Question: How did you become an atheist?
In my church group in Greenfield,
Massachusetts at the age of about 16 or 17, I had made a deal with my
mom and dad—I was very, very close to my mom and dad. I'm a real momma's
boy and got along with them my whole life, hardly even rough periods.
And they went to the Congregationalist church: The Church of the Covered
Dish Supper in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Massachusetts is an old
enough state that you could not charter a town without having a Congregationalist church and this was the first one in out town. I mean,
from back 200 years ago.
And I made a deal with my mom and dad that I wouldn't have to go to
church services Sunday morning if I went to youth group Sunday night. So
we had a pastor—that minister at that church—that was fairly hip, you
know, he was trying to deal with the children, play a Jim Morrison song
once in a while. Played the Beatles. Far out! And he sincerely wanted us
to do some inquiry into theological questions and I took it very
seriously. I may have been the only in the youth group that did take it
seriously and I read the Bible cover-to-cover and I think that anyone
who is thinking about maybe being an atheist... if you read the Bible or
the Koran or the Torah cover-to-cover I believe you will emerge from
that as an atheist. I mean, you can read "The God Delusion" by Richard
Dawkins, you can read "God Is Not Great" by Hitchens... but the Bible
itself, will turn you atheist faster than anything.
Question: Why would reading the Bible make you an atheist?
I think because what we get told about the
Bible is a lot of picking and choosing, when you see, you know, Lot's
daughter gang raped and beaten, and the Lord being okay with that; when
you actually read about Abraham being willing to kill his son, when you
actually read that; when you read the insanity of the talking snake;
when you read the hostility towards homosexuals, towards women, the
celebration of slavery; when you read in context, that "thou shalt not
kill" means only in your own tribe—I mean, there's no hint that it means
humanity in general; that there's no sense of a shared humanity, it's
all tribal; when you see a God that is jealous and insecure; when you
see that there's contradictions that show that it was clearly written
hundreds of years after the supposed fact and full of contradictions. I
think that anybody... you know, it's like reading The Constitution of
the United States of America. It's been... it's in English. You know,
you don't need someone to hold your hand. Just pick it up and read it.
Just read what the First Amendment says and then read what the Bible
says. Going back to the source material is always the best.
someone is trying to interpret something for you, they always have an
agenda. So I read the Bible and then I read Bertrand Russell and I read a
lot of other stuff because in the Greenfield public library the 900's
of the Dewey Decimal System... I mean, one of the few people that still
remembers it, the 900's are theology. They're only about this long but
that's all on camera. Only about this long, the one armed guy who caught
a fish this big. They're only about this long and so I read a lot of
them. I started going go to class and, to his credit, the pastor who was
a wonderful man, wonderful man would let me talk to him about this
And finally after—I don't know, it's so long ago—but after
months of this platonic questioning every night at youth group, the
minister called my mom and dad and said, "You know, I think maybe Penn
should stop coming to youth group, he's no longer learning about the
Bible from me. He is now converting everyone in the class to atheism."
So I was asked to leave—very politely, very nicely—youth group. And then
with the help of Martin Mull, Randy Newman, Frank Zappa, the idea that
these three men were out-of-the-closet atheists was so inspiring to me
and so important to me. And reading interviews with somebody...
I remember being somebody in a religious—and not a religious community
like wack jobs, but, you know, in a community where most everyone was
Christian—having those people in interviews say the simple sentence
"There is no God" meant the world to me and gave me joy and gave me
passion and gave me love and gave me confidence. And I think the first
time I was interviewed, as presumptuous as this seems—and please forgive
me—I remembered Frank Zappa's interviews. And I wanted to give a chance
for someone else reading that to not feel they were alone. Now that's
less important now. I mean, the population of atheists in this country
is going through the roof. I mean, I'm now on the side that's winning.
over 20 percent by some polls and I believe if you counted atheism as a
religion it's the fastest growing religion in the history of the United
States of America. So now I'm on the team that's winning which is an
uncomfortable position for me. But back, you know, 30 years ago, 40
years ago, it still felt like it meant something, you know, it's...
we're several years behind gay rights but we're following a much faster
path at acceptance.
Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman