Tuesday, August 30, 2011

REVIEW: God No by Penn Jillette

Despite its title, God No is less a book about atheism, and more a book about Penn Jillette. Overall, it’s a rambling, amusing, self-indulgent collection of celebrity encounters, only a few of which ever come around to the subject of atheism. Despite that, there are some seeds of insight to be found throughout, eventually growing together into a wild, untameable vine of free thought.

At times rude and crude, it’s in his most outrageous, most blasphemous moments, that the most important points are made. Like any great magician, Penn is a master of the bait-and-switch. To put it another way, like any good parent, he’s a master of making the nastiest medicine palatable by hiding it in something sweet. Time and time again he shocks you with one blasphemous concept, and then slips in a bit of wisdom that you might have otherwise dismissed out-of-hand . . . but no longer find so hard to swallow.

The problem, from a conceptual point of view, is that those sugar-coated messages are few and far between. The framing of the atheist Ten Commandments is artificial and loose, and I honestly can’t recall any specifics. There are no catchy phrases or memorable revisions here, just chapters of stories with a common theme. What could have been a clever concept, and could have really helped make a really strong point, is instead sacrificed for entertaining the converted. That’s not entirely a bad thing – alone, or with Teller at his side, Penn is always entertaining – but I would have liked something more structured.

Is there an elephant in your bathtub right now? If you humbly answer "I don't know," then when asked if you believe there's an elephant in your bathtub right now, the answer would be no. Anything is possible, but there's no reason to believe it until there's some evidence. Once you're an atheist, anything is possible. You are leaving open the possibility of Jesus Christ as lord, and Thor, and invisible gremlins living in your toaster. It's all possible, but . . . I don't know. And until I know—until there's some evidence—I'm an atheist.

In the end, once the stories fade, do any of the bits of wisdom that are there stick with you? As somebody who already agrees with much of what he has to say, and is regularly amused by his act, I don’t know . . . but, ironically (as Penn himself makes clear), that’s largely the point.

1 comment:

  1. great review!--I think I'm more relieved to hear it's more entertaining than preachy--I haven't read the book, but, I'm not surprised about the outrageous/crude moments in anything of Penn's--I saw The Aristocrats when it was in theaters...and after the first few minutes of that, it was hard to be shocked by the rest...and that definitely wasn't sugar-coated.