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Penn Jillette: Reading any Holy Book Will Make You an Atheist

Penn Jillette: Reading the Bible (Or the Koran, Or the Torah) Will Make You an Atheist.

Penn Jilette was asked to leave his Christian youth group by a pastor who told his parents: "He's no longer learning about the Bible from me. He is now converting everyone in the class to atheism."

Just goes to show that doesn't matter what point you want to make - you can make it using the Bible.

You want to be FOR slavery = turn to the bible.

You want to be AGAINST slavery = turn to the bible.

You want to be FOR capital punishment = turn to the bible.

You want to be AGAINST capital punishment = turn to the bible...

I could go on, but you get the idea ;)


I like Penn Jillette. He’s an intelligent, articulate and likeable guy. I just thought I’d mention it, in case anyone thought I’d an axe to grind.  But I think that here, he undermines the key point of this piece with his own qualification:


“Anyone who is thinking about maybe being an atheist, if you read the Bible, Qur’an or Torah cover to cover, I believe you will emerge from that as an atheist.”

“Anyone who is thinking about maybe being an atheist.”

Anyone who’s thinking about maybe adopting any particular position will tend to look for evidence that supports the position that they’re thinking about adopting. If you’re already tending towards atheism, then sure: the apparently unethical and contradictory contents of an ancient holy text could do a pretty good job of convincing you that it’s the right course to take.

But self-evidently, a good read through the Bible or other comparable holy text does not inevitably lead the reader to atheism. That doesn’t make any sense, given how many religious people are familiar with their own scripture.

Some religious people cite the Bible as evidence of its own truth, which of course is unsound reasoning to say the least. But it's similarly unsound to claim that the objectionable contents of the text serve as a compelling call to atheism.  They clearly don't, because so many faithful Christians, Muslims and Jews do read their respective holy texts, and indeed many - particularly amongst the Muslims - work to memorise it.

Penn points, quite reasonably, to various aspects of the Bible as examples of its irrationality, its immorality or its inconsistency:
  • The insanity of the talking snake.
  • Hostility towards homosexuals;
  • And towards women.
  • The celebration of slavery.
  • “Thou shalt not kill” applying only to your own tribe.
  • No sense of a shared humanity.
  • A jealous, insecure God.
  • Contradictions showing clearly that it was written hundreds of years after the events it’s describing.
But these things aren’t news to the monotheists. These problems have been the subject of study and analysis and contemplation by theologists from all the Abramic faiths for centuries, if not millennia. And while there are certainly people who struggle to reconcile these issues and abandon their faith when they find they cannot, there are also plenty of religious believers who acknowledge the problems but find a way to reconcile them. (That’s not the same, incidentally, as the fundamentalists - the hardliners who worry me as much as they worry any atheist - who refuse even to acknowledge that the problems exist in the first place.)

Penn also said at one point:


“I’m now on the side that’s winning. It’s over 20% by most polls.”

It's difficult to address this without playing into the problem that it highlights: it's too easy to say that 20% doesn't really constitute 'winning'.  Too easy, and too tempting, given that this doesn't actually have to be about winning or losing at all.  Yes, there are those on both sides who very much want to make it a question of opposition, confrontation and conflict.  But such conflict isn't inherent to religion.  It's inherent to the human instinct to behave tribally.  My gods are better than yours.  My religion makes me worthier than you.  You're a sinner, lost, damned, whatever, and I'm saved, blessed, redeemed, whatever...  This is what we do, unfortunately, and we do it about religion as we do it about everything else.

(Edit for spelling.)