Penn Jillette: Is Libertarianism Compatible with Atheism?

Big Think's newest blogger and atheist-in-residence, Adam Lee, asks magician and author Penn Jillette how he reconciles his atheism with his libertarian philosophy.

Penn Jillette is a larger-than-life figure in every way, including but hardly limited to his imposing physical stature. He's of course best known as one of the world's most famous living magicians, and on stage with his partner Teller, he has the cheerful swagger of a carnival barker, revealing how some tricks are done and daring you to guess at the others. That winking insouciance and delight in breaking taboos carries over into his TV show, Bullshit!, which was one of the increasingly few shows in a credulous media landscape that calls popular nonsense, well, what it is.


I won't do Penn the disservice of suggesting that he's universally beloved. His libertarian political opinions have infuriated and scandalized many people, myself sometimes among them. But when you're around him, you know that he always says exactly what he's thinking, and even when I disagree strongly, I can't help wishing more people were equally forthright. Having seen one of his magic shows in Las Vegas, I can personally testify that afterwards, he'll mingle, meet and talk to anyone who wants to see him, and that, too, deserves respect.

Penn recently came to Big Think's studio for an interview, and in the coming weeks you'll be seeing a number of his videos released on this site. As Big Think's newest blogger and atheist-in-residence, I was given the opportunity to ask him the first question. Here's what I said:

I just finished reading God, No!, and I was hoping you'd address a conflict I find in your thinking. From the book and from watching shows like Bullshit!, I know you're an atheist who values skepticism and critical thinking. But in that book, you've also made it clear that you're a libertarian who values a minimal state and considers it immoral to tax people for any other reason, even if the goal is something good like education or medical research.
 
From the work of sociologists like Gregory S. Paul, we know that religion and other kinds of harmful superstition flourish best in poverty-stricken, unstable, uneducated, grossly unequal societies. If we as a society don't commit to educating people, to teaching them how to think, and to providing them some measure of peace and prosperity in this world, they'll always be fearful, ignorant, and hungry for miracles - easy prey for any religious huckster or demagogue who comes along. And you know as well as I do how this threatens the well-being of the rest of us. Do you think that a true libertarian state could ever effectively address this problem?

Here's his response:

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