The “This I Believe” essay that I chose to review is both the most viewed essay and one that we listened to in class, and I can imagine that it’s generated a fair amount of controversy. It’s the essay from the speaking half of the magic duo Penn and Teller and I believe that its main message cannot be summed up better than in the sentence Penn Jillette used to title his piece: “There Is No God”. However, the piece didn’t focus on proving this belief, which is what one might have initially expected. Jillette does use the argument of the impossibility of proving a negative to justify his atheism, but he claims that he goes beyond atheism in a “leap of faith”, a somewhat ironic phrasing. However, what his essay delves into is really the way this belief in an absence of god influences his life. This is where I found the essay to be really interesting. Many atheistic pieces are focused solely on justification and it is left to the religious pieces to explain how life can be lived with that belief and how it positively impacts the individual. It almost has a similar feeling to a religious essay, speaking about how knowledge of God has ameliorated their life.
Jillette does not attempt to make this essay extremely personal. He doesn’t spend time on anecdotes or characters from his life. He uses general terms like “family” which anyone can apply to themselves, which I think is perhaps more powerful. Instead of a very personal story which may only be applicable to him, he allows us to see his general reasoning in the way a belief in no god could affect anyone. He also doesn’t talk about his belief being challenged, which I found interesting, because it doubtlessly has been, especially by others.
I think the most interesting part was the section about suffering. We often hear stories about people turning to religion in times of suffering. To paraphrase Karl Marx, “Religion is the opiate of the masses”. However, Jillette says that, “Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family…isn’t caused by…[a] force that isn’t bothered to help…but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.” I thought it was really inspiring to hear his motivation to make the world a better place instead of relying on an exterior force. Especially in comparison to some more stereotypical, cynical atheist pieces, I found Jillette’s to be very positive.