Penn Jillette has made a career of challenging “Bullshit,” at least as he sees it. The Centre for Inquiry Canada hosted an event at JJR MacLeod Auditorium on Saturday night featuring the magician and TV personality. Jillette is best known as part of the Las Vegas magic duo Penn and Teller, and hosted the Showtime TV program Bullshit! from 2003 to 2011.
Jillette spoke at the event as part of a tour for his new book Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday, which tells anecdotes from his life. The speaking engagement featured the retelling of some of the events described in the book, along with other stories. Jillette often related these accounts to secular ethical maxims.
During the event Jillette said that his inspiration for writing the book, as well as his previous book God, No!, was an exchange with TV and radio personality Glenn Beck, a Mormon and American conservative pundit. During an argument between Beck and Jillette regarding the showing of the Ten Commandments in the US Supreme Court, Beck suggested to Jillette that he write his own “Ten Commandments of atheism,” which Jillette did. He later expanded upon this idea in two books.
Secularism, the principle of separation of government and religious institutions, has garnered recent public attention as a result of the “New Atheism” movement, which has been advanced by a series of books by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The movement has been praised largely for bringing issues of secularism and humanism to greater prominence, while also criticized for mocking and being militant against religious faith.
Jillette stated that he does not see himself as a member of any movement. “You don’t really know what you’re a part of […] The Ramones did not see themselves as a punk band; they just saw themselves as The Ramones.”
He also said that, over time, there has been a broader acceptance of atheism, and that it had “parallels to the gay movement,” as familiarity and openness are important to the culture and as once taboo concepts are becoming less so. Jillette sees the movement around atheism as being “as much about cheerleading as proselytizing.”
When asked what the most encouraging and discouraging signs have been with regards to atheism in the last ten years, Jillette stated that there are “more atheists, more kindness, and more tolerance,” adding with a laugh, “but there are also still religious people.”
Justin Trottier, the founder of the Centre of Inquiry Canada, notes that “the [atheist] movement was motivated by the literature.” He stated that he was inspired to get involved in secularist issues after visiting Ground Zero a few months after 9/11, a sentiment which Jillette also alluded to during his talk.
Jillette said that both he and the late comedian George Carlin became “way more atheist” after 9/11.
The Centre for Inquiry Canada is one branch of the Center for Inquiry Transnational, an organization that spans across 21 countries. The Centre for Inquiry describes itself as an educational organization which promotes the separation of church and state and “embraces humanism, skepticism, freethought, and atheism.”
According to Statscan, 24 percent of the population of Canada consider themselves non-religious.