The Humility of Loudmouth Know-it-all Asshole Atheists
You don’t have to be brave or a saint, a martyr, or even very smart to be an atheist. All you have to be able to say is “I don’t know.” I remember sitting in a room full of skeptics when I first heard Christopher Hitchens say, “Atheists don’t have saints and we don’t have martyrs.” I’m a little afraid to put that in quotes, because no matter how brilliantly I remember any Hitchens phrase, when I go back and check, what he said was better than I remember. He is better at speaking off the top of his head after a couple of drinks than I am at remembering his brilliance later while referencing notes.
I know nothing about drinking, but I know that Hitchens did drink, and when he made that comment he was sitting next to me on the dais with a drink in front of him. But the drink was irrelevant—I could never see that it made any difference to his abilities. My doctor’s brother (how’s that for a source?) said there is such a thing as state-dependent learning. This explains the brilliance of all the jazz cats on heroin and how Keith Richards could play even a specially tuned guitar while as fucked-up as . . . well, Keith Richards. They’re performing in the same state in which they practiced. Hank Williams was so fucked-up we don’t even know which of the United States he died in. Hank’s driver drove him across many state lines all night in his long white Cadillac and when they got to Oak Hill, West Virginia, Hank was dead. Hank’s genius might have been state-dependent, but his dying wasn’t even that.
For years it seemed Christopher Hitchens was always drunk, so he was calling up information in the same state (drunk) that he learned it (drunk). I did the Howard Stern radio show a lot in the late eighties. Many times I was on with Sam Kinison. I’ve never had a sip of alcohol or tried any recreational drug in my life, and I’d come in to the Stern show as rested as carny trash could be that early in the morning—focused and ready to work. Sam would come in fucked-up. Really fucked-up. Stern would kick off the show and Sam was always so good. I would be sweating into the mic, trying to get a clever word in here and there while in awe of how fast, insightful, profound, and motherfucking funny Sam was every second. Howard would keep us on for a long time, and at the end of the show I’d be exhausted, and Sam would just stagger out like he came in.
I used to wonder: if that was how he was in a fucked-up state, if he ever were sober, couldn’t he sweep the Nobel Prizes and throw in a Fields Medal?
You don’t have to be very smart, fast, or funny to be an atheist. You don’t have to be well educated. Being an atheist is simply saying “I don’t know.”
When I was a professional dishwasher, I worked with a man named Harold. Harold sent in lyrics and the little bit of money he saved up to “song-poem” companies that advertised in the back of the National Enquirer and Midnight. He’d pay a full week’s wages to have “song sharks” set his poems to music, record the songs, and try to sell them to make Harold rich. Part of the scam was to send the victim a copy of his song on a record. I now collect copies of those song-poem records. Nothing is labeled very well, and most of them are about Jesus or Nixon. I’ll never know if I’m listening to a song Harold cowrote with a rip-off artist, but when I listen, I feel like I’m in touch with him. Most of the song-poems are unlistenable, but the ones that are good are heartbreaking. They are all you want in art—the cynical blasé skill of out-of-work studio musicians sight-reading hastily scribbled sheet music while a competent but bitter vocalist sings unedited, pure, white light/white heat lyrics from the heart of someone who doesn’t know what the word “cynical” means. Beat that, Bruce Springsteen.
Harold was fat and ugly and sweaty. He didn’t have any brainpower or hair at all, and I looked up to him. I knew other people who were a zillion times smarter than Harold, but Harold managed to show up for work, get the pots and pans clean, and deal with all the smart-assed punks, hippies, drunks, and drug users who washed dishes briefly and badly at Famous Bill’s Restaurant in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Famous Bill’s contained the word “famous” because they’d gotten a good review of their lobster pie in a travel magazine in the fifties. I was a hippie punk who worked with Harold for one summer and then went on with my life with Penn & Teller. Harold knew a couple little jokes, and he knew how to be polite and get to the restaurant on time and back to his apartment after work to write songs. I never talked theology with Harold—I don’t know if he believed in god—but I heard him say “I don’t know” about a lot of things. His smile when he admitted he didn’t know was unapologetic, unless you were asking a question related to his job. If you were asking him if he liked Kerouac or Thailand, he would just say “I don’t know” as a simple statement of fact. He knew very well that he didn’t know.
I try to claim that I was friends with the genius Richard Feynman. He came to our show a few times and was very complimentary, and I had dinner with him a couple times, and we chatted on the phone several times. I’d call him to get quick tutoring on physics so I could pretend to read his books. No matter how much I want to brag, it’s overstating it to call him a friend. I would never have called him to help me move a couch. I did, however, call him once to ask how we could score some liquid nitrogen for a Letterman spot we wanted to do. He was the only physicist I knew at the time. He explained patiently that he didn’t know. He was a theoretical physicist and I needed a hands-on guy, but he’d try to find one for me. About a half hour later a physics teacher from a community college in Brooklyn called me and said, “I don’t know what kind of practical joke this is, but a Nobel Prize–winning scientist just called me here at the community college, gave me this number, and told me to call Penn of Penn & Teller to help with a Letterman appearance.”
I guess that’s close to a friend.
My friend Richard Feynman said “I don’t know.” I heard him say it several times. He said it just like Harold, a simple statement of fact. When Richard didn’t know, he often worked harder than anyone else to find out, but while he didn’t know, he said “I don’t know.”
I like to think I fit in somewhere between my friends Harold and Richard. I don’t know. I try to remember to say “I don’t know” just the way they both did, as a simple statement of fact. It doesn’t always work. It seems that with “climate change” we’re all supposed to know, but I’ll get to that later in the book.
One attack I’ve heard theists make against atheists is, “So, you atheists think you know everything? You think you’re smart enough to know everything? You think science can figure out everything? There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt . . .” That quote is from my good friend Mr. Straw Man, but it’s an idea we hear all the time: atheists are arrogant and don’t think they need god, because they’ve got it all figured out. I think people who make that accusation are confusing style with content. I’m a loud, aggressive, strident, outspoken atheist, and I’m an asshole—but what I’m claiming is not in any way arrogant. It couldn’t be more humble. It’s just “I don’t know.”
I don’t know how the world was created. I don’t know how humans got here. There are lots of good guesses, and we keep testing those guesses trying to find where they’re wrong. Science has helped a lot, but we don’t know. And maybe we never will. I mean, we, all of us, the people alive right now, will certainly never know, but it seems almost as likely that no humans will ever know. How could we? We will keep getting closer, we will keep knowing more and more. I guess string theory might explain some things, but I don’t know. I don’t understand jack shit about string theory. Evolution explains a lot. I think I get a little bit about that. Evolution really does seem to make a zillion pieces fall into place. It’s the answer to a lot of questions that, before Darwin, had to be answered with “I don’t know.” The theory of evolution keeps, you know, evolving—it keeps changing. Now, we do know a lot, but the number of “I don’t know”s is still infinite. Aren’t there a few different kinds of infinity? I don’t fucking know. I sure can’t picture infinity. What does it mean to go on forever? I don’t know. That’s how Harold’s coworker Penn, the dishwasher, would say it—a simple statement of fact: “I don’t know.”
Where is the humility in being a theist? There is none. What would it mean for me to believe in god? It would mean that I know. Not just that I might happen to know about Kerouac, Thailand, liquid nitrogen, and vector calculus identities, but that I know that there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent power in the universe that I can’t prove to you, but that I know because I have faith. I know because I say I know. I can feel it. I would maybe have faith that this force in the universe is for good. Maybe it’s tied in with love. Maybe I know that this force in the universe will give everlasting life and cares very much where I stick my fucking cock. Maybe I would know that there is a supreme power in the universe and that supreme power cares about me. Not everyone who believes in god believes all of those things. But it doesn’t matter—whatever they say god is, they’re saying they know. There is no humility. They believe because they say they believe. Some people who believe in god distort the meaning to the point where . . . well, even I could say I believe in god. Some will tell you “God is love” and then defy you not to believe in love. But, if X = Y, why have a fucking X? Just keep it at Y. Why call love god? Why not call love . . . love? “Beauty is god.” Okay. If you change what the word means, you can get me to say I believe in it. Say “God is bacon” or “God is tits” and I’ll love and praise god, but you’re just changing the word, not the idea. Some think that god will answer prayers. They think that their prayer can influence the behavior of an omnipotent, omniscient power. How do you figure that? How come it’s rare to see people on TV saying that god made them lose the stupid ball game or killed that baby in the house fire? How come every time someone says that god told them to kill their whole family, the religious people say right away that the faithful murderer was crazy? You never see religious people saying “I wonder if that murder was a miracle. I wonder if god is speaking to us directly again.”
Maybe they really don’t believe this shit either.
I could scream at the altar of a church, with a crucifix stuck deep up my asshole, that I fuck Jesus Christ hard through the hand holes and cream on his crown of thorns, and I will never hit the level of blasphemy that’s required for someone to pray to god for their family’s pet dog to return home. The idea that someone can claim that they know there’s a god because they feel it, because they trust a book that they were raised with, because they had an epiphany, and then ask this god to change its mind about its plan for the universe is arrogant. Once you say you have the answer to everything, but you can’t prove it to anyone else, I don’t think you can accuse anyone else of being arrogant. I think you are the king of kings of the arrogant assholes.
And “I don’t know” doesn’t mean “There might be a god.” That’s the different kind of “I don’t know,” that’s not Harold and Richard’s honest, humble “I don’t know.” Being an atheist means you don’t believe in god. When someone asks if god exists and you humbly say “I don’t know,” you’ve answered the question honestly. Once you’ve answered “I don’t know” to the existence of a god, the answer to whether you believe in god pretty much has to be no. That doesn’t mean you’re saying it’s impossible for there to be a god, or that we couldn’t have evidence of a god in the future. It just means that right now you don’t know. And if you don’t know, you can’t believe. Believing cannot rise out of “I don’t know.”
Is there an elephant in your bathtub right now? If you humbly answer “I don’t know,” then when asked if you believe there’s an elephant in your bathtub right now, the answer would be no. Anything is possible, but there’s no reason to believe it until there’s some evidence. Once you’re an atheist, anything is possible. You are leaving open the possibility of Jesus Christ as lord, and Thor, and invisible gremlins living in your toaster. It’s all possible, but . . . I don’t know. And until I know—until there’s some evidence—I’m an atheist.
What could be humbler than that? You don’t have to be smart or well educated, you just need to be humble. And if you’re a libertarian atheist, there can be no commandments. There can be no edicts. It’s all down to the individual. No one knows what’s best for other people. I don’t even know what’s best for myself.
I was asked by Glenn Beck to entertain the idea of an atheist Ten Commandments. It was his rhetorical exercise to try to force the incorrect point that the biblical Ten Commandments were just common sense. Even though my heroes Hitchens and George Carlin have taken a pass at the Ten Commandments, I wanted to do my own. I wanted to see how many of the ideas that many people think are handed down from god really make sense to someone who says “I don’t know.”
Borscht Belt comics and a lot of web pages have used the gag “The Ten Suggestions.” All joking aside, that seems like the right feeling. This book is just some thoughts from someone who doesn’t know. I’ve tried to throw in a couple of funny stories, and there’s a lot of rambling. Some of the stories have nothing to do with atheism directly, but they will give you a feel for how one goofy atheist lives his life in turn-of-the-century America. If you’re still claiming that you’re religious, you can compare and contrast. I think you’ll find that I’m just like you, if you’re the kind of guy or gal who’s dropped his or her cock into a blow-dryer. Try to remember, when it all comes down, I just don’t know.
But . . . god? No! There is no fucking god!
© 2011 10 in 1
Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales
Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales
A scathingly funny reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments from the larger, louder half of world-famous magic duo Penn and Teller reveals an atheist's experience in the world: from performing on the Vegas strip with Siegfried and Roy to children and fatherhood to his ongoing dialogue with proselytizers of the Christian Right and the joys of sex while scuba-diving, Penn has an outrageous sense of humor and a brilliantly entertaining opinion on, well, anything you care to think of.