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Why I am persuaded to say 'God, Yes'

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Penn Jillette is half of a magician/comedy team. Successful for many years, the 57-year-old ponytailed Jillette now is branching out from magic and comedy to commentary on religion. He is a nontheist. In other words, Jillette is a professing atheist who has written a book titled "God, No!"

It's not always clear to me why celebrated atheists (Jillette, Bill Maher, the late Christopher Hitchens) get such prominent media attention. In the United States, at least, atheism and agnosticism account for just 12 percent of the American population. (source: Barna Group). This means the vast majority of U.S. citizens profess to believe in a supernatural power of some variety. Any extreme view, however, has a purpose. Extremes help a person define where he or she is along the spectrum. So, for this reason, I am grateful for folks like Jillette, whose views are a benchmark for me.

Jillette is, unquestionably, articulate and smart. He banters with religious believers frequently without resorting to anger. Self-identified as a libertarian and an advocate of market capitalism, Jillette is also a fan of Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy. Rand's book "The Fountainhead" is one of the more interesting books I've ever read. The protagonist, Howard Roark, is a willing isolated, self-motivated architect who neither seeks nor desires the praise of others. Roark has his own code and is unwilling to cooperate in any endeavor unless he is in complete agreement. Roark neither understands nor accepts any concept of "team," in other words -- and has no need for other people. Altruism makes no sense to him. He is the purest individualist imaginable. The fictional Roark tells me a lot about the real-life Jillette. I think I understand why Jesus makes no sense to the magician/comedian.

Jesus' teaching, distilled to its core, is giving up what you want in order to meet another's needs. "Greater love has no man than this -- that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) This notion of self-sacrificing love makes no sense to Ayn Rand. Ergo, it makes no sense to Jillette.

Jillette's book purports to be what he calls "the ten commandments for atheists." (He says he was challenged to write the tome by conservative commentator Glenn Beck.) Jillette's list is actually a pretty fair reflection of the time-honored 10 found in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. Here is a sampling from "God, No!": "Put aside some time to rest and think." (Sounds like "Keep the Sabbath holy.") "Don't steal." (OK, that's a direct ripoff of an original commandment.) "Don't spend too much time wishing, hoping and being envious." (I leave the comparison to you on this one. Doesn't it resemble "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, his maidservant, his ox").

Jillette does make an entirely reasonable point in "God, No!" that deserves note. The magician-cum-atheism-advocate argues that atheists simply say to the world, "I don't know." In this, we have some common ground. I also believe there is little that we know. For instance, I don't know that my wife loves me. I am persuaded by 35 years of mutual commitment that she does -- but do I know it? I do not. When Jillette makes the epistemological (knowledge) argument, he is on his firmest theoretical ground. Knowledge is exceedingly elusive. Human beings must content themselves with being persuaded or convinced regarding things about which they lack full knowledge. I am persuaded the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge will hold my car up when I cross the span. I do not know that it will. I take the chance because it's done all right so far.

All that we know is incomplete. Armed with limited knowledge, then, our choices are either to be persuaded or not. Jillette chooses the latter; I choose the former. My response to limited knowledge is, "God, Yes!"

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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First off, lets get one thin straight. Most atheists do not follow the philosophy of Ayn Rand. If fact, Richard Dawkins has stated, "Reciprocal Cooperation is the best survival strategy for our species".

Now, if we are going to have an honest discussion perhaps it would be a good idea if we could agree on the definition of the terms.

Agnostic means without knowledge, and specifically refers to knowledge about the existence or non existence of a supernatural.

Are we in agreement so far?

Well then lets say we start from a position of agnosticism. From that position of not knowing we formulate our beliefs.

Most people of faith, any faith, would probably agree that they derive their beliefs based on "faith". Faith is the ability to believe something is true without evidence.

Are you with me so far?

Atheists also have beliefs. Yes they do.

How do atheists derive their beliefs? The operative word here is "trust". Atheists formulate their beliefs based on evidence and probabilities.

For example, atheists do not need faith to get from one side of the street to the other. Based on evidence, and probabilities they trust the cars will stop when the light is red. However, the cars do not always stop. Sometimes they don't. So trust is needed to get from one side of the street to the other. Faith has nothing to do with it.

So, if we can agree on these definitions of terms, let the discussion begin.

Respectfully submitted by Marilyn LaCourt.

-- Posted by LaCourt on Sun, Jun 10, 2012, at 10:14 AM

I too, after reading the article, felt compelled to address the distinction between faith and trust. Jeff infers no difference between the two through his bridge analogy. Trust is a belief based on evidence, whereas faith is one that requires little to no evidence, and sometimes is contrary to evidence at hand. Would you close your eyes and ears and rely on faith alone to tell you when it's safe to cross a busy street? I would hope not. That's the value of faith as it pertains to knowledge. You look at the light and the oncoming cars and trust that when they have a red light, you can cross. Knowledge of laws and traffic history, including personal experience, are the basis of that trust along with personal observation.

As far as JIllette's 10 commandments and their comparison to the Christian 10, where they overlap is not a nod to Christianity, but rather to the human condition. Those sentiments didn't originate in the Christian bible, and neither did the Golden Rule. I think the difference between Jillette's and the Christian 10 are more striking. The Christian 10 waste the first 3 on worshipping a god. Jillette's emphasize human intelligence, creativity, love and respect for the rest of humanity and protection of humanity.

-- Posted by PhillyChief on Mon, Jun 11, 2012, at 8:39 AM

Ten commandments of reciprocity

1. Be nice first.

2. Notice when someone is nice and be nice in return.

3. Never be nasty first.

4. Provide consequences when someone is nasty.

5. Be fair. Don't escalate nasty behaviors.

6. People make mistakes. Be forgiving.

7. Accept an apology and give a second chance.

8. Give an apology when you do something wrong

9. Live in the present. Don't hold grudges.

10. Always choose reason over righteousness

Your safety is the most important thing. Seek help when you need it.

These "commandments" are part of a bully prevention program called "Live and Let Live".

Respectfully submitted by

Marilyn LaCourt

-- Posted by LaCourt on Mon, Jun 11, 2012, at 9:48 AM

Come on Jeff Long. Answer my comments.

-- Posted by LaCourt on Mon, Jun 11, 2012, at 9:15 PM

Jeff Long, why won't you address my respectfully submitted legitimate concerns?

Why won't you speak to the difference between faith and trust as ways of formulating a belief system.

I look forward to a respectful conversation with you.

Best regards,

Marilyn LaCourt

-- Posted by LaCourt on Thu, Jun 14, 2012, at 8:22 PM

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