Penn Jillette is a brilliant writer, philosopher, illusionist and speaker. He’s best known as the talking half of the Penn and Teller a magic, comedy and illusion act, and together they are one of the most successful acts in the history of Vegas. They also appear on television and around the world. Penn’s also a writer, a vocal advocate for atheism and libertarianism and a great public speaker. He recently stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about his new book, “Every Day is an Atheist Holiday.” Excerpts of that interview appear below.
* * *
Ron Bennington: This book is so damn funny. There are so many inside show business stories here, mixed in with cringe-worthy stuff, mixed in with stuff that makes you think. It’s impossible to put Penn Jillette in a box. Do you know when you’re writing this book how it’s all going to turn out?
Penn Jillette: Well I kind of cheat I suppose. I don’t decide to write a book. I write all the time. And when they say, it’s kind of time for a book, I look at what I have which is always about 500 pages and I kind of say, well this could kind of go with this. And then it’s kind of puzzle pieces, and then I go in and rewrite the whole thing with some kind of thought. But I write all the time. I document everything.
Ron Bennington: Because a lot of times your feelings are really raw and in the moment. You’re still going through pain or pleasure.
Penn Jillette: That’s really true.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Another thing that I love about your writing is– just the people that you’ve interacted with in your life, and the fact that you get it. You know that you could become friends with Hitchens or Amazing Randy– you get it. Where some people allow that to become normal– you keep it in the back of your mind that– pretty cool to be able to pull this out.
Penn Jillette: It’s a pretty big deal. When you’ve got someone at a level– and those are two of the heaviest examples in my life– Amazing Randy kind of created me. When I first read his books, when I was in high school, when Teller and I were first talking, he was everything to me. And to have him be a….I even hesitate to say friend. He’s a very close friend but it’s so much more than that. He’s really a guiding figure for me. And Hitchens, you know, I miss every second. Did you ever get to interview him?
Ron Bennington: I did not interview him, but there was times in the city that I went and saw him speak at different places and just some of the greatest nights I’ve ever had in my life.
Penn Jillette: You know, you talk for a living. And you could watch Hitch just do the most complicated sentences. The most complicated paragraph off the top of his head. It was just inconceivable. You know, we were back stage after the show. It was me and Teller and Jonesy who is our piano player, who plays with us jazz. And then there was Zeke who is one of the crew guys. Four of us are sitting around and we’re talking about Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens– two brilliant guys. And Teller and I were talking about the education they got. How they seem to know everything. And really well-rounded. We’re talking about the English education system. And I’m talking about how shitty my high school was, and Teller’s talking about how bad his education was– we try to make up for it. But Hitchens and Stephen Fry know everything. They know everything. And that school system must be so great. And Tell and I were talking for about a half an hour. And Zeke, crew guy, doesn’t say very much, finally said, “aren’t you ignoring the fact they’re fucking geniuses?” They could have sent you to those schools– you wouldn’t be any smarter than you are. They are geniuses. It doesn’t matter. They could have gone to Greenfield Public High School and they would still be Hitchens and Stephen Fry. At that level of genius you have to just kind of go, okay the rest of us don’t have a chance.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Stephen Fry did something that’s going around the internet now that you should have done, actually. Where he goes, I’m going to do something that no one else in the world has ever done. And he does the cards– all he does is shuffle cards– and says that mathematically, that is never ….it’s such a great bit.
Penn Jillette: That’s an Amazing Randy bit, who would say, deal me 5 cards. And they would deal him five cards. And he’d say the chances of getting this hand, in this order, are one in whatever it is. The whole deck of cards. Never existed before. And that’s one of those things that’s so important about the atheist point of view, is the point of view that we’ve already won this enormous lottery. The chances of you being you– infinitesimally small, that could possibly happen in the universe. You’ve already won, so enjoy it. Every day is just great. You won every battle you could possibly win– sit back and just let life be beautiful.
Ron Bennington: Instead of bitching that you don’t have somebody else’s money. Cause you can find somebody who is having a better time than you, and become that depressed guy.
Penn Jillette: Or thinking that you want something in the afterlife. Talk about being ungrateful. Lacking grace. Being ungracious. I’ve got all of this and now I’d like an afterlife, thank you.
* * *
Ron Bennington: I actually sent that to a Christian friend, and she wrote back to me, doesn’t that go to show you that there’s a creator?
Penn Jillette: That argument is very very good if you start with what we already have. If you decide that you’re going to walk into seven acres of grass and you’re going to pick one blade– the chances that you’d pick one particular blade are infinitesimally small. The chances that you’ll pick a blade are pretty good if you don’t die before you get there. Same with the lottery. The chance of someone winning– close to 100%. The chance of you winning– very close to zero. So if you know– I think it’s called anthrogenesis point of view– is essentially drawing the target around after you shot the arrow. You know, you shoot an arrow at a barn door and then draw a target around it, and the chances of it hitting here are so infinitesimally small, you had to be aiming for it. And the question is, when did you draw the target. So the answer to your Christian friend is very simply, yes, that’s absolutely true if you call it ahead of time. But once you get there, something is going to happen. There’s a wonderful book by Lawrence Krauss called “Why There’s Something Instead of Nothing.” [“A Universe From Nothing”] Where he talks about that very issue of ‘doesn’t it prove that there’s a God– the fact that there’s something here instead of nothing. Not existence of humans– but the very existence of existence mean there’s God. He has a wonderful, wonderful scientific argument about that, that’s fascinating.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Another thing that always comes up is the morality issue of– “do we need something outside of us to provide our morality.” Because obviously there was a point early on in religion– it was a great way to keep the brutes down. That yes, I know you can beat up everybody and take their women and their cars– but you’re going to burn forever.
Penn Jillette: Well you know I said, last time I was on this show, I said I’ve raped and killed everybody I want to. That whole question of what stops you from raping and killing– it’s something so much greater. And the thing that people don’t seem to realize, is that simple three word sentence– God is good– negates that entire argument about needing God for morality. That whole thing is negated by those three words. If you say ‘anything God does is good’ that’s a very different argument. God is good says that we have something we know is good, and then God fits within that. That is saying that morality is more important than God. It’s automatically saying that it works inside that. I mean, the argument that you want to ask is, if satan were lord, would automatically– anything that you do to serve satan be a good thing. And they will say no usually. So they’ve said that there’s a morality outside of God automatically. And it’s fascinating to me that just that simple sentence– God is good– is the argument of, is morality outside of God. And the answer is yes, it really is. The morality is more important than God.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Well, maybe for you, but what about for just some of the– like I said– brutes.
Penn Jillette: Well there’s the new Steven Pinker book about Angels of Our Better Selves [“The Better Angels of Our Nature”] that deals with how things have gotten better with civilization. And it seems like that argument might have been true awhile ago. Civilization seems to be getting powerful enough that the violence is going down so quickly. If you look at the graphs of the amount of violence per hundred thousand it’s stunning how low it’s getting. Now, the U.S. is higher than Europe, you know the US is eight or so in a hundred thousand for murders, I think– I probably have these numbers wrong– and Europe is down around two or three. We don’t understand the reasons for that, we understand some of them. The fact– things are really really getting better. And maybe you can do that without threats but maybe you can do that with civilization.
Ron Bennington: It’s certainly a less violent society than even it was in the 1970s. Where people used to say, ‘take it outside.’ Because now we’re in a thing where any kind of fist fight is time for courts.
Penn Jillette: And that’s the 1970s. If you go back 500 years– 600 years– it was very common to have public disembowlings of people. There were stocks where people would just be beaten to death as entertainment. Not only that, but huge animal torture that was just for entertainment. And that just has kind of gone away. We are getting better and getting better really fast.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Isn’t it stunning that so many of these cultures have magic? That magic has played in so many different cultures? It reminds me of religion in the same way.
Penn Jillette: Yeah well magic is a really good entertainment. And magic has built-in irony. You know something looks one way and it’s really another. And magic also involves– and I think this is a fascinating idea– it involves the unwilling suspension of disbelief. Because when you go to see Shakespeare, some guy you see in a Viagra commercial comes out and says I’m king. And you go, ok, I’ll go along with that. But at a magic show, yes, you know you’re being lied to. You know you’re being tricked. You follow the convention of the theater. Within that proscenium, you have a chip on your shoulder. And the bigger that chip on your shoulder is, the better the magic show is. Bad magicians say, just come along with me on a magical journey, and you don’t need to question this. No, no, no, no. At a good magic show– you question it. You watch every single thing that Penn and Teller do. You watch us carefully as we load the guns and sign the bullets and fire them off. You watch all of that really carefully. You watch where the blade is. You watch where it goes through the body. You watch every little thing that happens and we are still going to fool you, and we will blow your mind, and that’s the joy. What you’re trying to do in show business, and indeed in life, is have the visceral and the intellectual collide just as hard as they can. You want to ride a roller coaster and have your guts say, ‘we’re going to die’ and have your mind say, ‘you know, if they killed someone every day, too high of insurance. They can’t do that.’ In magic, what you’re doing is colliding, really hard. You’re saying, boy it sure looks like those crazy motherfuckers are killing each other, but I know it’s just as who. What could be more beautiful and a more pure definition of art. And no matter how good other forms of art are– music is this whole other thing, because music has that lizard brain beat and so on – but any sort of narrative that you’re going to see in the theater, doesn’t have the unwilling suspension of disbelief– does not have that thing that reaches out and grabs you. And that’s why even a bad magician is fascinating. It’s like a bad rock and roll band. There’s something that makes you want to tap your foot and wiggle your ass to a bad rock and roll band. There’s something that makes you feel that collision of visceral and intellect that happens even in a bad magic show.
* * *
Ron Bennington: That whole special is great just to watch Teller, just clocking, just on them through the whole thing. It’s amazing. He’s phenominal, right? As a craftsman.
Penn Jillette: Teller is indisputably one of the best magic minds alive today. I remember John Lennon was once asked, if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world, and he said, “he’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles.” Is Penn the best magician in the world? He’s not even the best magician in Penn and Teller. I mean, Teller is phenominal. What’s great about Teller– this is a detail about Teller that tells you everything you need to know. A lot of magicians are also collectors. And a lot of magicians have wonderful libraries of books a hundred, two hundred years old, all lined up. Teller has that two. Teller has a beautiful library, he has magic books, but the books that are two hundred years old? He writes in the margins. But you know what that means– that means he’s using those books. You pull the books down from other collectors shelves, they are pristine. In a bag. Perfect. They’re for posterity. The books on Teller’s shelves– they’re for Teller. He’s learning from them.
Ron Bennington: But can you imagine, in two generations, somebody will have that? I mean if you had old stuff that Houdini wrote in?
Penn Jillette: There are books, and Teller has books that Houdini wrote in. And he also writes in them. And he’s not doing it to increase the value of the books– he’s doing it to learn.
Ron Bennington: I think it’s phenominal. “Every Day is An Atheist Holiday”. It’s a lot of fun to read. I’ll see you next time, thank you so much buddy.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.