#5154 – The Super Bowl – Dennis Miller – Penn Jillette on Religion

Edited by Dustin LindenSmith


Actually, I’m feigning excitement about that because I really don’t follow sports and I only recently learned which teams are playing tonight. But I’d like to start with two very funny videos that even non-football fans should enjoy watching. They’re from a web series on YouTube called Bad Lip Reading, and the clips are all taken from NFL game footage. I dare you not to have several laugh-out-loud moments as you watch these:


I’ve been a fan of former Monday Night Football commentator and comedian-turned-talk-radio-host Dennis Miller since his Saturday Night Live days with Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, and the like. I’ve always enjoyed his quick-witted, erudite style of comedy, peppered as it is with obscure references from all corners of pop, sports and literary culture.

Miller’s persona morphed significantly after 9/11, however, when he became a “September 12th Conservative” who liked to say that he just wanted to “off” the fundamentalist Muslims before they “off” us. He set up a recording studio in a room of his house, and often clad in his bathrobe and slippers, he started to broadcast what has become quite a popular conservative talk radio show that also podcasted the most interesting interviews he conducted each day.

I used to enjoy listening to his podcast in the mid-2000s because he presented the “other” point of view (to mine) in such an interesting way. He was indeed Conservative, but he wasn’t overly zealous about it. He remained socially liberal on many issues and was admirably even-handed when interviewing political pundits of all stripes. He helped me to understand how “sensible Conservatives” thought about the issues.

In spite of his huge intellect, however, I was sad to notice that not long after Barack Obama’s  election in 2008, he seemed to dive straight into the deep end of the Right’s pool. He lost a lot of nuance in the way he interpreted the major issues of the day, and he no longer made any effort to bring together proponents of both sides of the political aisle. By the time Obama was re-elected in 2012, his formerly comedic rants had started to sound like the insane ravings of a lunatic to me. My enthusiasm for his work waned considerably and I stopped listening to his podcast outright.

But last week I stumbled anew on his podcast feed and I decided to check in on his work. I started by listening to some interviews he did with people I personally find interesting.


The interview I’d like to highlight today is with prominent magician, skeptic and producer Penn Jillette, of the famed comedy/magic duo Penn and Teller. Jillette is a well-known atheist and debunker of myths, although he’s not overtly disrespectful to “believers” about it. Since he’s also good friends with people like Glenn Beck, it’s clear that he has an enlightened view on interpersonal relationships with respect to his own core beliefs. In his words:

Glenn Beck and I could not disagree more, but I kinda write my books thinking, “Here’s how I’m explaining atheism to Glenn Beck. Because nobody should understand it less than he does, and he really does.”

Jillette was brought up in Massachusetts in a congregationalist church, and he had a very open-minded pastor who encouraged open discussion. Jillette read the Bible from cover to cover as a teen, and when he did, he had a lot of questions for that pastor.

I read the Bible, starting at Genesis and ending up with that psychedelic double-acid trip they call Revelation, and just found that the contradictions, and also the fact that it wasn’t as pro-family as I wanted… that was always my complaint with the Bible.

With respect to the supportiveness of his pastor and with making friends with people who don’t share his beliefs:

One of the things you get from religious people is that they’ll tell you, “I’m sorry that religious people treated you so badly that you became an atheist.” And that’s just not the case with me; religious people have always treated me wonderfully. There’s no hostility, but there is an intellectual disagreement.

I love that, I love intellectual disagreements because there’s a chance I’ll be proven wrong, and that’s how you know you’re learning something.

Miller went on to ask him about what holidays Jillette celebrates with his own family; this was in reference to the title of his latest book, Every Day Is An Atheist’s Holiday.

My children are 7 and 8 years old. Our big holiday is New Year’s Day, and we have a big feast and lots of presents. And when my mom died, she had a big bouquet of helium balloons that Teller had given her, and she asked me when she died, if I would just let the balloons go and think of her. And so every New Year’s Day since then, my family goes out and we think about all the people that we loved, have a feast, have toys, and then let helium balloons go up. That’s probably the most important day for me.

For those who might be interested in hearing more from Jillette, there’s a wealth of audio clips and interviews online. He’s also a tremendous magician and entertainer. Here are some highlights:

In the following clip, Jillette speaks with Adam Carolla about the difference between agnosticism and atheism; Jillette also may be the only person on Earth who has ever successfully gotten Adam Carolla to shut up for a minute:


Here’s an interview with Jillette from Glenn Beck’s old TV show, which has since been cancelled:


This short piece by Jillette on how to reconcile atheism with libertarianism morphs into an interesting riff on public education in general:


And here’s a well-conceived, albeit cutting reduction of the Mormon faith by using Mitt Romney’s underpants as a springboard:


From the preceding:

Under his pants, Mitt Romney is wearing magic underwear. Magic underwear. And he believes that a convicted con man got golden tablets that no one else could see and sat with an angel to find out that the original Jews of the Bible were living in North America. Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy… BUT: just more modern, not more crazy, than other religions.

In my next issue, I plan to excerpt some of the superb follow-up e-mails we received from my earlier posts about quantum physics, although I won’t delve any further into any of the technical aspects of the discussion. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the pieces that were sent to me that entirely transcend all mechanical discussion on the topic.


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