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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[…]

Penn Jillette rates the various candidates for the U.S. Presidency in 2012 from the perspective of an atheist.

Penn Jillette:  Everybody seems to think that Obama is in his heart an atheist and in his heart a skeptic.  The church he belonged to in Chicago is a whack-job church.  It’s about equal to Palin’s church.  Granted, he hasn’t been as religious as… do we know off the top of our heads the most religious president in history in terms of references… referencing to god… references to god and in terms of appearing in churches?  Who the most religious president in history was?  It’s an interesting answer and I got this information from NPR, so it’s probably not slanted in the way you think.  The most religious president in history in terms of appearances in churches and mentions of the bible was Clinton.  

Bill Clinton is the most religious president we’ve had.  He beats George Bush hands down and he beats Carter, who we know was a born-again Christian.  He beats him hands down.  So Obama does that too.  I mean at the 9/11 thing, maybe appropriately he read from the Bible.  But you have two choices with Obama.  You either believe that he is a man of Christ who prays for decisions in the White House, which he said he was or you think he’s a liar.  And I’m surprised by the number of atheist free thinkers that support Obama and their argument is essentially, he’s lying about being religious ‘cause you have to do that to be elected.  

 I’m not happy with either one of those.  I mean, Obama is wicked smart, he’s a wicked good talker, there is no doubt in my mind that his heart is in the right place, unfortunately I think that about almost every president we’ve had, but I think he wants to do good.  I don’t think there’s any malicious quality to him at all.  But I think in some sense, he’s a believer or he’s a liar.  So one to 10?  I rate him pretty high on the skepticism, maybe a six or a seven, but I rate him that way because somewhere in my heart I think he might be lying about being religious and that’s horrible.  It’s a horrible reason to like somebody.  I like him because he might be a liar.  Horrible. 

Question: Michele Bachmann.  

Penn Jillette:  Michele Bachman’s blasphemy is greater than anything I’ve ever accomplished.  I have tried with friends to say the most blasphemous sentence I can possibly say and it does not come close to the blasphemy of Michelle Bachman saying that earthquakes and hurricanes were the way God was trying to get the attention of politicians.  I cannot imagine a serious religious person reading that quote or hearing that quote and saying, “Yeah, right on.”  It is solipsistic, it is opportunistic, it is cynical.  It is deep and it is wrong and it is an insult to religious people everywhere.  

For an atheist, it’s a burlesque; it’s a little bit of a joke you can dismiss her.  But I can’t see it as an atheist.  I see it through my father’s eyes, you know, my father was a Christian his whole life.  And if he had heard Michelle Bachman say that, he would have looked away from the TV.  The idea that you would lightly state that people were suffering and dying in order to, to prove that God was on the side of one politician is sickening.  The only reason that Bachman and Rick Perry are able to say this stuff is because of a magic word.  And this magic word is, “Christian.”  And if you look back in history, the word “Christian” doesn’t really appear in the way we use it today until the anti-abortion debate in the ‘60’s.  When you had 1890, end of the 19th century, you’re top three highest paid speakers; the highest paid speakers were atheists speaking about atheism.  It was Ingersoll, Robert Ingersoll, number one, Mark Twain, number two, Huxley, number three.  Ingersoll was the, the great infidel, the great skeptic, the atheist, Mark Twain of course.  And these were people speaking on… he was not reading from Huck Finn, he was reading from Letters from Earth, he was reading atheist stuff.  And Huxley, of course, Darwin’s pit bull, I guess bull dog at that time, I think he was a pit bull.  

There was a real sense of atheism being an important point.  They were invited to the White House.  And the reason was that Catholics were terrified of Baptists who were terrified of Pentecostals who were terrified of Lutherans who were terrified of Evangelicals, the whole list.  There wasn’t a feeling of Christian.  The founding fathers were very afraid of Baptists taking over from the Pentecostals.  Everybody was afraid of the Catholics.  So you had this divided thing.  

If we still had that, if we still were dividing people by sects like we should be… sects like we should be, one of the largest groups in this country would be atheists.  By the USA Today poll, I think it was 22 percent, 20 percent.  Even the lowest polls put it as eight.  Okay?  The next highest would be Catholics.  And they’d be knocking around 20, you know.  Then you’ve got all your divided up categories.  And then abortion happens, legalized abortion, and some very smart people, very forward thinking people decided we can never fight abortion if it’s the Catholics fighting the Protestants who are fighting the Baptists, fighting the Pentecostals, fight the… we have to get them under one tent.  And there’s a great book on this called The History of Free Thought, these are not my ideas.  This is my understanding of the ideas in that book.  

They pulled this tent together and they kind of create the word, “Christian.”  And then Carter with born-again Christian really helps with the word, “Christian.”  So what they’ve really done is they’ve taken very different philosophies, I mean Catholicism and Protestantism are very different philosophies, very different.  You know, and they’ve pulled it together to make this term, “Christian.”  Which are people that don’t agree at all and they say I’m doing a Christian message.  

So Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry just 40 years ago, really recently, would have been terrified to speak about their God and their church because the second they said they were Baptist, the second they said they were Pentecostal, the second they said they were Lutheran, all the other people fall away.  But now they’ve got this magic word, “Christian.”  And I am helping make it worse.  Because by using the word, “Atheist,” I am separating that even more from “Christian,” I’m doing a broadening umbrella and I’m making theist, atheist.  And if you do theist, atheist, the theist’s win completely.  

You know, what I should be doing, if I were a political thinker, if I were someone who was interested in movements, which I’m not, I’m against them.  If I wasn’t for individual thinking, I would be one of those people who was saying, using a term like “free thinker,” or “open-minded.”  And I would be gathering this umbrella that included people who self-identifies agnostic, atheist, against organized religion.  I would get the Wiccans in there.  I would get as many people as possible and I could probably pump that up to 25 percent.  And then I would be also saying, “Well, you know, the Muslims are very different from the Jews, who are very different from the Catholics, who are very different from all of that.”  

But what’s gonna happen, and because I’m not interested in tactical play, but rather than telling the truth.  We are going to get theist to atheist.  But you can’t imagine, we can’t imagine in 1965, a Baptist talking… Baptist politician talking about religion and where they go to church if they have to use the word, “Baptist.”  It’s using the word “Christian” that allows this craziness to happen.  Also because I am an optimist, to the point of being incorrect, to the point of not being realistic, that’s what flushes over me, that’s what I feel in my heart is optimism.  I tend to go with something Christopher Hitchens said, and I don’t remember where he said it, it could have even been in personal conversation, I don’t know.  But Hitchens said that what we’re seeing with this incredible crazy religious stuff is the death throws.  I mean, since 9/11, free thinking atheism is growing so quickly because of the internet and people who are seeing it first with those who are called, and I realize this is a racist term, but it’s the easiest one to use, so please forgive me, Gypsies.  We’re seeing it with the Amish; we’re seeing it with the Hasidics.  All the groups that try to stay as a subset of America and keep their own traditions are going away.  And Elvis chipped away at them and malls chipped away at them, but the internet is going to take them down.  

It is just too hard to keep your children cloistered.  They’re going to hear Katy Perry.  There’s just no way to stop it.  They’re gonna see video like this, you know.  Once you’ve gotten on the internet to see Katie Perry, it’s not hard to fall over to the Big Think.  It’s the same keyboard, it’s the same screen.  It’s the same everything.  And those… that information gets out there.  And I think that everybody knows that and everybody feels that, so then those who are religious, you’re seeing a desperate, terrified, clawing.  And that’s the only way you can explain Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry is the combination of desperation coupled with the magic protective word of “Christian.”  

And I think… I think that’s what we’re seeing.  And whether they can pull together, you know, the problem is a movement of individuals is not going to have the muscle of a cohesive movement of people who believe they’re right.  And I’m not willing to lie to fight them.  I want individuals who disagree on everything.  And I want us to learn to band together for freedom.  Band together in order to be different.  And that’s a much harder thing to sell, but it’s all that matters, so we have to do it.

You know, I… I stick up for Mormons.  I mean, Mitt Romney is wearing crazy underwear.  He’s wearing magic underwear.  He is.  I mean, under his pants, he is wearing magic underwear.  Magic underwear.  And he believes that a convicted con man got golden tablets that no one else could see, and sat with an angel to find out that the original Jews of the Bible were living in North America.  Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy.  But… just more modern, not more crazy, than other religions.  Not more crazy than Islam, you know, with your… not more crazy than virgin births and resurrections.  Not more crazy than any of that stuff.  What’s really fascinating to me, fascinating, is that… and I cover this in my book when I say signs you may already be an atheist, it fascinates me that you can have the Bible Belt and you can have a court trial, and we’ve seen this.  I’m going to use it hypothetically, but you’ll know the specifics I’m talking about, I just don’t want to talk about that kind of pain too directly, it’s too unpleasant for me.  But hypothetically, in the Bible Belt, where you can have a born-again Christian Judge, born-again Christian Judge.  I believe the Bible is the literal word of God, there were talking snakes, there were talking snakes and virgin births.  Burning bushes and Abraham being willing to kill his son for God.  He believes that.  

The jury is made up of 12 people who, let’s say 10 of them believe that.  And two of them believe that, but a little less.  You’re Prosecuting Attorney believes that.  The people that are sitting in the courtroom believe that.  These are all people that know each other in church.  And the person on the witness stand says that she killed her three children in cold blood because God told her to.  And every single person in the courtroom decides whether she is guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity.  Those are the two choices they weigh.  And nobody, not the Defense Attorney, not the Judge, not the jury people, not the people in the gallery, not one person stands up and goes, maybe God told her to.  It’s less weird than the talking snake.  Maybe God told her to.  

And in this country, which they say over and over again is founded on Christian values, and I’ll give them that; founded on Christian values.  Okay, it is, fine.  This country, founded on Christian values has guilty, not guilty, not guilty by reason of insanity, end of list.  There is nothing that says, not guilty because God told me to.  And why?  Why isn’t that there?  Why isn’t this country allowing in the court system someone to go on the witness stand and go, “Snake walked up to me, snaked opened his mouth, snake said, ‘go into McDonald’s, pull out an AK15, kill 10 people, walk back out,’ snake told me that.  It’s that snake there, he’s not talking anymore.  I throw myself on the mercy of the court.  Aren’t you all good Christians?  Don’t you believe in the miracles of the Bible?  You’re seeing one now.”  

And that’s the part that amazes me is that kind of stuff.  So Mitt Romney comes along and at some level doesn’t he know what he believes is crazy?  At some level, isn’t he going, “There weren’t Jews in North America.”  You know, that’s not where the Garden of Eden was.  Doesn’t that go through his mind?  And that’s the part of that whole thing that kills me.  If Mitt Romney really believes what he says he believes, he is bug-nutty, bat shit crazy.  And he’s not, bug-nutty, bat shit crazy.  He’s the same as Obama.  If Obama believes what he was being taught in that church in Chicago, okay, he is bat shit crazy.  And Obama is demonstratively not bat shit crazy.  

So we have this weird deal we make with all the politicians where we say, you can say you believe bug nutty, bat shit crazy shit, and we’ll shrug it off because you’re clearly not bug nutty, bat shit crazy.  And all I want out of our politicians is for them to just say, “You know, a lot of the religious stuff I’m talking about is bug nutty, bat shit crazy, but I’m not.”  Because I don’t think any of these men and women are crazy.  And I’ll even give you Michelle Bachman, I’ll even give you Rick Perry, I’ll even give you Sarah Palin.  I don’t have that cynical MSNBC point of view that they are bug nutty, bat shit crazy.  I think they are good people who somehow think that they’re morality and their love for humanity and their love for their families are tied up in this weird tradition.  And when they think that the Bible is the word of God, I think they mean something else.  I sometimes think that many other people are speaking in a code that I’ve not been given the key to.  

When someone says to me, I believe in the Bible literally.  Well, I personally, Penn Jillette, read about a chapter in the Bible a day.  I just read through it, over and over again.  So when someone says, they believe in the word of God literally, I go back and think about Genesis, where people were living to be 900 years old.  And I say bullshit!  And then I think about Noah and the flood, killing everybody?  God that loves us kills everybody?  And he wants to get two of every species and seven of the ones that are clean onto a boat that floats for that amount of time?  And I just go, really?  Because you don’t act that way.  You’re able to go to Home Depot, you’re able to pay with a credit card, you’re able to go to Starbucks, you know how to use a computer.  Really?  Do you really mean that?  What do you mean literally?  Do you really mean that you’re going to stone someone to death who because they work on the Sabbath, are you really gonna do that?  Really, honestly?  You’re gonna take a rock in your hand and throw at the mother-fucker’s head because he worked on a Sunday to support his family?  Are you really gonna do that?  If you mix cotton and linen in your clothing are you really going to go to hell?  What do you mean when you say that?  

And no one’s ever answered me.  There’s a code going on that I need the Rosetta Stone.  I need someone to sit me down and go, Penn, when Obama says he went to that church and they talked about all this stuff being literal, what he really meant was… fill in the blank!  Tell me!  What does he really mean?  These people are good, honest, smart, not bat shit crazy people, so why the fuck are they saying bat shit crazy stuff to me?

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd