Review: Penn Jillette’s “God, No!”

Back in 2005, during a visit home after my first 8 months in China, a friend introduced me to “Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!“, and I’ve been a fan of the duo ever since.

And while Bullshit! certainly hinted at the pair’s atheistic views, it wasn’t until I started watching Penn’s podcast on Revision3 that I learned Penn was an outspoken atheist and libertarian, two traits that I (while not quite as outspoken) share with him. As such, I was excited to recently get my hands on his new book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.

I’m a big fan of atheist propaganda. I’ve read more Dawkins and Hitchens in the last few years than I have any other authors. I’m a sucker for nodding along to stunning realizations about the blazingly obvious.

With its title, and Penn’s frequent mention of Hitchens in his podcast, I had assumed this book might be somewhat Four Horsemen-esque. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I loved the book, but the title is complete bullshit. It’s obviously a grab for the atheist crowd, and I think it does itself a bit of a disservice. I like Penn not because he’s brilliant like Hitchens or Dawkins, but because he’s much more of an every-man. He’s weird, swears like a trucker (juggler?) and just speaks his (well reasoned) mind. He doesn’t try too hard to sound smart, but frequently fails at that. I like Penn because he’s likable.

“God, No!” is about atheism like the bible is about being a good person. It’s in there, but it’s largely anecdotal. People looking for an exploration of evolution, or the evils of religion through history will be disappointed; but fans of Penn will be rewarded. The book is essentially a very disjointed, very honest biography of a guy who has repeatedly found himself in some extraordinary situations. It’s personal bar stories from a masterful storyteller.

For “Penn Point” watchers, some of the material will sound familiar as it has been briefly touched on in the podcast, but the book does a good job of fleshing out stories that were well-truncated in the 5-10 minute videos. And for voyeurs, it’s chock full of tales of sex, nudity, general debauchery, and (painfully) one grilled penis.

I was telling my wife the other day that there are very view people’s voices I would recognize in a crowd, but Penn’s is one of them. I was grateful to find that the audio version of the book has Penn reading the whole thing. Not grateful because Penn has a particularly beautiful voice, he most certainly doesn’t. But it’s so familiar, and the stories so intimate, that I can’t imagine it being read any other way.

What I liked most about the book, and where the title earns back a bit of relevance, is that Penn does an excellent job illustrating that you can be a good, moral, honest and intelligent human without the fantasy of religion or the fear of a god keeping you in line. It’s an obvious truth, but then books about atheism always are.

Buy it here, or here if you’re in China.

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