Penn Jillette knows what’s best for all, except when he doesn’t.

If you haven't read this short work, you must.

Don’t lie, don’t kill, don’t steal, keep your promises, honor the past, and take time to rest and value what is important. Universal principles, some of what C.S. Lewis characterized as the “Tao” in his indispensible book, The Abolition of Man.

Non-believers in God/gods insist that we do not need a belief in a supernatural deity to arrive at these moral principles. You might say they are woven into the fabric of our common humanity, or, “written on our hearts,” or some such thing. But if they are correct then these principles were woven with no weaver, written with no writer.

Prestidigitator and funnyman Penn Jillette is an atheist and a libertarian and was pressed by Glenn Beck to produce a list of moral imperatives for atheists. The list he came up with is actually fairly laudable, but also tracks close to the list we got from God. The primary difference is that humanity is the greatest good rather than God.

But even before we take a look at his list, in an amazing admission to Reason Magazine he undercuts his own ability even to offer such a list. In speaking about libertarianism he said, “each person has to make decisions for themselves and I don’t know what’s best for other people.” He was speaking specifically about governmental policy making, but governmental policy is merely a subspecies of moral activity and justice, so one’s deeper moral foundation is also in question.

So I wonder how he squares that sentiment with presuming to write down an “Atheist 10 Commandments.” If each person has to make decisions for himself and herself, why should anyone pay attention to this list? If it is accepted that this is just Penn’s list for himself and he doesn’t expect anyone else to take it seriously, why write it down as anything approaching a moral imperative? Does he or anyone else expect anyone else to live according to it? If another atheist produces their own Atheist 10 Commandments and if the lists track with one another, is that pure coincidence, the result of societal formation, or something More?

Those questions in mind, let’s take a peak at his 10 commandments for atheists and how they compare/contrast to the list God gave us.

“1. The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity and love. Respect these above all.”

Hmm… Our first is “I am the Lord your God, have no strange Gods before me.” If we accept that “God is Love,” and that God, being absolute truth (i.e., that which intelligence grasps at) and we accept that God is the ultimate Creator, then it looks like ours breaks through the glass ceiling that his doesn’t even wonder at when it bumps up against that-which-I-know-not-what.

“2. Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings. (Let’s scream at each other about Kindle versus iPad, solar versus nuclear, Republican versus Libertarian, Garth Brooks versus Sun Ra— but when your house is on fire, I’ll be there to help.)”

No direct parallel in our 10 Commandments here, but it tracks with the second of the Greatest Commandments: Love thy neighbor as thyself. While the sentiment is right, the conceit here is the assumption that there is not something or someone above all human beings by nature that we didn’t *put* there. Rocks didn’t *put* plants above them, plants didn’t *put* animals above them, nor did we *put* God above us. But that’s the order of nature. It is for us to recognize that order and live accordingly. And, frankly, with how awful humans can be to one another, it’s a darn good thing there is a higher Authority.

“3. Say what you mean, even when talking to yourself. (What used to be an oath to (G)od is now quite simply respecting yourself.)”

We have, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” So the language is basically a wash, but he intentionally excludes God from the equation. But then, why should I respect myself? And if I do respect myself, why does that mean I ought not to respect myself to the exclusion of others, allowing me to lie when it suits my purposes? An oath to God necessarily includes an omniscient Other, and when we consider that the Other “is Love,” the motivation for living according to the oath taken is not ultimately out of fear of retribution, but out of a desire not to harm He who loves us and Whom we love.

“4. Put aside some time to rest and think. (If you’re religious, that might be the Sabbath; if you’re a Vegas magician, that’ll be the day with the lowest grosses.)”

“Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” I loved the description my Scripture professor had for the point of the Sabbath. He called it a “Temple in Time.” God intentionally rested on the seventh day of creation. This is not to say He was inactive, bcause God, being pure act, cannot become “inactive.” But he intentionally set apart the seventh day as a time to reflect and take it easy. So while Penn isn’t exactly clear what one should think about, he’s not wrong that taking time off is an important part of being active and productive in a good way.

“5. Be there for your family. Love your parents, your partner, and your children. (Love is deeper than honor, and parents matter, but so do spouse and children.)”

“Honor thy father and thy mother.” Not much problem here. The foundation is lacking, of course, but not explicitly.

“6. Respect and protect all human life. (Many believe that “Thou shalt not kill” only refers to people in the same tribe. I say it’s all human life.)”

I agree that it means all human life—born and unborn. And without going on a tangent about Just War Theory, respecting and protecting all human life necessarily requires the possibility that some people will forfeit their lives based on their disrespect for others’ lives. Killing in defense of the innocent is justifiable as an act of charity and justice.

“7. Keep your promises. (If you can’t be sexually exclusive to your spouse, don’t make that deal.)”

Seems to be a re-statement of #3 but specifically tracking with “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” And there again, why? If I determine that my previous promises no longer serve my ends, and I can rationalize that the conditions that existed when I made the promise no longer exist, thus making the promise an artifact of a set of circumstances that no longer exist, why should I hold to the promise? What is a promise but words spoken in a given point of time, with reference to realities extant at that point of time that may or may not exist ever again? Why should those past words hold sway over my present activities? Why should anyone have a problem with this?

“8. Don’t steal. (This includes magic tricks and jokes — you know who you are!)”

Thou shalt not steal. Of course, we know that the final seven of the 10 Commandments only make sense with reference to the first three, but that’s because ours are based on our relationship with an unchanging, almighty, omniscient, all-loving, perfectly just God. If the foundational relationship is with other people and not God, the “why?” really breaks down.

“9. Don’t lie (You know, unless you’re doing magic tricks and it’s part of your job. Does that make it OK for politicians, too?)’

Another take on #3 and #7, really. And again, if it serves my human purposes, why not? Man is the measure of truth. God is dead. Why shouldn’t I lie if it serves my purposes? What if I really, really, really have a good intention and really mean to accomplish a good end through my present (small) lie?

“10. Don’t waste too much time wishing, hoping, and being envious; it’ll make you bugnutty.”

Basically tracks with, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife/goods.” The only part that I scratch my head over is lumping “hoping” in with “being envious.” Hope, the trusting expectation that the future holds great things in God’s providence, is the motivation for present good activity. If one loses hope one runs the risk going into severe depression, going on a crime and drugs bender, or, to use Penn’s word, becoming “bugnutty.” I think the problem here is the common misunderstanding of what hope really is. It’s not wishful thinking, unrealistic expectations, or self-delusionment: it is a recognition that God is good, God is personally involved, God will not allow anything to happen that can not lead to great good, even if I don’t understand how something can result in good I know that it can and will, and all of this is just fine because God loves me personally, passionately. That is the basis of hope, and the antidote to jealousy, envy, depression, anxiety, despair, presumption, and egocentrism.

But again, without a foundation in God, compliance with and enforcement of these rules falls apart—we become men without chests, to return to The Abolition of Man. Each person basically just makes those decisions for themsleves, because no one knows what’s best for other people.

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4 thoughts on “Penn Jillette knows what’s best for all, except when he doesn’t.

  1. MMR says:

    I’m a Catholic.
    I also happen to love Penn Jillette.
    He’s as honest as we are with ourselves, if you want to be completely upfront about it.

    Look, I’ll put it simply – nobody’s perfect. Penn would do well to back off his attacks of believers. It’s a flaw of atheism and atheists in general that their belief system is ‘better’ than ours. I point this out frequently, and rarely get a response from my atheist friends.

    The ‘problem’, such as it is, has to do with “spreading the word”, and that “word” could be Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism or atheism. Frankly, I can’t stand being preached to. By anybody.

    Sure, Penn’s rules are very similar to the 10 Commandments – he would do well to recognize this and accept it, and realize that good is good, regardless of what religion is pushing it.

    But so would we. The only difference I have with one of the best people I know is that he doesn’t believe in God. I cannot say for sure this will keep him out of Heaven. I know I was taught that, but I can’t believe it’s true. Is God Himself so short-sighted to say that the best among us might be bad simply because they don’t believe in Him? I doubt it. I have no reason to believe God doesn’t appreciate what the Dalai Lama has to offer, just because the Dalai Lama doesn’t believe in God in the same way we do.

    And along these lines, I remember John 8:7, and this puts everything into perspective.

    1. Tom Crowe says:

      MMR — No one said an atheist cannot get to heaven, nor the Dalai Lama. Check out Romans 2:14: “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.” Now, to be sure, this is not a license to relativism, but a recognition of Natural Law: that the precepts of the true Morality written in us by God are accessible to all through reason, but they are more readily accessible through the teaching of the Church. So if one rightly discerns the precepts of the Law of God and lives according to them, even if they have never heard of Christ, they might be saved through the mercy of God. The complications in modern society have to do with the availability of the authentic message of Christ in and through His Church and the opportunities to embrace it. But in the end, only God knows what life circumstances dictate and/or mitigate what failings in each of us. What is for us is not to judge another’s salvation, but to pray for the conversion and salvation of all.

  2. Joe M says:

    I remember this guy, on one of his shows, did a smear piece on Mother Teresa. He claimed that she wanted people to suffer while dying and purposely kept funding from the Kalighat Home for the Dying. To “demonstrate” this idea, they showed a picture of the home from 1950, when they had very little funding, and implied that it was a modern day picture. A quick internet search revealed that the place has been substantially upgraded and doesn’t look anything like it did in 1950. — I’m pretty sure that puts Penn in violation of several of his own commandments.

    1. Steve N says:

      As many know this fellow has had several ‘go arounds’at which he was untruthful with Bill Donahue of The Catholic League. Check and see.

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