What Would You Ask Penn Jillette? June 4, 2012

What Would You Ask Penn Jillette?

This week marks the release of the paperback version of Penn Jillette‘s bestselling book God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales

As it turns out, he’s making a stop near Chicago this Thursday to promote the book and I’ll be interviewing him in person before his talk. It’ll be recorded and transcribed for the site.

What I need from all of you are questions to ask him. Leave them in the comments. I’ll select a bunch of those, along with some of my own, and we’ll get through as many as possible during our chat. Thanks!

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  • Ryan Jones

    I just want to say that I read your posts through Facebook just about every day and as someone who was raised X-tian and reached the age of reason a few years ago, I find your posts to be very enlightening and they definitely help stay focused! So, thank you! Also, I’m happy to have to opportunity to ask Penn a question. “Hi, Penn! Big fan, can’t wait to see your show in Vegas soon! My question is What do you think is the best way for humans to reach a state of peace? What steps should the average person take to actually affect change on a global scale? Thanks, Ryan Jones in Appleton, WI

  • RHawk68

    Ask him what it was like to perform in the Bartlet White House and how he felt about the flag-burning controversy he ignited!

  • I’ve seen some serious backlash against Penn from self-proclaimed skeptics lately for his libertarian political views, some even going so far as to assert that it’s impossible to be both a skeptic and libertarian. I’d like to hear his take on this, and also whether he think that being a skeptic, atheist, and libertarian are just compatible or if any of them actually require one or both of the other two. 

  • Ryan

    I’d be curious to know if Showtime’s refusal to put the Vatican episode of Bullshit! on the season 9 DVD had any part in the eventual termination of the show.

  • TrannyTime

    My questions (and background)  — I agree with almost everything he says philosophically and I really enjoy his point of view because it often lines up with my own (limited government, war on drugs, economy, war) — but it seems that people who agree with that point of view are in the minority, not just in the USA but worldwide.  How do you deal with this?
    Do you think the United States will EVER give up the drug war?  
    What hope is there for the future if people like Obama stay in power and shove it in everyones face that THEY did drugs and didn’t get caught, but people who do get caught deserve to have their freedom taken away?  Also one last question — what can people do who feel like there’s no hope for the future and that politicians will continue to lock up and stigmatize drug users for the next 100 years (I’m probably one of these people)?

  • March

    I was brought up atheist by parents who had been brought up Jewish and Catholic. When my atheism came up in a conversation with my Jewish grandmother, her response was, ‘Well, people tend to believe what they have grown up with’, suggesting that I had not made the choice to be atheist. This led me to think about the importance of the moment at which someone who has been brought up in a religion realises that they don’t believe in it. I imagine it must be a moment of realisation and of self-definition, a wonderful break-through which may also be disturbing. Penn must have had this experience, but his children, like me, will not. Please would you ask Penn to what extent he feels that making that break-through personally is a valuable experience, and whether finding the rational position for yourself is in some ways better than never having had reason to seriously question your understanding? Thank-you very much! From March, in the UK.

  • Bob Becker

    Gretchen’s skeptic/libertarian question is a good one.  But I’m getting curious about something else. We’re developing it seems a stable of what might be called “celebrity skeptics” —  PZ,  for example, and Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette too.  I’ve started to wonder whether some like Mr. Jillette sees a problem with being a “celebrity atheist,” where the “me” part can get to overcome the “message” part [as some have suggested about the last two thirds of his book].  Does he have to make an effort to keep ego in check as celebrity rises, and the message [whatever it is] to the fore?  Does he see this as a problem?  Just curious. 

  • Tinker

    Penn Jillette is number one on my hero list. He and I think very much alike. I would also love to hear him answer this question. Of course, I personally am constantly surprised at the number of Atheist that are not Libertarians. 

  • Guilestink

    Wondering how he feels about 
    Gerry McCambridge’s exposure of his bullet catch.

  • Matt Crowley

    Dear Penn: Why can’t you be more like Teller?

  • Garry Bradley

    hi,ask him if he would like to come to Dundee Scotland for my daughters 8th birthday?il provide 1 nights bed and breakfast.also what does think of all the republicans saying that god told them to run for president?should they be jailed for telling lies to American voters?or sent to the chair in Texas….

  • I reject libertarianism for the same reason as I reject religion – lack of evidence. 
    From my own perspective, the libertarian economic theories have never been tested, with the exception of failed nation-states.  There is no evidence that they will work.  There IS evidence that effective government can lead to successful economies, a healthy populace and educated people. 
    It is hard for me to have some sort of faith in the marketplace to believe that libertarianism will somehow educate our children, police our streets, and pave our roads.   There is no evidence that the marketplace will self-regulate businesses to protect workers or the environment.  That is nothing more that free-market fundamentalism.

  • Gabriel

    In the past Penn used tactics similar to those used by evolution deniers to attack climate change science. Is he still a climate change denier or has the evidence presented by scientists changed him mind?

  • Gabriel

    What is Penn short for?

  • What Robert said.  I simply distrust libertarian economic theories.  What really ends up happening is some sort of libertarian paternalism or quasi-fascism.  In other words, libertarianism only looks good on paper, like a math equation.  It doesn’t work in practice. 

  • Patterrssonn

    Well, you have to swallow an awful lot of dogma to be a libertarian, something atheists aren’t generally fond of.

  • scinquiry

    As atheists, we recognize that there is no after-life to
    look forward to.  This is the only life we get.  Therefore, we are
    more respectful of those living in this one life.  As we are generally not
    sadists (some exceptions), one of our goals is to minimize suffering. 
    Libertarianism, or at least the outcomes of Libertarianism policy, is in direct
    conflict with this.


    I am partial to Buckminster Fuller’s outlook, however, I don’t
    see it as a realistic goal in today’s society, but it’s something to shoot for:


    “Wealth is our organized capability to cope effectively
    with the environment in sustaining our healthy regeneration and decreasing both
    the physical and metaphysical restrictions of the forward days of our
    lives.” – Buckminster Fuller

  • Pascale Laviolette

    Penn — Do you consider yourself a feminist?  Has your opinion changed at all in response to the controversy surrounding your endorsement of friend Mallorie’s article about women in skepticism?

  • Gus Snarp

    Self-proclaimed? Is there any other kind? How do we prove we’re skeptics? I have serious issues with Penn Jillette, and his libertarianism is only one of them, but I do think that the association between libertarianism makes for an interesting question. I don’t think there’s any evidence at all for many libertarian claims, so I’m fascinated by those who think that skepticism requires libertarianism. I don’t think it precludes libertarianism, but it ought to make one think long and hard about exactly what claims it makes and what evidence exists for an against those claims.

  • Gus Snarp

    Ask him about Derren Brown. I don’t really have much I care to hear from Penn, but this is a topic where his opinion is valuable, and I’d love to hear a discussion of, basically, how much of what Brown claims is bullshit, and whether what he does that’s legit, exposing psychics, for example, is weakened by the claims he makes regarding his own performances. I’ve heard some clips of Penn and Teller talking about Brown, but there were precious few details.

  • Brian

    Yeah, until he comes up with a good answer to this question I don’t want to hear a thing come out of this jerk’s face. Please ask him this question.

  • NogahdzNoughmasters

    I would ask how he looks at evidence to shape his views on things and what, specifically he does to combat his cognitive biases.    I would ask because he has (or has had) some views that aren’t supported by evidence (that seem to have already been addressed in the comments here so I wont re-list).

  • The Other Weirdo

     Because liars and mentally disturbed ind’uhviduals deserve the electric chair?

  • Elbonio

    If you could have 5 minutes with the Pope, what would you say?

  • rocketdave

    Penn, did you feel at all bad about talking over the credits for MST3K?

  • Rspeeter

    Penn has rejected the evidence for climate change and I find this similar to the anti-vaccination line of thinking.  I would like to hear a complete explanation for his rejection of the overwhelming evidence for climate change. What background does he have in analyzing climate data?  Who, names and citations, has supplied him with peer reviewed data that counters the evidence of the leading climatologist in the US and abroad.  Ask him how his stand on climate change is any different than the creationists rejection of evolution.

  • Pennsylvania?

  • Kidso

    Should atheists / sceptics etc create more charities for the poor of the world( in spite of their religions) or campaign for our governments to use our taxes for this purpose?

  • Mjr256

    How can you justify the position that the free market free of governmental oversight serves as an effective solution to corporate malfeasance when even your own show has demonstrated time and time again (such as the shows on new age medicine, bottled water, and environmentalism when people signed petitions to ban water from the environment) that consumers are easily fooled by dishonest marketing, consumers often don’t act in their own best interests, and that corporations rarely voluntarily choose to be responsible citizens and act in the best interests of their communities?

    In the following clip, Penn directly states that he thinks “that nobody wants to be more careful about how they treat their customers than business people”:

    He couches his rhetoric in words like “I like to think”, which seems to be to just another way of saying “I have faith in X” and I’m willing to risk human lives on that faith. Even his own show demonstrates this claim is plainly false. Tobacco companies are looking out for their customers? Ridiculous! And this is the kind of myth perpetuated by the corporations themselves, such as Big Tobacco. There’s a funny clip from the film Thank You For Smoking where a tobacco lobbyist says the same thing, that it’s in the best interest of Big Tobacco to keep their customers alive and healthy:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HC3xwlfcFM 

    If Penn believes that sort of bullshit, he makes a lousy skeptic.

  • mj

    where did he expose it? I can’t find any info on that…

  • i would ask him to tell me a joke. that’s his profession, and what he’s really good at doing. 

    sorry to be a debbie downer, but i’m sick and tired of trying to use celebrities as spokespeople for serious causes. teller doesn’t suck, but he’s no scholar, no professional who works in religious studies/issues. he’s an entertainer. and he does it well! but just like mine and yours, his opinion about any matter relating to religion is just a general one, a common one. when i want spokespeople for our cause, i want them to be experts. celebrity worship is as bad as religious worship, in my opinion. 

  • Patterrssonn

    Not surprisingly he used to deny (I don’t know if he still does) the link between second hand smoke and cancer.

  • Marco Conti

    Funny, I am surprised that there are atheists that are also libertarians and that therefore end up supporting right wing theists for office or end up voting for people like Ron Paul (who is also a theist incidentally, at least according to his public pronouncements). 
    I wonder how does it feel to have your vote and your support ultimately going to a political party that is now lock, stock and barrel in bed with fundamental Christianity.

    One thing that I have to admit, is that Libertarianism is a lot more in tune with “natural Selection” as adapted to human economies and societies. However, my love for the elegance of the theory is matched only by my repulsion for what it actually means in reality. When the same principals are adapted to our society I would hope that through progress and technology we would be able to overcome its more horrible consequences.

    In addition, as others have pointed out, libertarian economic theories have never been tested. One could argue that the deregulation of Wall Street in the late 90’s would have made a good test case. And look what happened: they could not help themselves and took down the world economy. 

    I would think that the beginning of the industrial revolution was a good examples of what happens when you give corporation the power to shape the world.  It wasn’t pretty. A lot of progress and profit was made but the human and environmental cost was enormous.

    So, no. I am not a fan of the libertarian ideals. For that matter I am also not a fan of anarchism. Neither have any basis in reality and both make a very good case on paper. 

  • Chas, P.E.

    Question for Mr. Jilette:

    Why did they use the very same kinds of anecdotal stories, fuzzy statistics and gneerally weak arguments that they so roundly criticize others for to support their position that owning, carrying and using firearms is somehow good for us?

  • Wadeanes

    Why reject the unsupported & falsified claims of religion, but then accept unsupported & falsified claims in politics?

  • 1°) What do you think of Ayn Rand and Objectivism?
    2°) There is really strong evidence that the 2008 economic crisis was due to unregulated economy and corporations. What’s your take on that: evidence-based stand or libertarian economic principle?

  • Sylvain

    Why does he believe the Global Warming is a hoax? When I asked him that question at TAM6, his reply was that “Al Gore is a lying sack of shit”, not exactly a stelalr reason, and at that point he irrevocably sunk in my esteem. 

  • Where in Chicago?

  • Flockofchickens

    Penn, do you retract your episode of Bullshit! where you questioned climate change and brought out the same old tired (and debunked) denialist arguments like “b-b-b-b-b-b-ut scientists said it was going to get colder in the 1970s”?

  • Patterrssonn

    I don’t know, you could say the myth of libertarianism is more in tune with the myth of social darwinism, which is crudely influenced by the idea of natural selection, but I think that’s as close as it gets.

  • Naperville!

  • Mary

    Penn – why do YOU think that so many atheists reject libertarianism?

  • Fsq

    Really? Please do fll us with wisdom vis-a-vis libertarianism’s dogma.

    No, I am not a full-on libertarian, but for you to use dogma in this is utterly ridiculous, but then again, based on previous interactions withyou you have shown a true lack of reasoning and logic.

    And wait, let me save you the time….yeah yeah yeah I am a misogynist….or some other unfounded accusation because I am not with you 100 percent.

  • Fsq

    You are putting PZ Myers on the same level as Dawkins and Penn? Holy fuck that is way lame and ridiculous.

    Penn – successful author, magician, showman, TV star and philanthropist
    Dawkins – Noted professor at a highly respected (if not the best) university, highly respected and well spoken scientist, world known and renowned atheist and advocate, and one of the most brilliant minds in the world

    PZ Myers – average professor at a low-end state college in Minnesota, misandronist, racist, and the boobie-prize winner of atheism. He is the “Snooki” of the atheist world, and you want to put PZ “Snooki” Myers in the same camp as Dawkins and Penn?


    PZ is a wannabee and sycophant and craves attention, and he is just a sad D-lister in the secular and atheist celebrity world.

  • Bob Becker

    Made no statement about levels, equality, etc. Merely noted that PZ has become something of a celebrity atheist. [Take a look at his invitations, speaking engagements, etc. around the US and the world over the last eighteen months.] I think the question I asked about celebrity status overcoming the message does apply to him as well as Mr. Jillette, and to Sam Harris and others. You’re drawing inferences from my post that were not intended and cannot be supported from the post I put up.

  • Fsq

    yes, humanity forbid he not subscribe to the absolute gospel of western feminism. If that is the case, then by all means he must never speak again.

  • Fsq

    okay, that may be what you intended, and if so, great. However, look at the quality of affairs PZ gets sent to, and for thos big ‘uns he goes to, he is playing the back-rooms and side shows of the big events.

    PZ is simply not of the same caliber as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens etc.. Thing is, you can just tell that galls him to no end and he is desperately scrambling to try and get that attention. He is the quintessential example of “Look at me in the pretty dress”.

  • Fsq

    can you give me an example of the conversations you have with god, and provide some sort of transcript of the chats.


    how can you possibly justify your view that catholicsm is a force for good based on its – and your – history?

    Honestly, this would be much harder to come up with than you think. You would be in the presence of pure evil. What do you say to that/.

    Example – three years ago I had to interview Dick Cheney, it was on some environmental issues taking place in Western Wyoming and Eastern Idaho, and I had to provide a script of the interview. It was MUCH MUCH harder than anything I have ever had to provide because I knew I was dealing with a sociopath. And yes, I had that confirmed upon entering the room.

  • Guilestink
  • Ask him to marry me.

  • Maleekwa

    Actually, responsibly owning and carrying a handgun saved my life, and quite possibly my friends life. I am certain that the police officers would not have arrived before we were both stabbed. Thankfully the guy backed down and I didn’t have to shoot him.
    I’m curious, have you met anyone who carries a firearm? Not all of us are paranoid rednecks.

  • Patterrssonn

    Penn- celebrity climate change denier.

    You’re right how could PZ ever hope to attain such lofty heights.

  • Patterrssonn

    They could also bond on the whole hating feminists thing. Bet you they could chat for hours.

  • Patterrssonn

    Oh Fsq, did you mIss me?

  • Rollingforest

    Pretty much all of the questions are political. Look, I’m not a Libertarian either, but I’ll gladly invite Libertarian Atheists into the movement. The goal is to fight religion, to agree on every issue.

  • AxeGrrl

    I’m DYING to know what feedback Penn got after his appearance on the ‘Piers Morgan’ show!

    Penn was soooooo calm and reasonable and I kept expecting to see whiffs of smoke start to come out of Morgan’s ears 🙂


  • Tinker

    Wow, look at the backlash. Liberatarianism is in direct conflict with minimizing suffering? You have been listening to the liberal/conservative  rhetoric. Libertarianism simply is someone that is a social liberal and fiscal conservative. The opposite of libertarianism  is Fascism. Most of us do not say that we need to privatize everything, most of us are saying that we need to be fair.  Understand that ‘people’ like Ron Paul are not representative of the Libertarian party. Christianity is not compatible with my idea of the Libertarian party. Christianity does not want social freedom and neither do the two major political parties. The only political party that is for social freedoms is the Libertarian party. The other side of the coin is that we think you should have freedom but you should also be responsible for yourself.

    A Libertarian does believe that smaller government is better. I personally think that things can be handled locally a lot more efficiently than at the national level. In other words when money is sent to Washington, less of it gets used for the intended purpose. I can’t understand how it is possible to think that the Washington fat cats have the best interests of the nation at heart. I mean one of the first things the Obama administration did when taking office was to give money to the banks so that they could gobble up smaller banks and create mega-banks that have no other purpose than to take your money. Perhaps if everyone paid there fair share of taxes AND we didn’t squander the money keeping the rich rich, maybe we would see an actual economic revival.

    Personally I find it gross how much I pay in taxes so that my government can give it away to others that are better off than me. When a disabled US Veteran has to work to make ends meet and still might lose his house when people are sitting up in Washington complaining that he doesn’t pay enough tax, I have to wonder how the Democrat party is the party of compassion. 

    No, I reject the hypothesis that Libertarians are not compassionate, are Christians or are swallowing dogma. You have us confused with the Republicans. I can see where the confusion came from, after all we seem to be the dumping ground for failed Republican candidates.

  • Penn, did you really go on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” and if so, what were you thinking?

  • Gus Snarp

    Sure, but what are the interesting lines of questioning with Penn? He’s not a scientist, not a philosopher, on whether homeopathy works or whether there’s a god he may have something pithy to say, but to an audience of skeptics and atheists, is there really anything new to glean there? I think not.

    I see two interesting lines of questioning, one is relating to the interface of skepticism and magic/entertainment (which at least a few of us suggested questions related to), and the other is his politics and whether or not it trumps his skepticism (I think you can see on his show many examples of his ideology, or at least devotion to spectacle and entertainment, trumping a good skeptical approach.

    Of these two lines of questioning, the political angle is where his disagreements are going to show up, they’re the tough questions. So you can ask the softball questions all day long, or you can ask the questions that are actually interesting. No, we’re not supposed to all agree, so why not ask him about the areas where there’s substantial disagreement instead of just asking questions whose answers will simply generate nods of agreement? 

     (why do we say” softball question”? Softballs aren’t very soft, and when a good pitcher throws one at you, it’s not easy to hit and it hurts if it hits you…) 

  • Fsq

    Ohhhh SNAP. Relax kitten, no one is addressing the kiddy table.

  • Gus Snarp

    No one said he had no right to speak, only that we don’t care to listen. There’s a big difference.

  • Fsq

    Gus, that is bullshit, just like Penn and Teller’s show.

    Go back and read the post saying he “doesn’t want to hear another thing out of that jerk’s mouth” and then try and defend the ignorance you just wrote.

  • Fsq

    name one major book PZ has written. Name one mainstream TV show he produced wrote or acted in. Name one MAJOR seminar he has presented to a room full of international journalists.

    He isn’t even on the same level of celebrity as men who have truly acheieved. PZ= inbred stepchild to the adult and accomplished.

  • Fsq

    and what do you do kitty?

  • Fsq

    answer the question kitten.

  • judith sanders

    Yeah, I don’t get where this notion comes from at all.  I took Earth Science 101 in 1972 at a big Midwestern state college, heavy in Ag., and the crew-cut teacher talked about the glaciation cycle AND man-made global warming.  It wasn’t controversial at all back then.

  • judith sanders

    I’m willing to hear what he has to say, since he’s often so entertaining, but  I obviously will think less of him for that article, just as I was deeply disappointed in Hitchens’ article about women not being humorous.  Even great minds can retain small compartments of nonsense.

  • Epinephrine

    Nobody argues that there aren’t instances when it might help.  Societally it doesn’t.  There may be times when biogtry happens to help, but we’re against that, too.  A seatbelt could trap someone in a car, but it is largely an effective safety measure, and we’re concerned with the net effect.  The net effect of guns is what the discussion is about, not the exceptions to the rule.

  • Patterrssonn

    I believe that science is the best descriptor of the natural world, which really is all the world there is.  Is that what you mean? Or do you mean what do I do for money?

  • Patterrssonn

    “no one is addressing the kiddy table”? WTF? F you can do better than that

  • Patterrssonn

    Lets see Libertarian dogma, how about the myth that the individual motivated by self interest will always make more rational decisions than a group of individuals acting in common interest?

    I may be wrong but I think that’s the fundamental myth of libertarianism. It leads to the myth that private enterprise will always perform better than governments.

  • Fsq

    What do you do for a living?

    And have you seen the Bullshit! episode that deals with climate change?

    I am in the sceince camp as you are, but there is a difference between calling someone a “denier” or someone who is using self-professed propaganda in an entertainment show.

    I know Penn. Penn is a friend of mine. And he is not a denier. I may disagree with some of his interpretations, but he is by no means a denier.

    Also, one of the greatest things he and Teller have mastered is thew art of misdirection, and they are truly commited to the craft. Penn does not do anythiung without a greater purpose, even starting his car.

  • Fsq

    I know, right!? But it has been a long day and I tire easily.

    At least it wasn’t potty-humor. Going scat is the lowest form of humor out there….

  • Gabriel

    Do you troll websites under the pen name Fsq or have you hired someone to troll websites under the name Fsq?

  • matt

    I too have been in a similar situation.  When a man high out of his mind is trying to break his way into your front door it’s at least nice to have an option while you’re waiting the 10 minutes for the police to arrive.  But besides those few minutes of time, my pistol sits in the draw of my nightstand and you know what, it’s never jumped out and killed anyone.  It takes a person with malicious intent to use it for malicious purpose.

  • Cortex_Returns

    To be fair, and I say this as a socialist, whether something “works” or not isn’t objective. It really depends on what outcomes you value. 

    What troubles me about Penn’s philosophy is his near anarchistic ideals of individual freedom, and the fact that capitalist systems that lack an effective method of wealth redistribution are basically guaranteed to self-organize themselves into hierarchies with virtually zero social mobility. This seems like a pretty serious contradiction, and I wonder how he splits the horns.

  • Patterrssonn

    I’m an RN

    I haven’t seen the ‘Bullshit’ episode on climate change, just read Penn’s quotes on the issue, and he definitely talks like a denialist. The most recent quotes I’ve seen have been from 2008-2009 where he refuses to give a straight answer about global warming, just goes on a rant about Al Gore and how he doesn’t believe in anything Al Gore says.

    I’m guessing that he’s not a denialist but at the same time he doesn’t want to upset his friends at CATO. Which highlights for me the dogmatism inherent in libertarianism. Here is one of the greatest threats, challenges  to face our species and libertarianism offers no solutions.  Libertarians are reduced to obfuscation and denialism.  For the simple reason that AGW is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ writ large, a concept anathema to libertarian dogma.

  • Patterrssonn

    “Perhaps if everyone paid there fair share of taxes AND we didn’t
    squander the money keeping the rich rich, maybe we would see an actual
    economic revival.”

    Are you sure you’re a libertarian? That sounds awful pragmatic to me.

  • “I don’t want to hear a thing [he has to say]” is not the same as “he shouldn’t be allowed to say anything ever,” which is exactly the point Gus Snarp just made.

  • Maleekwa

    Comparing bigotry to the right of self protection is not what I would call fair. I hold the position that the “net effect” of guns being in the population is highly influenced by whichever biased study is being referenced. I have been to many gun shows, occupied by people far more zealous about gun rights than myself. If guns made people commit acts of violence, these events would usually end with shootings. People who want to commit a violent act usually will do so regardless if they have a gun or not. Not everyone can defend themselves against a knife attack or baseball bat, etc. Taking away our right to protect ourselves is not the answer.

  • Most atheists aren’t Libertarians for the same reason most atheists are Scientologists: breaking free of theism has made us suspicious of ALL faith-based belief systems.

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