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Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette is a cultural phenomenon as a solo personality and as half of the world-famous Emmy Award-winning magic duo Penn & Teller. In the mid-'80s, Penn & Teller went[…]

Religion can cause “good people to do bad things,” but Penn Jillette gets along better with fundamentalists than with liberal Christians who preach easy tolerance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman