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A Response To Penn Jillette's There Is No God

There is a 2005 article out on npr.org by Penn Jillette entitle There Is No God. This is the same Penn from the magic and comedy act Penn & Teller. His article, There is No God, was given to me by a friend as an example of a defense of atheism. So, as a class exercise, I though it would be helpful to go through his arguments in detail.

Penn starts out his narrative with a subtle distinction between the assertion "not believing in God" and the assertion "This I believe: I believe there is no God." He argues that the first is easy because it does not demand something from you. It does not change your life or give you something to live by because you are stuck searching and wondering if you might be wrong. He says, "All the people I write e-mails to often are stuck at this searching stage. The atheism part is easy. But, this 'This I Believe' thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life's big picture, some rules to live by." He then goes on to explain how his leap of faith has given his life meaning in the areas of forgiveness, being open minded, dealing with suffering. He also explains how atheism gives him more "room" for believing in family, people, love, truth, etc.

Psychological Need

But before all that he explains "I'm not greedy." By this he means he is not looking for more beyond this life. He is happy with things like "love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough...It seems just rude  to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven." His argument is based on a big assumption called "psychological need". I have yet to meet an atheist that has not thrown down the "need" card. The argument goes something like this, "you believe in a god because you have a psychological need for him to exist. You need him to exist to give you hope for a better life after death or help for problems in this life," etc. However, the "psychological need card" is not a valid argument for the following reasons.
  1. Even if we assume that Christian's have such psychological needs, a psychological need is a motive. A motive does not prove anything. If we take a murder trial in a court of law as an example, wishing someone to be dead does not out of necessity prove that you murdered that person. It only shows that you have a motive. And motive proves nothing in a court of law.
  2. Atheists are not without psychological needs. After all, who wants to believe in the God of the Bible? The God of the Bible is a God of wrath, perfect holiness and justice who will judge the world. Jesus said in Matt. 12:36 "But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment." So, we see that it would only be natural for an atheist to have a psychological need to suppress the knowledge of God written on his heart. Who wants guilt? Romans 1:18-19 says "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them." I would argue that atheists have a greater psychological need to believe that God does not exist. But as I said, motive does not prove a thing. Only God's word can prove whether something is true or false.
Ultimately, the issue of whether God exists or not is not an issue about need. It is an issue about truth. Either God exists or He doesn't, regardless of whether we need Him or not.

Forgiveness

Penn pens "Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories." Here Penn cleverly eludes to forgiveness only being a human activity and not a divine one. He then says, "That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around." This implies that Christians are more apt to wrong other people because they can be forgiven by God. Of course this is a straw man. Being forgiven and receiving grace only motivates us to extend that grace to others. Luke 7:47 says, "Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” Those who are forgiven are also regenerate (born of God's Spirit) and therefore love others. 1 John 4:7 says "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God."

Notice that Jillette also uses the word "right" ("I have to try to treat people right the first time around"). What is "right" mean if you don't believe in a God? And why do you "have to" do it? Do you have any basis at all for saying that something is "right" or "wrong"? What if my "right" is to satisfy my sick pleasure to blow your brains out? An atheist has nothing to say against such actions (see Reasons For Believing in Christian Theistic Ethics regarding the failure of secular ethics)

Being Open Minded

Penn writes, "Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic." I find it surprising that Penn equates solipsism, the philosophical idea that one's own mind is all that exists, with theism. I doubt he is that stupid. This is just an example of name calling. I could accuse atheists of being "closed minded". But it hardly furthers my argument. Penn is making the argument that Christian's are closed minded because they refuse to learn from others. "Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I'm wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate." Was Penn being open minded when he took his leap of faith and said, "This I believe: I believe there is no God"? I doubt it. Penn is not open minded. He is dogmatically atheistic.

Now, I'm sure Penn would think that I was very closed minded. In fact, I am when it comes to human stupidity. The real issue is that Penn has a very optimistic assessment of man's ability to discover truth while I have a very pessimistic view of man's ability. Penn thinks that man can "agree on reality" and "keep adjusting" until we all come to a close proximity of the truth. But, the Bible does not share this optimism. Jer. 17:9 says "The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?" John 3:19 says "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." Also, Eph. 4:17-18 says "This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart;" So, the question becomes, where do we find truth? The Christian knows that man is blind and cannot know the truth. But this does not mean that Christians are closed minded and are not searching for truth. It only means that he recognizes that the source of all truth is divine revelation. The Christian apologist doesn't waste his time following the blind. Contrary to Penns statement "So, believing there is no God lets me be proven wrong and that's always fun." I would say believing that there is a God lets me be proven wrong (by the Scriptures) and that's always fun.

Suffering

Penn then raises the problem of suffering. He states, "Believing there is no God means the suffering I've seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn't caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn't bothered to help or is just testing us..." Let me be clear, I believe that God is the cause of all things, including all suffering (Eph. 1:11). An even greater question in my mind is why does God wait to send me and all people straight to hell where there will be endless suffering and pain. But Penn doesn't believe he deserves suffering. He doesn't believe he has offended the infinite holiness of God and therefore deserves an everlasting hell for each of his sins. The idea of sin and God's resulting wrath is so revolting to Penn he doesn't even consider this as a possibility. The Bible is clear, we deserve much worse than any suffering we could ever experience in this life. Romans 2:5 says "But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,"

Family, People, Love, Truth, Beauty, Sex and Jell-O

Pen ends with this statement, "Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all other things I can prove and that makes life the best life I will ever have." Um, excuse me Penn. I can say the same thing about believing in God. Contrary to your messed up stereotype of Christianity or Theism, my God created sex and knows what makes it the best. It's called the marriage covenant. So, don't go labeling Christians as stoics. Read Song of Solomon. My God created family and knows what makes it best. It's called a marriage between a man and a woman. My God is the author of all truth. I now know what love is because God saved me by grace, through faith on account of Christ. I know what true beauty is because I can recognize the designer in His designs. So, far from limiting, the belief in the Christian God greatly enhances my enjoyment of family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex and yes, even Jell-O.
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