Maybe it’s Karl Marx’s fault, but manifestos aren’t big in America. It also doesn’t help that the manifestos that received the most attention over the last decade or so give them a bad name. Think Ted Kaczynski or Anders Breivik.
To be fair, Penn Jillette isn’t claiming his new book is an atheist manifesto. And, although I haven’t read the 50,000 words generated by Kaczynski or Breivik, it’s fair to say the only thing Jillette’s book has in common with them is that, as Jillette admits, “there’s a lot of rambling” in his book. But make no mistake. As a manifesto is a public declaration of intentions or views, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, is a manifesto for atheists.
Jillette, the large (nearly 6 foot, 7 inches tall and approximately 300 pounds) half of the illusionist-magician-comic duo Penn & Teller, has never been loath to express his views. That includes his core belief that there is no God. Not only is atheism an increasingly common subject on his Penn Point video blog, he has frequently been interviewed about it. In fact, Jillette says God, No! resulted from Glenn Beck having asked him to entertain the idea of an atheist Ten Commandments.
As a result, each chapter consists of stories, some personal and some not, on the theme of Jillette’s suggestion for each of the Ten Commandments. Many are actually broader in scope than the original. For example, his version of the Fifth Commandment (“Honor thy father and mother”) is “Be there for your family. Love your parents, your partner, and your children.” Likewise, the Seventh Commandment’s proscription on adultery becomes “Keep your promises. (If you can’t be sexually exclusive to your spouse, don’t make that deal.)”
It would be unfair to classify God, No! as simply an attack on Christians. Still, Jillette isn’t afraid to call it as he sees it. “I haven’t found Christ,” he writes. “I’m not even looking for him. I don’t need or want salvation.” Jillette’s main focus is simply that he doesn’t believe in God. He holds his lack of belief so firmly that even agnostics irritate him. One essay is titled, “Agnostics: No One Can Know for Sure but I Believe They’re Full of Shit.” In it, he argues, among other things, that most agnostics “are really just cowardly and manipulative atheists.”
As noted, several of the essays center on personal anecdotes that don’t deal directly with religion or atheism. Thus, we hear of his adventures with ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons on a so-called “vomit comet,” an aircraft flight that provides weightlessness for approximately 30-second periods, or his trip to a gay bathhouse in San Francisco. Yet even these stories tend to shed light on or illustrate the thesis of the particular suggested Penn Commandment. Some might question how unrestrained he is in his language or his discussion of sex. There’s no doubt Jillette’s intentionally blasphemous line about what he would do to Christ’s hand wounds and on his crown of thorns would cause conniption fits in even semi-devout Christians. But Jillette has always been brash and unrestrained. At least we know he isn’t sacrificing any of his style, thoughts, or opinions to the god of marketing. His at times scathing humor is also at work in much of the book.
One of the core elements of God, No! is urging atheists to speak out and step forward. This is where the book becomes a manifesto, a call to action. Jillette even takes a page from some proponents of religion, urging atheists to preach and proselytize.
Truth doesn’t live in the closet. You have to make it clear to everyone, including your children, that there is no god. If you’re not doing that every chance you get, then the other side will win. They’ll win only in the short term; but we only get to live in the short term. You don’t have to fight, but you have to do your part — you have to tell the truth. You have to be honest. You don’t have to force schools to say there’s no god, but you have to say it yourself. You have to say it all the time. No one can relax in a closet.
Passages like this and Jillette’s passion mean he likely will be tagged by many as a “militant atheist,” using the term pejoratively. Yet Jillette probably wouldn’t take offense. He’s equally outspoken about being a Libertarian and, in the eyes of some, militant when it comes to personal and civil liberties. Jillette even says in the book’s introduction that he’s “a loud, aggressive, strident, outspoken atheist, and I’m an asshole.” From his perspective, though, he is simply placing his opinions in the marketplace of ideas, a right that belongs to everyone, asshole or otherwise.
Of course, the marketplace of ideas in today’s America probably isn’t receptive to manifestos — and is even less receptive to atheists. As a result, God, No! may not sell like hotcakes in much of America. But then, commercial success doesn’t define the value an idea or the sincerity of the person expressing it.