SEB Reviews: “God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.” by Penn Jillette.

[amazon_image id=”145161036X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales[/amazon_image]
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Written by: Penn Jillette
Rating: 4/5

Let me say right up front that I’m a long-time fan of Penn & Teller as a magic act and Penn and Teller separately as skeptics and atheists. So when I was asked by the folks at Simon & Schuster if I would like an advanced copy of Penn’s new book I accepted it without question.

Sitting down to read it I didn’t really have a good clue as to what it would be about beyond what small promotional bits were on the cover. One of which says the following:

Not only can the man rant, he can write. From the larger, louder half of the world-famous magic duo Penn & Teller comes a scathingly funny reinterpretation of The Ten Commandments. They are The Penn Commandments, and they reveal one outrageous and opinionated atheist’s experience in the world. In this rollicking yet honest account of a godless existence, Penn takes readers on a roller coaster of exploration and flips conventional religious wisdom on its ear to reveal that doubt, skepticism, and wonder — all signs of a general feeling of disbelief — are to be celebrated and cherished, rather than suppressed. And he tells some pretty damn funny stories along the way. From performing blockbuster shows on the Vegas Strip to the adventures of fatherhood, from an on-going dialogue with proselytizers of the Christian Right to the joys of sex while scuba diving, Jillette’s self-created Decalogue invites his reader on a journey of discovery that is equal parts wise and wisecracking.

That set up a base expectation for a book filled with arguments for Penn’s alternatives to the Ten Commandments, but that’s not quite how it plays out. Each chapter opens with one of the commandments followed by a small blurb about or related to it and then “One Atheist’s Suggestion” as an alternative. Immediately after that Penn presents us with a few stories from his life that are at least somewhat related to the suggestion he provided at the start of the chapter. These are not necessarily presented as arguments for or against his suggestions or the commandments themselves and how some of them tie in with the particular chapter isn’t always clear, or at least it wasn’t to me. In fact, the majority of arguments in favor of atheism in the book took place in the introduction and the afterword.  Needless to say, this was a little confusing at first.

But that’s not to say that it’s a bad book, because it’s a great book so long as you don’t let the ad copy set up expectations that the book doesn’t seem to aspire to. What the book really seems to me to be is a look into the thinking and philosophy of the man named Penn Jillette. Being a fan I’ve learned various things about him over the years, but it was the very broad and vague kind of knowledge that you have of any celebrity that you pay much attention to. I wouldn’t dare claim to know him in any depth and certainly not the way I know close friends. This book, however, helped turn him from just a celebrity I know some stuff about into more of a real person that I could hang out with if we happened to bump into each other someplace. And not just hang out in a oh-my-I’m-a-big-fan kind of way, but as a couple of guys just hanging out and shooting the shit about whatever topic was at hand.

A good example is his anecdote on why he doesn’t participate in the Santa Claus myth with his kids found in Chapter 5. He starts off admitting that he and his wife lie to their children all the time about everything from the operating hours of Disneyland (it’s always closed except when they were already planning on taking the kids there) to the fact that what they tell the kids is ice cream is really frozen yogurt, but they won’t lie to them about Santa Claus. The anecdote is long and it strikes off onto a couple of tangents and never really gets around to explaining the why of their decision not to participate in the myth. What it does do is get into the day his mother died and how Penn lied to his parents to keep his father out of a nursing home and the rituals they’ve developed as an alternative to Christmas as a result of those events that really brings into focus Penn Jillette’s humanity. If you aren’t a bit choked up at the end of that story then you probably don’t have a heart.

In the end I feel I have at least a slightly better understanding of both his political and religious outlook as well as just what sort of person he is. Not every anecdote is successful — I’m not entirely sure I needed to read about the time he accidentally fried his cock in a ex-girlfriend’s hair dryer — but most of them are at least amusing if not always enlightening. If you weren’t an atheist before reading the book there’s nothing in it that’ll result in you suddenly deciding to abandon your God-belief, but you will have an insight into how at least one atheist lives his life. If you’re a fan then it’s pretty much a must-read if for no other reason than to read about some of the crazy shit he’s done over the years. Like the time he tried to get the TSA to arrest him by dropping his trousers during a pat down or the time on Politically Incorrect that he made some hard-core conservative Christian lady look like a maniac on national TV by quietly uttering a stunningly blasphemous phrase to her during a commercial break.

TL;DR: It was a quick and entertaining read and I highly recommend it.

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