Do Atheists Have More Fun?

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Are Christians a bunch of delusional, sanctimonious lame-os? Penn Jillette -- atheist, "Penn & Teller" Vegas showman, and author of the new book, God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales -- certainly seems to think so. And he is not alone.

Forget Dawkins, Hitchens, and other highbrow atheists. Just search for the word "Christian" at The Onion, a satire newspaper, and you'll find the following headlines: "Recently Born-Again Christian Finally Has Social Life"; "Religious Cousin Ruins Family's Christmas"; "Apartment Full of Jesus Stuff Brings Date to a Screeching Halt"; and my personal favorite, "Christian Rockers Deny Kicking Ass."

Even Christians get in on the act. Stuff Christians Like, a Jesus-soaked parody of the cult website Stuff White People Like, features an long insiders' list, including "#29: Not dancing," "#30: The end of the Harry Potter series," "#54: Halloween hating," and "#134: Witnessing to people that don't believe in the Bible using the Bible."

Which brings us back to Penn Jillette and his new book. To be fair, Jillette is an equal-opportunity religion basher -- and don't even get him started on agnostics. (Very short version: They're cowards.) Christians like me, you'll be pleased to know, are not the only peabrains/dangerous weirdos on the planet. But we do share a special place of dubious honor. According to God, No!, it was the cover-to-cover reading of our holy book that turned a young Jillette to the dark (or, as some prominent atheists would prefer, the "bright") side.

Jillette's main problems with the man upstairs can be difficult to quote, given his fondness for F-bombs and earthy references to his favorite body part. On one page he blasts the "arrogance" of those who claim to have knowledge of a higher power. On the next, he rather confidently declares "No! There is no fricking God!" (He said something other than "fricking," but I'm making this PG-13, repressed and Christian-y.)

Contradictory? Absolutely. Many of the objections in God, No!, in fact, are addressed in Tim Keller's excellent book, The Reason for God, which illustrates the many leaps of faith that unbelievers must take. "Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true," Keller writes -- but this, ironically, is "also an 'exclusive' claim about the nature of spiritual reality."

Similarly, Keller writes, atheists who try "to follow John Rawls and find universally accessible, 'neutral and objective' arguments" for a moral society will inevitably fail. In God, No!, Jillette does just that, offering "human intelligence, creativity and love" as the highest ideals.

But where do these, and other "suggestions" in the book, come from? In the end, Keller notes, people affirm "the equality and dignity of human individuals simply because [they] believe it is true and right. [They] take as an article of faith that people are more valuable than rocks or trees -- though [they] can't prove that scientifically. [Their] public policy proposals are ultimately based on a religious stance."

There are many other worthwhile books that tackle the issues raised in God, No! The Language of God, for instance, offers objective, scientific pointers towards the existence of a higher power, and The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism offers a sociological view of religion's beneficial effects. I would also recommend the more folksy Heaven is for Real, about near-death experiences, but I have the feeling Mr. Jillette would only douse that one with kerosene, flame it with a blowtorch, and shoot it from a giant cannon into a toilet filled with crucifixes. Because that is how he rolls.

Which brings us to Vegas. Having only been there once, on a bachelorette party, I have not yet seen Penn & Teller's live show. I have, however, seen "Thunder From Down Under: Australia's Hottest Hunks," which is pretty much what it sounds like: a bunch of really tan, really muscled, really enthusiastic half-naked fire chiefs and Captain Jack Sparrows bouncing around an audience of crazed women from Columbus, Ohio. It is terrifying.

God, No! is sort of the "Thunder From Down Under" of books: metaphorically, a sweaty, ponytailed, scantily clad Hot Cop could jump on your table at any time. Readers, you will learn more about Jillette's sex life than you ever, ever wanted to know. Gay bathhouse action in the 80's? Check. Porn star Ron Jeremy waxing poetic in a hot tub? Check. And while I gagged during the book's scuba diving sex scene, styled as a Penthouse letter, I also admit to laughing out loud when Jillette gets his you-know-what stuck in his ex-girlfriend's roommate's hair dryer.

The book, while gross, is often funny. Jillette puts the "fun" in atheist fundamentalism. He also puts the "fun" in regular old dysfunction. But the striking thing about God, No! -- and aggressive, evangelical atheism in general -- is that there is so little joy to be found.

"Believing there is no God," Jillette once told National Public Radio, "gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have...Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day."

This is good news, I suppose, for those who win the genetic lottery, have great jobs, aren't living in a famine-stricken war zone, and have healthy and loving family and friends. This is bad news, of course, when life goes wrong...and it often does.

The Christian concept of joy is not something that we "get" or acquire, and it's fundamentally different from happiness, which is ephemeral and fleeting. In his autobiographical book Surprised By Joy, former atheist C.S. Lewis describes joy as the human longing for -- and almost a memory of -- something higher. "Its visitations were rather the moment of clearest consciousness we had, when we became aware of our fragmentary and phantasmal nature," he wrote. Joy, he added, "makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting."

After Jillette's mother died, as he describes in his book, "It was a time for sadness and memory, and it was also a time for pure, raw, empty hate at the pain of life." The pre-conversion C.S. Lewis had a similar feeling: "My argument against God," he wrote in Mere Christianity, "was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust."

But then there's more. "But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?" Lewis continued. "A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?" Eventually, Lewis saw his argument against God buckle and he turned out to be one of the leading Christian thinkers of the 20th century.

So what does the future have in store for Penn Jillette? "We don't have any friends who are Christards or into any kind of faith based hooey," he writes. But, then again, he also claims to have a soft spot for the "bugnutty freaky whack jobs" who try to convert him. So who knows? God, nearly everyone agrees, works in mysterious ways.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Chicago.

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