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.