Penn Jillette’s anti-faith op-ed: bracing but unrealistic

Today’s Los Angeles Times has an anti-religion op-ed by our favorite libertarian atheist magician, Penn Jillette.  In “Politics and the bugnut Christians,” he goes after the evangelical Republican candidates:

I’ve used pornographic images, obscenity and poetry to try to make even the most doubtful blush, but I’ve never come close to Bachmann’s insult to the gentle, honest faithful when she said the suffering and casualties of natural disasters were her God’s message to wayward politicians. What she said was disgusting and not generally Christian at all. But her blasphemous message was delivered on the news as just that.

Bachmann was a longtime member of the Salem Lutheran Church, a small denomination that has some odd teachings. But even in the broadest definition of Lutherans, there are only about 13.5 million, and that’s not enough to elect you president. Now Bachmann has moved to Eagle Brook, an evangelical church, but even if she wins all the evangelical vote, that gives her only 26.3% of the American people. With those percentages, you need to shut up about religion. You need me on board to show that you won’t sell out all the others.

I’m not so sure about that. Remember that G. W. Bush didn’t shut up about religion, and he won handily.  Jillette’s ending is heartwarming, but rings hollow:

Atheists are growing way fast, from under 2% to about 8% just in this century. If you throw in self-labeled agnostics and those who identify as not religious, you’re getting up to around 20%. Evangelicals are about 26%, Catholics about 23%, Jews, 1.7%, Mormons also 1.7% — if you start breaking Christians up into their smaller groups, nonbelievers come close to being the dominant religion, if you can call no religion a religion, like calling not collecting stamps a hobby.

Let’s just hope our politicians keep expanding the group of people they want to serve. Rather than embracing Christian as the magic word of politics, we can move on to the truly magical word: American. And maybe we can even go a step further and make the magic word “humanity.”

Yes, but remember that all those religious groups, theists and deists alike, unite in their opposition to nonbelief. Atheists are still the most reviled group, total non-starters when it comes to a presidential candidacy.  True, we’re growing, but a recent Gallup poll shows this percentage of Americans who would NOT vote for a presidential candiate of these persuasions:

Catholic  4%

Black  5%

Jewish  7%

Female  11%

Mormon  12%

Hispanic  24%

Married for the third time  30%

72 years old   42%

Hispanic  43%

Atheist  53%

Not in my lifetime.


  1. Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Penn’s op-ed is exactly as I have seen religious self-identification change. The history of Christianity is that of “splitters!”, schisms, and sects, and suddenly, if you are Republican, any version of christianity will do?

    The only possible good news (which I have a hard time thinking might happen) is Penn’s conclusion. I won’t hold my breath, though.

  2. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I disagree about “not in my lifetime”. Information in the world is exploding exponentially. How many people were using “Facebook” in 2005? And, now in 2011?

    I believe the rate of change is rapidly increasing, too. Information about the human brain and how memory works is becoming more widespread. Once people realize that your memory, what is “You” inside, goes nowhere when you die, just as your eyes and nose go nowhere when you die, does NOT go to “heaven”, that memory is sodium ions, calcium ions, neurotransmitter-based, Long Term Potentiation-based…once this information disseminates among popular culture, the religion balloon will “Pop”.

  3. pdblouin
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Why is Hispanic shown twice, with different percentages?

    • Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      See the link the data is drawn from. It’s because the second ‘Hispanic’ term is a typo. It should read ‘Homosexual’

  4. Bob Carlson
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    There is an error in your list: Hispanic appears twice.

  5. Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    There is a newer source on the subject, which I found when I noted that the source you cited is not the original source, and it cites an older Gallup Poll. See

    for more up-to-date information.

  6. Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Interesting piece.
    I’m not sure how realistic it is to cite a poll that is over 4 years old ( pre- Obama) as a “recent gallup poll”.
    Here is a more recent gallup poll about mistrust:

  7. Teemo
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    When has anything Penn said been realistic? He’s a Randite, after all. And a magician.

    • steve oberski
      Posted October 3, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      You forgot to mention that he doesn’t drink alcohol and does not have a mustache.

  8. Russell Jones
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I hope you’re wrong. You might be. I’m in the UK, where religion is very much a minority sport. For pretty much anybody under 50 (and a large number over 50) any talk of God, Jesus or church is openly mocked. A majority still call themselves “spiritual”, but atheism is widely accepted as normal – going to church is wierd.

    But I think in the UK it’s a generational shift. 50 years ago churchgoing was the norm. My gut feeling is that the same thing is happening in the USA: this decade atheism is becoming acceptable, so in the next decade more people will have the confidence to break with their church and become free-thinkers. Of course, it’s likely that (as in the UK) many older people will remain with their beliefs. But in just one generation a huge change can happen, once it’s shown that the door to atheism is not only wide open, but that it’s safe and comfortable to go through it. I hope America will follow Europe into the freedom and curiously of atheism, rather than the stultifying, erroneous certaintly of religion. And I think it can happen with this generation. Keep opening those doors!!

  9. JG
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    “Remember that G. W. Bush didn’t shut up about religion, and he won handily.”

    In fact, he didn’t win handily. It’s a triumph of the denialists in America that it’s to a great extent been written out of history that both of his elections were stolen by dirty tricks and mass disenfranchisement (by Katherine Harris in Florida and by Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio, respectively, in the former case with the aid of the Supreme Court).

  10. Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Of course we could just cede the existing paradigm and build a secular one of our own.

    • Posted October 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      You need to explain what you mean by:

      “cede the existing paradigm”

      & also how & where do “we”

      “build a secular one of our own”

      These words don’t mean anything to me ~ just slogans

  11. MadScientist
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    The NIML (not im my lifetime) view of the world is too compatible with NOMA to be to my liking. I never thought I’d ever see a black President of the USA but I was wrong.

    I can’t remember when god became so important to politics. Did Reagan and Carter campaign on god? How about Bush Sr? Clinton annoyed me with talk of god but Dubbyah topped ’em all. Why is god so important to politics – does he still appoint rulers via Divine Right of Kings? Perhaps via Divine Decree?

  12. Posted October 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Gallop report of June 20, 2011, states that:

    while at least 9 in 10 Americans say they would vote for a presidential candidate who is black, female, Catholic, or Jewish, 22% still would not vote for a Mormon and 49% would not vote for an atheist.

  13. Posted October 2, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, a NY Times poll shows that atheists are more popular than the Tea Party.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 2, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

      that was indeed an interesting article.

      I think what I get from the results discussed there is that americans are pretty schizophrenic in their interests.

      that said, I found this bit especially interesting:

      The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

      This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

      Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.

      On everything but the size of government, Tea Party supporters are increasingly out of step with most Americans, even many Republicans.

      so the next time a glibbertarian says the tea-party is really about libertarian ideals, show them this article.

      and show them how ignorant they are.

  14. Sidd
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of a thought-game I used to play. We know that well over 537 people in Florida did not vote for Gore because Lieberman is Jewish. The result: eight years of the American presidency going full retard, from which it will take decades to recover (if it ever gets out of all its wars). Obviously there are a million other blames to go around, but it’s fun to pin it on the anti-Semites, now and then.

  15. Bernard Ortcutt
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    I’d be happy enough if we had more than one Congressman who was an out-atheist. The sad truth is that even in liberal enclaves there is still political risk and no political advantage to coming out as an atheist.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 2, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink


      politics is just a game of risk balancing, instead of leadership on ideals.

      don’t see how to escape that any more, unless EVERYONE involved in running for office agreed that getting elected was not as important as actually being a good representative.

      • Posted October 3, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink


        And that is a depressingly huge, perhaps insurmountable “unless.”

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 3, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink


          as an experiment, I decided to move to a much smaller country, where political overturn and local influence would be much stronger.

          so far…

          I see the same patterns emerging: people will believe a good story and vote against their own best interests, overwhelmingly.

          so, again, there is becoming (you can eve watch it happening!) no politial benefit to do anything other than what works best to get one elected/re-elected.

          the idea of political leadership is fading fast here in NZ too.

          National has never been polling higher, even though their platform of cutting government jobs, in a small country, DURING A RECESSION, is perhaps the dumbest thing I can imagine, economically speaking. Moreover, if you crunch the numbers, you can readily see that the numbers showing savings this year will quickly turn back to at best even money in 3 years, at a severe loss of service.

          but, the people here somehow have also gotten sold on the idea of “cutting government is a good thing”.

          but, this was originally designed as mostly a socialist government!

          it’s mindboggling.

  16. Paul Gnuman
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    It’s not for no reason that they used to burn doubters at the stake. Religionists only wish they could still do it, because they know they’ll be out of business in a generation or two, unless they can regain total control.

    I don’t discount the possibility that they could regain control, at least in the US, however. That’s why I think we should do everything we can to speed up the de-religification process, by taking note of the work of Joseph Atwill in explaining that Christianity was a deliberate fraud that contains within its literature the key to its own demise.

  17. Posted October 2, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    What in the world does “bugnut” mean? Is it like “wingnut”?

    • Posted October 3, 2011 at 4:01 am | Permalink

      IMO they’re interchangeable save for the case of Prince Charles who’s most usefully described as a wingnut

      He not only talks to the Gladioli, but also he has comedy ears

    • nick bobick
      Posted October 3, 2011 at 4:14 am | Permalink

      I think he only used “bugnut” because the paper would print what he and others normally call them: “fucknut crazy”.

      • nick bobick
        Posted October 3, 2011 at 4:14 am | Permalink

        would = would’nt

  18. Dominic
    Posted October 3, 2011 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    In case anyone is interested there was an item in the Observer (Guardian) yesterday on Atheism in the US –

  19. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted October 3, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    So in the 2011 poll, 94% would vote for a black candidate.

    So much for my impression that all the birther/muslim foolishness was due to latent racism against Obama. Makes me wonder if the birthers are really a tiny minority that get a disproportionate amount of media attention or people are answering Yes on the poll while still harbouring racist thoughts.

  20. abb3w
    Posted October 3, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Another minor aspect of unrealism is the “8%” level he quotes.

    Pew Forum data suggest unaffiliated now make up circa 16%, nearer 25% in under-30s, but also say only 1-in-10 of those self-identify as Atheist (about half again as many Agnostic). Americans who do not believe in God are about 5% (only 1-in-4 of whom self-identified as Atheist). Data from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey and the General Social Survey point to similar levels as Pew, and in the case of the latter point to a demographic wave building of tsunami proportions; however, not yet measurably to the levels he suggests in the article. (The bulk of the impending sea change is among those still under 20, who do not show on most surveys, and most of whom are not yet “hatched” from their religious shell.)

    The Unaffiliated are larger than any single Christian sect save Catholics, but have subdivisions within: Atheists, Agnostics, Deists, Doubters, and even Theists who just don’t identify with any particular creed. While the overall level of Unaffiliated have been rising, there doesn’t appear to have been much shift in the ratio within. It’s possible the “New Atheism” will change that, but more likely that it’s primarily itself an effect of the demographic changes rather than catalytic cause.

    There are changes coming, but exaggeration of the numbers can only lead to an Aesopian “Mountain in Labor” disappointment.

  21. lylebot
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Apparently George Clooney plays an atheist Democratic presidential candidate in the new movie “Ides of March”. I haven’t seen it, but from the reviews it sounds like he’s portrayed mostly positively (given Clooney’s politics and the fact that he’s the director, I believe it). Evidently part of the story involves his atheism being a turn-off to midwestern voters.

    Interestingly, many of the reviews I’ve looked at don’t use the word “atheist” at all. Some say “secularist”, some say “nonbeliever”. Even Roger Ebert doesn’t use the word “atheist” in his review.

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