Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My favorite atheist

Penn Jillette was at Lisner Auditorium this evening to promote his new book, God No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. I am a big fan of his Showtime program, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and I've always admired the guy for being open-minded and outspoken. These are two qualities that rarely go together, but make for a powerful combination.

Open-minded people (and Jillette is no exception) as a general rule, openly and respectfully accept other peoples' beliefs - even when they are contrary to their own. They welcome the opinions of others and are willing to concede that they are not always right. This quality does not often run hand-in-hand with being opinionated and outspoken. The outspoken people are generally the ones who are absolute and unyielding in their beliefs. In any forum, it always seems to be the extremes on either side of an argument that are given the most attention. America loves the crazies. Unfortunately, the voices of the extremes often drown out the masses, who are generally in the middle. Certainly this is true in politics where the far left and the far right battle it out, while America is forced to choose the candidate that they find least objectionable. I see this drowning-out of moderate voices first-hand living in DC. There are often protests on the National Mall and thousands of people march and hold signs supporting their cause. Yet, the protest signs that make their way onto television are the photos with Hitler mustaches, or anything that seems in any way extreme or offensive. Those are the representations that are shown. Meanwhile, the masses of people who are holding boring signs that say, "Down with [that bad thing I'm here to protest]" do not make their way into the national consciousness. Most of us fall into that middle, boring category. While Penn Jillette is open-minded, he is far from boring. At 6-foot-7 with a commanding voice, he is hard to overlook; which is good because he brings forth an important message.

The book focuses on his atheist beliefs, but for me it is not his atheist beliefs nor his libertarian beliefs that make him an important voice. It is his unique ability to understand perspective.

I have an atheist friend who gets very upset when someone says to him, "God bless you," or "I will pray for you." He gets genuinely pissed off. To him, the other person is projecting their beliefs onto him. They are making an assumption about him and he rejects their prayers. Jillette, on the other hand, understands that the person is speaking from their own beliefs system. He explained his understanding that if someone believes that a saved soul will go on to everlasting life, it would be like watching someone standing in the middle of the railroad tracks. If you saw an oncoming train, you would do everything you could to persuade them to move out of the way. Even if they said, "There is no train coming. I don't believe there is a train. Richard Dawkins says there's no train," you would still do everything you can to save the person from the oncoming collision. He makes this comparison to Christians and proselytizing. They are speaking from their own understanding of the world. Unlike my friend, he sees this for what it is - a caring gesture. Certainly one that he does not appreciate in the way that they would like him to, but the gesture itself he can identify as coming from a place of caring.

One thing that drives me crazy about many atheists (including my friend and also Bill Maher, who is not my friend but I watch his HBO program) is their condescension toward religious people or believers. This is where Penn Jillette is exceptional because although he has strong beliefs, he also allows everyone else to be entitled to their own beliefs. He acknowledges that there is a fine line between having a civilized debate and stating the facts as you understand them, versus trying to manipulate an argument in an effort to win someone over to your side. His approach is to have a civil conversation and exchange ideas, not to disregard everything the other person says and try to bring them over to your side. This is how most debates seem to go, and it is sad. I wholeheartedly embrace Jillette's philosophy. It is the exchange of ideas that bring progress, not reiteration and condescension toward those who do not believe as you do. That form of communication does not solve problems or change anyone's mind, it simply ends in an uncompromising stalemate. [See: United States Congress]

Mr. Jillette seemed to speak off-the-cuff, but when you pay attention, you notice some very carefully-chosen words. A few times when speaking about stating facts or "the truth," he always followed it up with, "as they/I understand it." That is an important distinction that you rarely hear acknowledged. When people speak the truth or state facts to back up an argument, they are facts or truth as they understand them. Everyone understands the world based on their own personal experience. So it is possible for two people to have an argument and both be stating facts as they understand them, or the truth as they know it, but remain in complete conflict and disagreement. It doesn't always mean that one party is wrong and the other is right. We are all individuals, and just because someone's understanding of life does not match your own, it doesn't make their viewpoint any less valid. Just different. All we can do is respect one another's opinion and perhaps enlighten someone by communicating our own understanding; or agree to respectfully disagree. There are many things that Jillette spoke about that he disagreed with but did not condescend or disparage. To some it may have sounded like he was defending them, but it was something far more civilized than defense of another argument. He respectfully disagreed with many things, and that is something I do not hear often enough.

The good news of the evening was that although there will not be a new season of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, the duo has a new show coming out soon. It will be on the Discovery Channel (or, the Disco Channel as he would like everyone to refer to it, since that is how it appears on his TV menu.)

1 comment:

Paul said...

I've always like that about Jillette: beneath his well-honed loudness, you sense a measure of humility that keeps him grounded. He seems like an atheist in the mold of Isaac Asimov, who also respected those with religious beliefs rather than be condescending. It's lack of this kind of humility that makes Dawkins, Hitchens, et al., closer to religious fundamentalists than they'd likely care to admit.

Mark Vernon, author of How to Be an Agnostic, had this to say at the end of his review of Keith Ward's More Than Matter? in issue 84 of Philosophy Now, and I think it sort of applies here: "The basic mistake made by materialists, following the explanatory success of science, is to presume that science's methodological materialism implies an underlying ontological materialism (i.e., all that exists is matter). What is forgotten in this slippage is that science merely observes reality, whereas humans participate in reality, with values and purposes." Which, I guess, is another restatement of Kant's understanding that reason can take us only so far.