Penn Jillette Brings Atheism Message To East Lansing

Jun 6, 2012

Penn Jillette is half of the famous magic act Penn and Teller. Other magicians have criticized their act because they often show the audience the reality of how a trick is performed. That’s an act of sacrilege in the magic community, but audiences love it.

Jillette has become prominent with another act of sacrilege. He’s an outspoken atheist.

Tonight, he’ll be in East Lansing to talk about the paperback release of his latest book, God No! Signs You May Already Be An Atheist And Other Magical Tales. He’ll be at the Hannah Center in East Lansing at 7:30 p.m.

Jillette told WKAR’s Scott Pohl that atheism hasn’t hurt Penn and Teller.

PENN JILLETTE:  The Penn and Teller show, even though my books tend to center very much on atheism, our show really does not. Our show follows what I call the Garth Brooks rule. Garth Brooks is a Christian, but he does a secular show. If you ask him do you believe in Jesus, he’ll tell you yes. Maybe once or twice during the show, he mentions his mother’s passed away and she’s with Jesus or something, but the show is essentially secular, done by a Christian. Our magic show is a secular show done by atheists.

In the book, God No!, I tend to really focus on that, and I think a lot of what the United States claims to believe, we really do believe. I really do think that we are open minded and believe in freedom of speech.

We have an awful lot of people who not only come to our show that are Christian, but also read the books that are Christian, and want to see other points of view. I read the Bible, I listen to gospel music. I think that all the stuff we say about the U.S. is pretty true.

Glenn Beck inspired Jillette's book

SCOTT POHL:  Glenn Beck inspired this book. Some people might find that surprising.

JILLETTE: I did his show a bunch of times, and we didn’t agree on anything, I mean nothing we agree on, and yet we got along pretty well. One time during his show, he was talking about the Ten Commandments, and making what is a very bad argument for a theist to make, which is saying that the Ten Commandments were morality outside of religion. Of course, the big argument that atheists always make is that morality IS outside of religion. Glenn Beck was making that argument, and said he’d like to see what his atheist friend, Penn, how he would lay out the Ten Commandments. I was inspired by that to actually write something about what parts of the Ten Commandments meant something to this atheist, and what parts didn’t. That’s where the book came out of. It’s my looking at the Ten Commandments, and telling some funny stories in between.

POHL:  You’re coming to East Lansing on behalf of an organization called Center for Inquiry. It leads me to wonder how much this sort of thing is happening these days for you. Are you touring the country, visiting groups like this, to promote atheism?

JILLETTE:  I’ve done a lot of Center for Inquiry stuff, and I like them. I have kind of a subtle distinction there. I try to talk very much about what I believe and what I feel, but I don’t really push for atheism. I think that once you manipulate and try to convince people to make certain decisions, you’ve crossed over into an area that I’m not comfortable with. I’m much more comfortable speaking about what I feel and how I live my life, but not really prescribing any sort of thing for other people.

The magician reveals his plans for East Lansing appearance

POHL:  What can people expect if they come to your East Lansing appearance?

JILLETTE:  I’ll be telling some stories from the book and making some jokes, and I’ll do Q & A, and meet people. I’ve been doing a lot of these book things around the country, and I just love them.

The Penn and Teller show is very formal, and all the tricks are laid out. We know exactly what we’re going to do. The book stuff is really informal. I get to hang out with people a little more, so I like it.

POHL:  Do you get to even throw in a little sleight of hand magic at something like this?

JILLETTE:  I usually don’t. I have a couple of times, but not as a rule.