“What Would Jesus Do?” Is a Question for Atheists Too
Penn Jillette just got born again – but don't fortify the gates of heaven just yet, because it's his atheism that he's renewed, to account for blanket religious vilification and hate politics.
Penn Jillette: About three years ago I came in to Big Think and I talked very strongly and very passionately about atheism, how I did not believe in God. And over the past three years I opened my heart to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit filled me. And all of a sudden I realized that everlasting life is possible by following in the ways of Jesus Christ our Lord. I have since then dedicated my life to Jesus Christ. I have joined the Church and I will live the rest of my life and die as a Christian in service and in joy with Jesus Christ Our Lord. I’m just fucking with you. For a minute, just for a minute did I – just for a second did I have you going? Just for a minute? Can you imagine how much money I would make if I could just convert to re – I don’t have to convert. If I just pretend to convert. Can you imagine if I just took and threw away my atheism, if I threw away my morality and said I was religious and went out and started preaching? Can you imagine the amount of money I would make. But what good if a man gained the whole world but lose his soul. No. I’m still an atheist. I’m still doing fine. I just spoke at a Young Americans for Liberty conference, you know, a lot of conservatives, a lot of people that are too young to be wearing suits were wearing suits.
I liked them. And afterwards a man came up to me probably 20 years old and he was slight in build, very dark complected and he said to me I wanted to talk about this during your lecture but I was very, very frightened that there were cameras there. And I said well there were cameras there so at least you’re not frightened by UFOs. You’re frightened by spiders, something that’s real. I can respect that. I made this kind of light of his wording there. And then he shut me up because then he said my family is from Pakistan and everybody in my community is a devout Muslim. And my mom and dad are devout Muslims. And I’m an atheist. And if I said that while you were speaking, if I raised my hand and said that with the cameras on, said that declared a statement I’m an atheist. My mom and dad would not kill me but they would disown me and they would never speak to me again. And I would be an apostate and it is not unlikely that someone in my community would kill me.
And he didn’t mean that figuratively. He didn’t mean that word kill like comedians mean it. He meant they would take his life away. Now I know Ayaan Hirsi Ali so I know he wasn’t bluffing. And then it got worse because then he said and yet with my dark skin and my straight black hair the other side considers me Muslim and wants to get me out of the country and treat me badly. And I hear Trump giving his speeches against people of my ancestry. And I realize that there’s nobody for me. Nobody. And he said I want to talk to you because – and this is him saying this – he said some stuff about me being the only one who would understand which is clearly not true. Everybody understands. Virtually everybody understands. But, you know, as an atheist Christopher Hitchins, my friend, my hero, my mentor even though he isn’t much older than me but he’s so much smarter. He used to say, you know Penn, if you dislike Christianity you must dislike Islam much more. Now I want to be very careful about this. Islamophobia is the wrong word. Islam is an idea. Muslims area people. You’re allowed to hate ideas. You’re allowed to disagree with ideas.
You’re not allowed to hate people for their ideas. It’s the wrong word. It’s just the wrong word. We have to be more careful. Islamaphobia is not racism. Saying anything against Muslims is. You can say Christianity is wrong and have friends who are Christians. You can show full respect for Christians. You’re not Christianityaphobic, you know. You’re just saying no, I have a different idea. That’s what America is. And I believe my feelings as an atheist change somewhat when that man speaks to me because of my heart. Yes, Islam is wrong. Yes, Christianity is wrong. Yes, Judaism is wrong. I believe that like I believe I breathe. I don’t doubt that ever. But right now Muslims, those who believe in Islam really need our help. There’s refugees who are suffering in a way that history will not be kind to us for ignoring that. We must love them. We just embrace them. We must help them. Even if they believe things that we know are wrong. The chances of a terrorist believing in Islam are pretty good. The chances of someone who believes in Islam being a terrorist are very, very bad. Very little chance of that.
We took into Nevada – I live in Nevada. We took nine people from Syria in the entire state of Nevada. That’s how many we welcomed. Nine. The number of fingers Jerry Garcia had – nine. Nine – actually if it’s going to be Jerry Garcia I think it’s nine. Nine? No it’s this hand – nine. Jerry Garcia is not important in this discussion Penn. Get on with it. Nine? No is it nine. Jerry Garcia – nine. Nine. Not nine families. Nine people. Nevada. It’s a state, you know. We’ve got to help those people. Now how do I as an atheist say to Muslims your religion is wrong, your terrorists are crazy, this is dangerous, get over it and then say I love you and you’re welcome. Really, really hard. I’ve got to tell you I know there’s no God and because there’s no God we have to reach out to Muslims. We have to do God’s work because God’s not going to. And that love and that compassion is not going to come from Allah and it’s not going to come from Yet Wah. It’s not going to come from Jesus Christ. That love and compassion is going to come from us. Is it dangerous to embrace Muslims because some of them will be terrorists? Yeah, it’s really dangerous. Do we have to protect ourselves? Yeah, we really do.
There’s hard problems here. Really hard problems. And I don’t have any of the answers to it. But I’ll tell you what the answer isn’t. The answer isn’t standing up with hair that looks like cotton candy made of piss and saying, you know, we’ve got to keep these people out of here. We’ve got to keep these people out of here. I cannot find any way that preaching hate helps that situation. And I defy you no matter how afraid you are of terrorists to look at that man. I’m so glad I don’t remember his name. I’m so glad I don’t remember where he’s from because in the incident that I talk about him because I’m such an idiot I spill everything that’s going through my head. I might actually jeopardize his life but I don’t know who he is so we’re safe. I don’t know where he’s from so we’re safe, except for Pakistan. No, he was born in the USA. Born in the – it doesn’t matter. How do we do that? How do we help people that have a religion that’s wrong but that aren’t going to kill us to be able to be part of us without, you know. We see it in France. We see it in Belgium. We see it in these places and these communities that stay insular, you know. This man says to me that my community would kill me, these insular communities. We’ve got to get back to the idea of an America that was a melting pot.
We have to be able to have that guy that talked to me after my lecture. We’ve got to be able to have him just, you know, be another guy. That all of this, this long winded passionate craziness that I’m spewing out with no answers just comes down to we’ve got to stop judging people by the color of their skin and where they’re from. I mean didn’t we learn that with the Irish? Didn’t we learn that with the Polish? Didn’t we learn that with the Africans? Didn’t we learn that with every single group of people that we’ve spit on and not welcomed? I mean John Lennon said in a song called New York City with the Elephant’s Memory Band if the man wants to shove us out, we’re going to jump and shout. The Statue of Liberty said come. New York City such a fucking badass city. Yeah, you know. The United States of America is a fucking badass country. And we are strong and we are brave and we are loving and we’ve got to stop acting like cowards. We’ve got to stop acting like in every single cupboard is a Muslim terrorist. Yes, terrorism is a problem. Yes, we have to protect our families. Yes, the nightmare of these deaths is unforgiveable and unthinkable. But we have to remember that people are good. If you look at the seven billion people on this planet just about seven billion of them are really good.
We can really trust them. Can we please learn something from Las Vegas. Learn something about gambling, right. We know how the odds work. We know the house always wins. In this case the odds are always on someone being good. If someone walks up to you with dark skin and straight hair looking like they’re from Pakistan or Egypt or even Iraq, even Afghanistan and they’re walking towards you the chances are overwhelming that that person will be good. You’re not trying to fill an inside straight. Your chances are way – in your advantage they’re good people. So how did my atheism change? Well there’s no God and there’s never a doubt about that ever. But we have to make sure that when we’re screaming that there’s no God we don’t scream it so loud that we can’t hear someone who is religious crying for help and know that we have to help them.
Penn Jillette just uttered the words: "I opened my heart to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit filled me." What does it mean? Will the magician, champion of atheists, and passionate Libertarian really live the rest of his life as a Christian in service to the Lord, and abracadabra open the gates of heaven when they rightly hesitate to let him in?
He won’t have to, because he’s pulling our leg. Atheist prankster, why you little... But there is something born again about Jillette these days – he’s updated his atheism after an encounter with a young man at a conference Jillette was speaking at. The young man is of Pakistani heritage, from a devout Muslim community. His parents are devout, but he is an atheist, something that if he were to declare he would be disowned by his parents, be labeled an apostate, and likely harmed or killed by someone in his community.
This young man is living in America, wading in Islamophobia, hearing presidential candidate Donald Trump blanket vilify all Muslims in the media. The public will judge him on his skin and hair, without even considering that he may be an atheist. This man’s sense of belonging is corrupted both in his adopted home and back in his community.
Jillette adds to this that the state of Nevada, where Jillette lives, took in just nine refugees from Syria – not nine families, no. Nine singular people. Furthermore, people are confusing disdain of Islam with disdain of Muslims – you can openly hate or disagree with an ideology, but it is very different to hate a person, says Jillette.
And so, in his renewed atheist awakening, Jillette has realized, "We have to do God’s work – because God’s not going to." The point of atheism shouldn’t be to be right at the loudest volume that your voice can reach, but to keep your hubris down so you can hear the cries of the religious or non-religious people who need help. "We’ve got to stop acting like in every single cupboard is a Muslim terrorist," he says. "Yes, terrorism is a problem. Yes, we have to protect our families. Yes, the nightmare of these deaths is unforgiveable and unthinkable. But we have to remember that people are good. If you look at the seven billion people on this planet just about seven billion of them are really good."
Yep; one of the poster boys of atheism just asked you to unleash your inner Good Samaritan.
Penn Jillette's most recent book is Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.
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