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I don't know, so I'm an atheist libertarian

By Penn Jillette, Special to CNN
  • Penn Jillette: I'm an atheist and libertarian because there are many things I don't know
  • Jillette says it's a sign of compassion to help those who are suffering
  • He says relying on the government to make others give is immoral and lazy
  • "You get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right," Jillette says

Editor's note: Penn Jillette, a writer, television host and frequent guest on a wide range of shows, is half of the Emmy Award­-winning magic duo Penn & Teller. He's the author of a new book,"God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales," He will appear tonight on HLN's "The Joy Behar Show" at 9 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- 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, the mentally handicapped dishwasher I worked with when I was a young man making minimum wage at Famous Bill's Restaurant in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

"I don't know" is not an apology. There's no shame. It's a simple statement of fact. When Richard Feynman 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."

Penn Jillette on atheism and religion
I don't believe the majority always knows what's best for everyone.
--Penn Jillette

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, but I try.

Last week I was interviewed for Piers Morgan's show (which used to be Larry King's show). Piers beat me up a bit for being an atheist (that's his job) and then beat me up a bit for being a libertarian (also his job). He did this by asking me impossible questions, questions that none of us, Harold, Richard, me, (or Piers), could ever answer.

He started with "How did you get here?" and I started talking about my road to showbiz and atheism and he interrupted and said he meant how the universe was created. I said, "I don't know."

He said, "God," an answer that meant Piers didn't know either, but he had a word for it that was supposed to make me feel left out of his enlightened club.

Then he asked me what we could do to help poor people. I said I donated money, food, medical care, and services and he said, "No," he meant, what could society do to solve the problem of poor people. Again, I was stumped.

He said the government had to do it, which I interpreted as another way of saying he didn't know, but he thought that made me look mean ... even though I do care and do try to help.

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

And I don't think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don't even know what's best for me. Take my uncertainty about what's best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.

President Obama sure looks and acts way smarter than me, but no one is 2 to the 300 millionth power times smarter than me. No one is even 2 to the 300 millionth times smarter than a squirrel. I sure don't know what to do about an AA+ rating and if we should live beyond our means and about compromise and sacrifice. I have no idea. I'm scared to death of being in debt. I was a street juggler and carny trash -- I couldn't get my debt limit raised, I couldn't even get a debt limit -- my only choice was to live within my means. That's all I understand from my experience, and that's not much.

It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

People try to argue that government isn't really force. You believe that? Try not paying your taxes. (This is only a thought experiment -- suggesting on that someone not pay his or her taxes is probably a federal offense, and I'm a nut, but I'm not crazy.). When they come to get you for not paying your taxes, try not going to court. Guns will be drawn. Government is force -- literally, not figuratively.

I don't believe the majority always knows what's best for everyone. The fact that the majority thinks they have a way to get something good does not give them the right to use force on the minority that don't want to pay for it. If you have to use a gun, I don't believe you really know jack. Democracy without respect for individual rights sucks. It's just ganging up against the weird kid, and I'm always the weird kid.

How did we get here and how do we save everyone? I don't know, but I'm doing the best I can. Sorry Piers, that's all I got.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Penn Jillette.