully funny as well.

    1. Err – Mao? Pol Pot? Etc…

      Whilst I think it’s categorically wrong to impute their crimes to their atheism, and on balance I think that atheists behave much better than religious people, it’s wrong to say that “If [X is] an atheist [they] can’t be all bad”. That’s rather like the line from the Simpson’s during Sideshow Bob’s parole:

      “No one who speaks German could be an evil man”

      1. Uh…. no. If atheism is a good thing, then “If he’s an atheist he can’t be all bad” is necessarily true.

        1. Before I continue, I should probably say that I’m not some sort of faith-plant here to troll you guys. I’m a big fan of Jerry’s and, although I rarely comment, I have been following the site every day for years. I’m far from any sort of accomodationism (I’m absolutely with Jerry on the incompatibility of science and faith).

          Clarification over.

          My point is that, contra-gbjames, I wouldn’t say that atheism is a ‘good’ thing *per se*. I don’t consider it a moral position at all; I’d say that it’s morally neutral. It seems to me merely the absence of belief in any supernatural agents or higher powers; not a positive moral stance.

          I’m sure PZ Myers would disagree and would accuse me of being a ‘dictionary atheist’. (I happen to agree with PZ on most social issues. I think he’s wrong on the definition of ‘atheism’ though. TBH, I think he’s found that out himself considering the death threats and trolling he receives and the number of self-proclaimed ‘atheists’ who have turned out to be rabid, woman-hating jerks and krypto-Fascists.)

          Now one’s atheism may be the result of looking around the world, or through history, and saying – “those followers of [insert religion here] are/were seriously f*cked up; I reject their dogma”. That is to say it may the result of applying one’s morals or politics to ancient or contemporary theism.

          It may, on the other hand, be a knee-jerk reaction against a harsh religious upbringing. It may the result of scientific or philosophical study. It may simply be that one was brought up by non-believing parents and therefore was never exposed to religion when young (and more susceptible to it).

          There are countless reasons one might be an atheist. Moral considerations may not be required at all. One may be a psychopath yet not believe in god(s), or one may be John Stuart Mill.

          1. Methinks you object too strongly.

            I can not personally find a way to conclude that the absence of belief in things for which no evidence exists can be anything but a good thing. It’s like you are suggesting that not being deluded shouldn’t be seen as a good thing.

            1. I personally agree with you that the absence of delusion – or at least the minimization of it (I’m sure we’re all deluded by a great many things!) – is most probably a good thing overall.

              I certainly wouldn’t want to ascribe to the cults of Yaweh, Huitzilopochtli or Wotan. Nor homeopathy, crystal-healing or astrology. Etc, etc.

              I’m merely saying that one can be without one or more delusion(s) and still be a total c*ck-nozzle.

              For example: Ayn Rand. She didn’t believe in god(s) or supernaturalism. Didn’t stop her being morally objectionable and seemingly a profoundly horrible person.

              1. As Ant suggests… words like “total”, “all”, and “complete” have meanings that are absolute. A single, ever-so-small, exception invalidates them.

                One can be a horrible person and still not be entirely bad, simply by being kind once to a kitten.

              2. Sorry – Perhaps I should’ve picked my words more carefully. It’s UK ‘yoof slang’.

                “Total cock-nozzle” = “considerable fool” (for anyone outside the UK).

                Anyway, back to the point: I would still maintain the dictionary definition and say that atheism isn’t a moral position – it’s merely the absence of belief in deities. Holding to atheism neither makes one ‘good’, nor does it make one ‘not good’.

                To give and example: If one doesn’t believe Yaweh is real then there is no longer any *religious imperative* to carry out the injunction in Leviticus 20.13. However, one could still feel that killing gay people is okay for other, non-religious reasons (whatever they might be). Disbelief in Yaweh – in this instance – does not *necessarily* entail a rejection of violent homophobia. Other considerations have to come into place in order to move from disbelief in Yaweh to the rejection of violent homophobia (eg sympathy for the individual / the attempt to see things from their perspective, etc, etc).

                The disbelief in gods is only ‘good’ in the sense that it allows us atheists to be free of the vile dictates of scripture or religious authorities without falling into the contradictions that most (moderate) religious people do. Atheism doesn’t tell us how we *should* behave.

              3. Right. “The disbelief in gods is only ‘good’ in the sense…”

                Which is to say that there is a sense in which it is a good thing. Which is the point you don’t seem to want to acknowledge.

                You want to be a dictionary atheist. Fine. I want to use the dictionary definitions of “all”, “total”, and “complete”.

Leave a Reply