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Penn Jilette
God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Simon & Schuster
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-451-61036-9
Publication Date: 08-16-2011
232 pages; $24.99
Date Reviewed: 08-29-2011

Index:  Non Fiction

Penn Jillette begins his newest book with what he calls a gedankenexperiment. It's pretty simple; if God asked you to kill your child, would you do it? If the answer is no, then, Penn insists, you're an atheist.

If the answer is yes, then he'd like you to reconsider.

And, if the answer is no, or you are willing to reconsider, then the answer to the ur-question "Will you like this book?" is also quite probably yes.

'God, No!' is a rambling, shambolic atheist revision of the Ten Commandments that is alternately crude, funny, serious and sweet. Anyone with a solemn commitment to a mainstream religion is probably going to be greatly offended, but if you're not, then the chances that you will be greatly entertained. Jillette knows how to turn on the humor and when to turn it off and get either serious or sweet. For a book that is quite tightly organized and could be rather dry, 'God, No!' is very much like the man who writes it; loose, limber and very, very smart.

After a brief introduction wherein Penn establishes his atheist credentials, the book shambles off into ten chapters, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. You get what appears to be the King James original, then an interpretation, then "One Atheist's Suggestion." So, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," gets re-cast as, "The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity and love. Respect these above all."

So far, so good; the rest of the chapter launches into the story of Penn's thoughts on Siegfried and Roy, David Blaine, and other points on the map only connected to his version of Commandment one by virtue of the fact that they involve art — sort of. That said, the writing is consistently entertaining, and bit-by-bit, Jillette does make clear his feelings on art with regards to what he thinks it is and why he values it. There are a lot of laughs and some nicely turned serious moments along the way.

The rest of the book follows this template to the degree that it is a template and that it can be followed. Jillette mixes in autobiographical stories, anecdotes and over-the-top opinion as he sees fit. As he cuts a swath through the Decalogue, Jillette is probably preaching to the converted, but he offers a very effective argument that life without god is not life without morality. It's not rocket science, but having it written down in a manner that is both clear and entertaining helps him make his point. The tight structure (ten commandments, one per chapter) is balanced by the fast and loose content within each chapter. Penn keeps things organized but not predictable.

The prose is the real star in 'God, No!' When Penn wants to be outrageously, side-splittingly funny, he can just unroll some story about, for example, Extreme Elvis. But he can also turn the same gross-out situation into a charming anecdote. He writes sweetly about his family, without getting saccharine. He says a few smart things, cracks a few dumb jokes, then makes you think about one in relation to the other. No matter what Jillette writes about, he will keep you reading, unless, of course, you find the whole enterprise completely offensive. He gives a pretty fair portion of his audience more than a few reasons to feel just this way.

For all the extremes he examines here, Jillette is trying to keep himself and atheism itself reigned in. He simply wants his readers to admit that, "I don’t know," is a very good answer to many of life's big questions. It may not seem like much, but in the context of 'God, No!' it means a lot. It means mostly laughter, love, family — and the willingness to refrain from faith in unseen beings. Penn Jillette isn't asking for much. He wants to touch your heart and engage your mind. As for your soul, I'm certain he would answer, "I don't know."

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