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Penn Jillette: Is Libertarianism Compatible with Atheism?

Big Think’s newest blogger and atheist-in-residence, Adam Lee, asks magician and author Penn Jillette how he reconciles his atheism with his libertarian philosophy.

Penn Jillette is a larger-than-life figure in every way, including but hardly limited to his imposing physical stature. He’s of course best known as one of the world’s most famous living magicians, and on stage with his partner Teller, he has the cheerful swagger of a carnival barker, revealing how some tricks are done and daring you to guess at the others. That winking insouciance and delight in breaking taboos carries over into his TV show, Bullshit!, which was one of the increasingly few shows in a credulous media landscape that calls popular nonsense, well, what it is.

I won’t do Penn the disservice of suggesting that he’s universally beloved. His libertarian political opinions have infuriated and scandalized many people, myself sometimes among them. But when you’re around him, you know that he always says exactly what he’s thinking, and even when I disagree strongly, I can’t help wishing more people were equally forthright. Having seen one of his magic shows in Las Vegas, I can personally testify that afterwards, he’ll mingle, meet and talk to anyone who wants to see him, and that, too, deserves respect.

Penn recently came to Big Think’s studio for an interview, and in the coming weeks you’ll be seeing a number of his videos released on this site. As Big Think’s newest blogger and atheist-in-residence, I was given the opportunity to ask him the first question. Here’s what I said:

I just finished reading God, No!, and I was hoping you’d address a conflict I find in your thinking. From the book and from watching shows like Bullshit!, I know you’re an atheist who values skepticism and critical thinking. But in that book, you’ve also made it clear that you’re a libertarian who values a minimal state and considers it immoral to tax people for any other reason, even if the goal is something good like education or medical research.

From the work of sociologists like Gregory S. Paul, we know that religion and other kinds of harmful superstition flourish best in poverty-stricken, unstable, uneducated, grossly unequal societies. If we as a society don’t commit to educating people, to teaching them how to think, and to providing them some measure of peace and prosperity in this world, they’ll always be fearful, ignorant, and hungry for miracles – easy prey for any religious huckster or demagogue who comes along. And you know as well as I do how this threatens the well-being of the rest of us. Do you think that a true libertarian state could ever effectively address this problem?

Here’s his response:

I think Penn is right that more people are getting access to the Web, and that’s a good thing. Still, I’m not convinced that it can substitute for formal education. The Web is very good at exposing people to a diversity of viewpoints, which is beneficial for the atheist and skeptical movement – it definitely gets people to start thinking. What it’s not as good at cultivating is the discipline, the comprehensiveness and the rigor that you need for a real education.

There will always be some extraordinary individuals who have the motivation and the drive to educate themselves completely on their own. But we need more than a few extraordinary individuals: we need an educated, scientifically literate populace. Without that, we can’t expect society to thrive, and that’s equally true whether you’re a liberal, a libertarian, or something else entirely.

If you want to prevent an epidemic, you need to vaccinate enough people to produce a herd immunity. Well, education is the vaccination against creationism, against religious fundamentalism and terrorism, against all kinds of memetic epidemics that pose just as much of a threat as real diseases. It’s not enough to say to people, “The vaccine is out there, go seek it out on your own” – we need to bring it to as many as possible. This isn’t an act of altruism, in my mind, but an essential for the survival of a free, democratic state in a technologically advanced world.

Also, I want to make clear that I wasn’t just talking about education. All the free education in the world won’t do any good to people who go hungry at night or can’t afford to get sick. Again and again, studies show that religiosity is linked to social instability and poverty. If people can’t find peace, safety or stability in this life, they’ll naturally be drawn to promises of an afterlife, and that belief is something religious demagogues can all too easily use to manipulate them and command their allegiance.

With all that said, I’ll emphasize that I’m in complete agreement with Penn on one point: The government does a lot of ridiculous, unjust, evil things – waging unnecessary wars in our name, prosecuting nonviolent drug users with draconian jail terms, warehousing people in overcrowded prisons in conditions that amount to torture, singling out racial minorities for harsher punishment, putting people to death on flimsy evidence of guilt. Even an ideal libertarian state would presumably have police and military, and some kind of democratic scheme for deciding how those are used, so I’m not convinced that it would be an automatic solution to any of these problems. But even so, this is one area where I’m in complete agreement: let’s cooperate in putting a stop to this stupidity first, and then we can have that debate about the legitimate role and powers of government.


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