It’s NOT Self-Damning

I had another realization before I got up this morning, and I want to share it.

As a total aside, I didn’t realize until today how much agreement I have with Penn Jillette. I really need to listen to and read more of what he’s said publicly about atheism. He has a talent for explaining things in a way that’s simultaneously easy-to-understand, compelling, and non-judgmental.

That “non-judgmental” part is why I’m writing this post. About four years ago, Jillette went on a satellite radio show as a guest of Ron Bennington and said something that I’ve seen quoted again and again. 

Before I share the quote, I want to write that if you follow that link, I encourage you to read the entire interview. I think only reading this one quote leads people to believe (as did before today) that Jillette subscribes to a belief that’s commonly ascribed to atheists: that we believe that we are mentally superior to theists. In another interview with Bennington, Jillette talks about a “really hideous misconception that if you’re an atheist, you think you have answers.”

Here’s the quote I’ve seen in so many places:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.

completely agree with everything in that quote, except for the final sentence. The realization I had this morning is that I don’t think it’s self-damning. More precisely, I don’t think believers think what that quote ascribes to them. Jillette is correct that, given a full and careful analysis, it’s what’s implied by that. However, I’ve decided that pointing that out (while ignoring the likelihood that they simply have never thought it through that completely) is disingenuous. It’s “a way to score easy points on” people you disagree with.

I’m actually willing to bet that Jillette (in hindsight) regrets saying that. Everything else I’ve seen/heard shows him to be a reasonable person, who isn’t as interested in demonstrating that he’s “right” as he is in learning what’s true. To his credit, he fully acknowledges (in that same interview) that his point of view would likely make him slow to accept hard evidence that disagreed with what he believes:

I think that’s a little bit grandiose, I couldn’t claim that [ed: that he “stays open to all ideas all the time”]. I certainly try that. You can find certain ideas. I think if you gave me a lot of information that showed me beyond a doubt that a certain race was inferior to another race you’d have a lot trouble getting that information through to me. I think there’s certain ways I was brought up that you’d have to hammer for a long time. But I’d like to think that at some point I’d come around.

The more I read from this guy, the more I like him. I really think that the comment about “self-damning” is an exception made in a recorded interview that reflects the kind of human weakness that we all fall victim to from time to time. I know do.

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