Signs You May Already Be An Atheist and Other Magical Tales
Genre: autobiography, philosophy
The thing about atheism is that we are one of the most villified groups on the planet, and definitely in need of better PR. Since most people look at Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens and think “well, that’s all atheists”, we do need more books that look at the lighter side of atheism, and to show that we’re not all soulless creeps who take joy in nothing and roast babies on the embers of burning churches. (I wish I was making this up. With the amount of people praying for me, I could start a cult.)
Enter Penn Jillette with his superb God, No! with the subheading Signs You May Already Be An Atheist and Other Magical Tales. And while I know many people won’t even touch it because its an atheist-inclined title, I think that many people could at the least enjoy the stories of Penn’s rambunctious life and his honesty. Its not a ‘we fucking hate Christians/Muslims/Buddhists’ book; there is a beautiful chapter on three Hasidic Jews who have broken away from their faiths and what it has cost them. It is much more nuanced than most people ever want to give atheists credit for, and filled with stories from Penn’s mad, beautiful life (including trips in the Vomit Comet and going to see Siegfred and Roy).
Now I’ve read some phenomenal books this year, stories of epic love and heartbreak, but none of them made me cry as much as the chapter where Penn shares his mother’s death and how he remembers her. I can’t look at a bunch of balloons now without tearing up. The book is truly filled with very touching, brilliantly funny anecdotes and ideas and it is such a joy for an atheist like me to find a voice that resonates. Ultimately, Penn believes that people are good, that life should be about adventure, fun and knowledge, and nothing matters more than love. His family above all, and people above all. It is a wonderful contrast to the endless bullshit attitudes that people have about atheists.
I admittedly have a soft spot for Penn Jillette, because his show Bullshit! (which he stars in alongside the inimitable Teller) challenges percieved ideas and groups and people that need their halos stripped a bit. Especially people that have been made into heroes that really don’t deserve to be. More than anything, it has helped me break out of a lot of pointless mindsets that were just making me feel guilty instead of productive. And while there are some Bullshit! episodes I felt could have used slightly more depth (namely the martial arts and PETA episodes, which I have discussed here and here respectively), it is still one of the best shows out there for poking sticks in the eyes of lies and liars.
I must always try give a balanced review: the book was too short (I know that’s not really a criticism) and perhaps he could have dialled back a little on the c-word (its a rough word for most women to read) but I admit its really not the worst thing that can happen in a book. I unashamedly love this book, and I know that it will be a comfort to many atheists to read, but it will also hopefully give those who need to break away from their religions the support they need. I know I wish I had his bravery, and maybe will have it one day. With books like these, maybe one day I can also grow up to be a great thinker too.
Also, his daughter’s middle name is CrimeFighter. Truly, the stuff of legends.