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Question: Is religion responsible for a lot of the world’s problems?

Penn Jillette:
What you've said, "a lot," sure. If you want to go to "most" or "all," then no but there is certainly people...  there's a great quote by the physicist... What's his name? Weinberg. Steve Weinberg. The quote of with or without religion good people do good things and bad people do bad things but for good people to do bad things that takes religion. I'm not sure that's word-for-word, almost certain it isn't, but it's important. I think it's not religion. It's much deeper than that. My beef is not with religion per se; my difference of opinion is with objective and subjective reality.

Einstein said the big question is when you turn away is the tree still there? And I talk to Richard Feynman about this and Murray Goodman, there's a feeling that in particle physics the "experimenter effect," a lot of that stuff is distorted. I believe very strongly that there is a physical reality that my perception does not change. Now you can make the argument that we're all just brains in jars, the Matrix, and all of this is an illusion and that is an airtight argument. You can't refute it but let's just say it's not that. I think there's a real reality out there and the people who say "I believe in God because I feel that there's some higher power in the universe"—the problem I have with that is that once you've said you believe something that you can't prove to someone else you have completely walled yourself off from the world.

And you've essentially said no one can talk to you and you can talk to no one. You've also given license to everybody else who feels that. If you say to me "I can't prove it Penn, but I have a feeling in my heart that there is a power over everything that connects us," why can't Charlie Manson say "I can't prove it but I can have a feeling that the Beatles are telling us to kill Sharon Tate and that the race riots are coming?" Why can't Al Qaeda say "I have a feeling in my heart that we need to kill these particular infidels?" Why can't the men who tortured and disfigured Ayaan Hirsi Ali—why isn't what they feel in their heart valid?

The problem is if you have a sense of fairness simply by saying you believe in a higher power because you believe in it, you've automatically given license to anyone else that wants to say that. So I would rather be busted on everything I say and I am, you know, when you've put yourself out on television and on radio as someone who really does believe in objective truth there is not a sentence that I will say in this interview that won't get three or four tweets of somebody with information busting me on it. And they're right, you know, very rarely am I busted on something where I'm right. If someone is taking the trouble to let me know I've said something wrong, chances are I'm wrong.

But that's the world I live in. I want to live in a world of a marketplace of ideas where everybody is busted on their bullshit all the time because I think that's the way we get to truth. That is also what respect is. What we call tolerance nowadays, maybe always—I'm always skeptical about the "nowadays" thing. I don't think things get that much different. What we call "tolerance" is often just condescending. It's often just saying, "Okay, you believe what you want to believe that's fine with me." I think true respect... it's one of the reasons I get along so much better with fundamentalist Christians than I do with liberal Christians because fundamentalist Christians I can look them in the eye and say, "You are wrong." They also know that I will always fight for their right to say that.

And I will celebrate their right to say that but I will look them in the eye and say, "You're wrong." And fundamentalists will look me in the eye and say, "You're wrong." And that to me is respect. The more liberal religious people who go "There are many paths to truth you just go on and maybe you'll find your way"... is the way you talk to a child. And I bristle at that, so I do very well with proselytizing hardcore fundamentalists and in a very deep level I respect them and at a very deep level i think I share a big part of their heart. I think in a certain sense I'm a preacher. My heart is there.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

More from the Big Idea for Thursday, December 23 2010


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