Penn Jillette: Time for atheists to stand up and be counted


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Penn Jillette: This weekend atheists are gathering on Mall in Washington to be counted as not having a personal god

He says candidates, take note: Your Bible-thumping bona fides don't sell to America's growing number of atheists

Editor’s Note: Penn Jillette, a writer, television host and frequent guest on a wide range of shows, is half of the Emmy Award-winning magic act duo Penn & Teller. His new book “Presto” comes out in August. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

This weekend on the Mall in Washington, a bunch of atheists — tens of thousands, including me – will get together just to be counted as not having a personal god.

Why? Whether the pollsters bemoan it or celebrate it, the percentage of Americans who are losing their religion is rising. And in a presidential election year, candidates need to take note.

Penn Jillette
Courtesy Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette

Two of those remaining, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, still give lip service to being religious – even if many on either side of religion don’t believe them or want to claim them. (Why would this be the only thing either one of them would tell the truth about?)

The Libertarian candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who has the most executive experience and the least amount of experience lying, seems to never mention god. He’s the one who believes that separation of church and state gives the most freedom for theists and atheists.

This tracks with a growing reality about religion in America. And those of us who are atheists – living godless since forever – have been trying to get a hint as to why so many are suddenly seeing through the glass darkly.

Some think the September 11 attacks caused a big spike in atheism, as many people hipped to the fact that a benevolent god wouldn’t allow that to happen. I don’t think that was it. I don’t think that day created a lot of atheists, but I think it made a lot of atheists want to speak up a little more.

01:29 - Source: CNN
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After that day, the immorality of letting religion run wild, while atheists kept quiet and enjoyed delicious potluck suppers full of community and Jell-O, was inescapable.

Smiling and turning the other cheek to the belief in nonsense-without-proof, while enjoying the loving culture and community, had consequences.

I’m from New England and I’ll drop to my knees for community and Jell-O. My dad was a Christian his whole life, and my mom didn’t say she was an atheist until she was in her 80s. The Christians in my life have treated me wonderfully. My admitting there’s no god has nothing to do with rebelling against them: I loved them then, with their honest smiles and weird-ass coffee Jell-O, and still do.

But after 9/11 we had to find a way to celebrate community without condoning faith in things that can’t be shared. We had to be good Americans without god, and learn that we could still have our culture, our biblical references and our community, without feigning faith.

01:59 - Source: CNN
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After 9/11 we could no longer pretend that faith in god was harmless. The writing had been on the wall for a while, but now the walls were a-crumblin’ down and innocent people were dying. Thousands of innocent people of all faiths died in that religious terrorist attack — including atheists.

Some people still balk at that word. “Atheist” is “homosexual” without the word “gay” being available. “Atheists” suffer in this designation: It defines us by inaction.

We try other words: “humanist,” “non-religious,” “heathen,” “infidel.” Some of us even lie about the term “agnostic,” and pretend that it means “atheist with an open mind” or “atheist lite,” but it really doesn’t.

“Agnostic” answers the epistemological question of how perfect knowledge can be, but once you’ve said you’re agnostic (which every sane person is), you still have to answer the theological question about your personal belief – and that comes down to “atheist” or “theist.”

01:02 - Source: CNN
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Then there’s the deist thang: Maybe there’s a force in the universe but it sure doesn’t care about us as individuals and doesn’t promise an afterlife. But a deist is really just an atheist before Darwin.

It’s possible there’s always been a huge number of Americans living their lives without faith in a personal god, but now we’re letting our freak flags fly. We’re still in the minority.

In fact it wasn’t long ago that many people believed that in order to be taken seriously as a politician, you had to be a Bible thumper. After all, it’s been said that Bill Clinton gave more speeches in churches than any other President in history. Many also believed the right wing was totally owned by hardcore Christians, but Ted Cruz proved that is no longer true.

The only good news about Donald Trump, and this is from a rose-colored-glasses-crazy-optimist, is that Silly Donny shows us that even on the right wing, religion no longer really matters. Trump wouldn’t know a verse from the Bible if it were tattooed backward on his backside so he could read it in the mirror. As far as I’m concerned, that proves he’s not an atheist, because every atheist I’ve met knows the Bible really well.

01:36 - Source: CNN
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This weekend on the Mall, some of the grooviest, smartest, most loving people in the country will get together and cheer about not having a personal god. Some of the ugliest, silliest, stupidest people will be there, too.

We’re all atheists. I’m going to sing a song.

It’s time for people to see what atheists really look like.

Atheists look like Americans. We are Americans, and we’ve always been your neighbors and friends.

Join us on

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Penn Jillette, a writer, television host and frequent guest on a wide range of shows, is half of the Emmy Award-winning magic act duo Penn & Teller. His new book “Presto” comes out in August. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.