Sunday, June 10, 2007

What Penn Jillette Believes

I was thumbing through my copy of the NPR "This I Believe" anthology this morning, when I came across Penn Jillette's essay, There Is No God. Penn's one of those in-your-face kind of atheists who find belief in God to be foolish and unhelpful (at best), but he does it without the pretended expertise of a Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins.

It's a short essay, and so easy to respond to, so I thought I'd take a look. But rather than crow around about where he's wrong, I'd like to look at it from the perspective of seeing what religious faith looks like to an outsider.

Jillette says, "anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God." This seems to be a roadblock to faith -- thinking that faith has anything to do with evidence for something or ignoring lack of evidence. But on the whole, I think the basic orientation here might be right. Faith cannot begin with love of God, but neither can we look for it. It's discovered, and discovered within ourselves even. And though it clears develops in response to experience, I don't think it can be properly said to involve discovery of evidence that something is true.

Jillette says, "Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories." So by grace? But this is a common complaint of opponents of religion. Because God forgives, they say, believers care less about their shortcomings. I don't think this is a theoretical deduction. I think it's derived from observation, and the Christian community should be stung by this. But maybe this is the worst of it, when we proclaim forgiveness of sins, we proclaim forgiveness of other people's sins and say it isn't going to happen until they come to God. We've taken ourselves out of the forgiveness loop, and while he doesn't say this, I think this is the key to Jillette's talk about forgiveness -- he knows that he will be forgiven (or not) in the same way that he forgives others (or not). Didn't Jesus say that?

Jillette says, "Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures." I believe in God, and I can do that. But again this isn't a specious criticism. I linked to an essay a while ago called What Christians Don't Do. The essence was that Christians don't dialogue. They aren't open to other truths. This is less true in some circles since the late 60's, but it remains true that at nearly every strata of the liberal-conservative spectrum, the liberal side is seen as being too accepting of outside ideas -- at least until you get to the point where they're to closed to traditional Christian ideas, but even there the dynamic looks the same.

Jillette says, "I don't travel in circles where people say, 'I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith.'" He means this in terms of listening to, and participating in, rational argument. It's a reduction of faith to believing that certain facts are true, and this reduction is happening on the side of the person of faith!

Jillette says, "Believing there is no God means the suffering I've seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn't caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn't bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future." The first jab here is obviously a commentary on how truly awful most religious attempts to answer the problem of evil really are, but beyond that, do we really come across as not thinking we can do something about suffering? I was a bit taken aback by the idea. But then I remembered something my wife shared with me. She's been involved in a discussion group recently, and when the question of recycling came up, a Christian said that ultimately only God can fix the planet and if God doesn't want to we shouldn't waste our time trying. Ouch!

In his Ethics Bonhoeffer says, "If the hungry man does not attain to faith, then the guilt falls on those who refused him bread." If the skeptic does not attain to faith, perhaps the guilt falls on those who made faith so unappealing. I think maybe it's time to stop refuting the opponents of religion and start listening to them. While their arguments may seem off-base to us, we should think long and hard about why they are making these argument.


Justin said...

As far as evidence goes, if you don't require evidence, you can have "faith" in anything you want. Your Christian faith is no different than the faith of a Muslim or Hindu, yet those three outlooks obviously cannot be simultaneously correct. The strength of faith all three of you possess could be equally strong, but at best, two of you are believing something wrong. Faith tells all three of you that you're correct. Faith is flawed like that.

Andy said...


You say, "those three outlooks obviously cannot be simultaneously correct." I don't agree with that. These faiths are not ultimately about a set of facts. There's much more to them than that. The foundational stories of the Christianity and Islam cannot be simultaneously perfectly true, but faith isn't really about believing that the foundational stories are perfectly true. If you read back a few posts in my blog you'll see what I think about that.

At the same time, what I would say about your initial comment is that while faith isn't about requiring evidence, it is about connecting with someone. It's not content free.

Pastor Eric said...

You wrote: "I think maybe it's time to stop refuting the opponents of religion and start listening to them. While their arguments may seem off-base to us, we should think long and hard about why they are making these argument."

I like that. I used to read a couple blogs written by atheists but eventually got frustrated and stopped commenting. Maybe I need to go back to those sites and listen more instead of trying to defend God.