Is Penn Jillette the World’s First Praying Atheist?

Magician and Entertainer
Over a year ago

Right before he goes to sleep every night, staunch atheist Penn Jillette does something surprising. He says a little prayer – sort of. It’s called ‘Penn’s Guilt Round Up’ and it’s where he reflects on all the things throughout the day that he regrets, or wonders if he should have done and how they affected people. Then he moves on to thinking about what he wants in life and how he can get there. Before he made 100 pounds disappear from around his middle (hey presto!), he used to think, frustrated and longingly, about having the discipline to lose weight, to tell that slice(s) of pizza to talk to the hand because the face (with glowing skin and no chin) ain’t listening.

Out of respect for people who use prayer authentically to reach a higher power, Jillette is very hesitant to use the word ‘prayer’ to describe his own ritual, but he questions whether atheists (and society as a broader effect) might benefit from a certain kind of placebo prayer. It’s a provocative question: if you’re certain that there is no God, is it okay to talk to an imaginary one for the sake of catharsis and self-reflection? Jillette anticipates that many people on all sides will disagree with that idea strongly, but he references the powerful placebo effect – it could be harnessed by atheists as a ritual to explore themselves and their awareness in the world. We all have incessant mind chatter and some of us occasionally speak out loud to ourselves when we’re alone, but perhaps for atheists speaking aloud to a fictitious God of their choice might yield a greatly improved mental clarity, and a kinder, more compassionate perspective.

It’s a curious case for Jillette; when people give up religion, he cautions that they shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The non-religious have the same social needs as believers – the need for communal gathering, closeness, meaningful social contact, tribalism. Where are they to get that? There’s some semblance of it in niche internet and gaming forums, in music, and especially EDM music. Jillette hopes in the next few decades we will find exactly what that space should be so atheists can healthily re-fill the void left behind by the beautiful sense of community that lives within a church.

So Jillette’s message is: don’t throw it all away. You can do away with God, but don’t do away with self-reflection or ‘atheist prayer’. You can do away with the Bible or the Torah or the Quran, but don’t do away with community. He hopes that in 20 years’ time people who choose not to believe will have “sucked out of religion all the good, the community, the self-reflection, the compassion, the love and thrown away the bad, the God, the hate, the superstition. Let that go away. Let the reflection of the community come back in.”

Penn Jillette's most recent book is Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.