Penn Jillette is best known as the talking half of the Penn and Teller a magic, comedy and illusion act in Vegas, on television and around the world. He’s also a writer, a vocal advocate for atheism and libertarianism, and is well known for his stances questioning and disproving sacred cows. He recently appeared on the latest season of the Celebrity Apprentice, and last week he stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about his experiences on the show. Excerpts of that interview appear below.
Ron Bennington: Penn Jillette is here with us. Now, were you shocked that you went? Did you think you were going to hang around?
Penn Jillette: I think that – I was a little surprised. I thought that I’d done a good job, but you know – it seems like Donald had gotten very unhappy with me with the Blue Man Group a few weeks before so this might’ve been his first chance to act on his feelings.
Ron Bennington: He thought you were a little reckless by letting the Blue Man Group have fun.
Penn Jillette: Reckless, yeah, I guess that’s the word. He just thinks that if you think anything is more important than money, I believe you’re disagreeing with him, and I do think art is more important than money, and I’m a capitalist but I still think there’s a place for beauty.
Ron Bennington: Now you’re a capitalist, but art above money?
Penn Jillette: Well, you know, along with it. We have to have beautiful things in our life, and beautiful things aren’t just, you know, white carpet overlooking Central Park.
Ron Bennington: How was that apartment? I saw that last night. See you live in Vegas so you’re used to that look.
Penn Jillette: Yeah, it’s just a “whale suite” in Vegas, It was nothing else. You bring the Vegas guy in, you just go “well, some cat lost a lot of coin to get this fucking place.” You know what I mean? Because you know, the people who stay in those places in Vegas are the people who have lost tremendous amounts of money. That’s the way you get into that suite. If you’re making a lot of money, you’re at the Motel 6.
Ron Bennington: So he just lives his life like a whale? [Laughter]
Penn Jillette: I suppose. And you’d probably say that and he’d say “Yes.
Ron Bennington: The last time I saw you you came in and did the Unmasked show and you were brilliant –
Penn Jillette: Oh, it was wonderful. Everybody raves about that.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, everybody had a great time.
Penn Jillette: Everybody says that your show, the Unmasked show, is the show to hear an interview on, and they’re absolutely right, everybody is great on your show, so you know, it might be you.
Ron Bennington: Well, I will tell you something that you turned, I’ve never saw this before, my partner that I do this show with, Fez Whatley, longtime Lutheran, books, taught Sunday school and all, after that show with you, he’s now an atheist.
Penn Jillette: I heard that.
Ron Bennington: One show.
Penn Jillette: The bravery of that is astonishing. I like the definition of an intellectual is someone who can change their mind when given facts, and that’s all I care about. Can you tell me stuff and make an argument, and can I change my mind without a Damascus experience? Without a big emotional thing can I just go, nope, I’m shifting this way. And there’s nothing I respect more than that.
Ron Bennington: Do you stay open to all ideas all the time?
Penn Jillette: I think that’s a little bit grandiose, I couldn’t claim that. I certainly try that. You can find certain ideas. I think if you gave me a lot of information that showed me beyond a doubt that a certain race was inferior to another race you’d have a lot trouble getting that information through to me. I think there’s certain ways I was brought up that you’d have to hammer for a long time. But I’d like to think that at some point I’d come around.
Ron Bennington: And then you also want to hear that I think from people. If they think there’s an inferior race I’d rather they said it out loud than just quietly believe it and a lot of people get confused on free speech issues.
Penn Jillette: There’s one thing that’s done that I thought, Nadine Strossen who was the head of the ACLU 15 years ago – there’s this thing that’s done in free speech arguments which is, I don’t want to see this stuff, but I want it to be able to be out there. And Nadine Strossen did an amazing thing which she changed – and this is a profound change – she said, “There’s this despicable speech and this horrible stuff, and I want to hear it, I want to read it. It’s not that I want to avoid it, I actually want to know what’s in the Turner Diaries. I want to read it. It’s not just that I want it to be out, I want to read it, and I want to know what other people are thinking.” And that simple change in freedom of speech, of not only saying I want it to be allowed, but also I want it to be part of the conversation, you know? Even if it’s, I hear that and now I know it’s wrong, I don’t want to be closed off from things.
Ron Bennington: And what about as far as your kids go? You want them to be able to be –
Penn Jillette: With my children I try to be – one thing I did change, and it was a big change for me, I used to say “Goddamn” and I used to say “Jesus Christ” a lot. And I had my arguments all in place for how an atheist would do that, it was done sarcastically and it was done ironically, and then when my children were born, it was just like a light, it just snapped, I just said, I don’t want them to know that those words have power. I don’t want them to know that ‘Jesus Christ’ is magic, even in my home as an expletive. I don’t even want it to be an ejaculation, Jesus Christ! Because that gives it too much strength. So really when my children were born, I really stopped saying Jesus Christ and Oh God and Goddamn because I just don’t want them to have magic words there. I still say Fuck now and again, because I got no problem with fucking, it’s God I don’t like.
Ron Bennington: Now what do you say to people though that say, whether or not there’s an afterlife, it’s still important to have this because it keeps us morally based, it keeps us family based and even at the end of this life, if nothing happens, it’s still good to have these set of rules.
Penn Jillette: Well, you know, God told Abraham to kill his son, and his proof of Abraham’s devotion was his willingness to kill his son. Jesus says very clearly, “abandon your father and mother, abandon your children and come with me.” There’s nothing pro-family about Christianity. That is all layered on. That is all-American. The American Christian church has a great deal of family values, but those aren’t found in the Bible, those aren’t in the root material. We have a lot of evidence, [Christopher] Hitchens, a good friend of mine, we miss him all the time, but Hitchens had a standing offer for a religious person to name a moral thing that was done in the name of religion that had not been done by an atheist. All of your self-sacrifice, all of the help for communities, have all been done by religious people and by atheists. But I’ll tell one story that I just love, I brought a date once, because this is the kind of guy I am, to hear an atheist speaker. We’re sitting there in a college-type atmosphere, probably about 150 people in the audience, and I even forgot who it was speaking because there were a lot of people that day, it might have been [Michael] Shermer, and he speaks and he finished and he opens the floor up to questions. The person on the other side of my date stands up and says, “Well if there’s no God, what’s to stop me from raping and killing everyone around me?” And my date raised her hand and said, “May I change my seat?” [Laughter]
That really is the point. The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping ram[pages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don’t want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don’t want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you. I have no desire to flip you over and rape you. You know what I mean?
Ron Bennington: You wouldn’t have to, I’d be right there. [Laughter]
Penn Jillette: But you know what I’m saying.
Ron Bennington: But maybe it’s because we distrust each other, we’re so afraid of other humans, that we have that, you know?
Penn Jillette: It’s amazing, and I always bring this up, that religion is for people who kind of at some level don’t like people. And I love people. And I think if you take the 7 billion people on the planet and you round it off, about 7 billion of them are good. To find bad people is really difficult. Not people doing bad things, but really bad people who get up in the morning and say, How can I fuck people up? That’s a really rare thing. Misguided, you know, mistaken, but I just can’t understand how this view of humanity that all we want to do is horrible things to each other and it’s just this belief in something else that stops us. And that that is what you see over and over again through the Bible. There’s reward and punishment but there’s no – I mean, nothing feels better than helping someone out. I mean, there’s nothing better, nothing better in the world than someone whose life was fucked up and you do a little something and now their life isn’t. I mean, you can talk about the joy of sex, hedonistic joys of food, and you can talk about the joy with your children, but man, someone is going through a hard time and you help them out, man you feel good for months.
Ron Bennington: And you think that that exists on a purely human level too, it’s not like it was a taught behavior?
Penn Jillette: No, it’s certainly not on a human level, we’ve found it in animals. It certainly is deeper than that. I mean there are really good sociobiological reasons for why we evolved to cooperate. It really is good for all of us. You can be a hard ass and just run common sense, you know, what is the most effective way for people to interact and you do better if you treat people well, you just do. And on top of that the whole world does better if you treat people well. It works out on any level. If you want to be – I mean if you look at all the Ayn Rand stuff – and you run through the power of selfishness, if you just want to be totally selfish you end up being a good person.
Ron Bennington: Right because it feels great –
Penn Jillette: If you just want to help people out you end up being a good person. I mean there’s every single kind of horrible self-help book will tell you if you’re feeling down and you’re feeling depressed just go help someone out and it’s a cliché, you wouldn’t even say it it’s so embarrassing, except it happens to be true.
Ron Bennington: If you weren’t such a great atheist you’d make a great preacher. Thanks so much for stopping by, Celebrity Apprentice –
Penn Jillette: I’m going to throw one more thing in, can I say one more thing?
Ron Bennington: Yeah, sure.
Penn Jillette: This is so cool. Caesar’s, which is my real boss, they own the Rio, they’re my real boss, I’ve worked with them for 15 years doing our Penn Jillette and Teller show. They called me up and they said, “You really liked that Opportunity Village thing, you really were heartfelt on the Celebrity Apprentice and you did a great job. What was the grand prize if you’d won that thing with Trump.” I said, “Quarter of a million.” They said, “We’ll write a check to opportunity Village today for a quarter of a million.” So the full amount that Trump was going to give the people I was doing that for did and I just wanted to say thank you to Caesar’s for that.
Ron Bennington: Wow, that is tremendous man, that is terrific.
Penn Jillette: Pretty cool, without a whole show.
Ron Bennington: Penn Jillette, great to see you buddy. Hope to see you next time coming through.
You can hear this interview (and others) exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? You can check it out for free, with a free trial subscription. Click here for details. You can also learn more about Ron Bennington Interviews on ronbenningtoninterviews.com.