Archive for God

Book Review: “God, No!” by Penn Jillette

Posted in opinion, pop culture with tags , , , , on September 2, 2011 by Kyle Fleming

God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales
by Penn Jillette
Published by Simon & Schuster
Kindle version: $11.99 USD

I bought this book because I’m a huge fan of Penn Jillette. Since I’ve known about him and his comedy/magic show Penn and Teller, I’ve been a huge fan. I’ve read every op-ed article he’s written thus far, I’ve tried to catch as many episodes of his Showtime series as I could without a subscription to Showtime. It probably shouldn’t be repeated, but I will anyway: I’m a huge fan of Penn Jillette.

So when I heard that Penn Jillette had written a new book, I bought it. Not immediately when it came out, because I was still waffling on whether to shell out $20 for a hardcover copy. Eventually I settled on the Kindle version, because it was cheaper, and I could read it from my BlackBerry, giving me something to do on the toilet other than play an endless amount of games of Solitare or Texas Hold’em.

I bought the book Monday evening, and read it all night. I read it for most of the day on Tuesday, too, and finally finished it Wednesday morning. I couldn’t put it down. I was sucked into the anecdotes from the moment I started.

Granted, the book is not for everyone. Even as I read the book, I found myself not exactly agreeing with some of the claims that he was making (specifically his definition of what an “atheist” is, but that’s another discussion entirely). The book is simultaneously sweet and vulgar, with anecdotes ranging from touching tributes to his mother, father, and sister (who are all deceased), to his adventures riding the “Vomit Comet,” to a couple of questionable bets he made in the past, including one involving spending an evening in a gay bar in the 1980s.

Personally, one of my favorite anecdotes is entitled “King of the Ex-Jews,” about a young man who made the conversion from Hasidic Jew to atheist, and asked Penn to take him out for his first non-Kosher meal: a bacon cheeseburger. The story is hilarious and touching, and even though it comes toward the beginning, it’s a story that suck in my mind throughout the rest of the book.

I wish I could tell you more, I really do. But it’s one of those books where the more you tell, the higher chance there is that the book will be a let-down for others. But I’ll tell you what: it’s been a long time since I’ve read a whole book in under 48 hours. Even the final Harry Potter book, which I bought at midnight, took me five whole days to read from cover to cover.

The book is definitely R-rated for strong language and sexual content. But if you can get past all of that, it’s a book definitely worth the read.

Free Will v. Predestination

Posted in religion with tags , , , , , , , on May 5, 2010 by Kyle Fleming

Last month, I got a chance to spend Easter Sunday with my girlfriend, who is a Presbyterian. Growing up a good Lutheran boy, I’ve never experienced Easter outside of the Lutheran tradition. It was an amazing celebration with a different denomination, and I experienced a new way of taking Communion, along with some amazing hospitality and some good talks with her church family.

During the six hour drive back, we had a great talk about our faith and church experiences. I mentioned that I thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality and friendliness of her church, because in my experiences with different Lutheran churches, Lutherans are pretty stuffy, and tend to look down on strange people that enter the church. I mentioned that, while I don’t really think I could leave my Lutheran upbringing, I would definitely attend a church that was even half as friendly and inviting as her church.

This then led to a doctrine discussion, and she mentioned that she loved every part of the Presbyterian doctrine, except for one thing: the belief in Predestination. Predestination is the belief that God, in his omnipotent power and infinite wisdom, created the entire Universe in all of time, meaning that every person’s life and every world event was created and determined ahead of time. With this belief, there is no free will, because whatever you’re going to do has already been planned.

On the other side of this coin is the notion of Free Will, which says that there is no interference from a Higher Power, and that we control our actions and our destinies. Our actions control our fates, and it is completely our own faults if we end up in riches or in poverty.

(Then again, in my Ethics class, we were introduced to the relatively new idea of Neuroethics, which introduces the idea that our brains make a decision milliseconds before we are consciously aware of it. Which means, if our brains are making decisions without our knowing, we don’t have a say in what we say or do, which completely negates the idea of free will. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

I’ve never really been sold on the idea of Predestination. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that my actions are not completely my own. If it’s already been decided ahead of time what I’m going to do with my life, my thinking is, why bother live it? It’s not really the “big picture” I’m opposed to, it is every little nuance in my life that has been planned out that I’m opposed to. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that every little thing I do is planned out: every time I blink, every time I eat, every time I pick my nose, it’s all been decided for me. I need a little wiggle room in my existence. It can’t all be so meticulously structured.

Then again, I’m not completely sold on Free Will. It is the other extreme in the spectrum. Where Predestination is God’s complete control over existence, Free Will is the complete removal of God from the equation. I like the idea of absolutely no structure about as much as I like the idea of complete structure. The idea that my life is completely under my control is frightening, because in the 20 years I’ve been alive, I’ve made some pretty stupid decisions. If my life were under my control, I’ll surely drive myself into the ground. I need some sort of guidance and structure, but not the complete structure of Predestination.

I believe that there is a middle ground between Free Will and Predestination, a sort of “outline” with which we run our lives. It is a blend of Free Will and Predestination: God created our lives, and God wants us to achieve a number of major life events, but it is up to us to get there. I like knowing that I need to do certain things in my life, but I also like the idea that it is up to me to achieve those things.

This belief also helps me come to terms with all of the death in the world. People who die young, even if it looks like they had so much to live for, have completed everything they needed to do in life. Meanwhile, people who seem like they’re never going to die are obviously missing something, and will continue to live until they achieve that goal.

This shouldn’t be confused with stuff you want to do. That is different. If it were up to us, none of us would die, because we would always have something new that we want to do, and cannot die until we do it. Instead, it is what God has planned for us, the people we are to meet and affect, the charitable things we are to do, and so on.

I believe we write our own stories, and like any good story or academic paper, it is the outline that must come first.