I like Penn and Teller. They’re a duo of magicians, and they’re really good. They’re funny too.
But philosophers they are not, nor theologians. That’s OK, not everybody is, and I’m thankful for that. But why do people have to pretend? Penn Jillette, one half of the dynamic duo (the fat one), likes to tell everyone that he believes that there’s no God. OK, everyone has a hobby. But please don’t try to wax philosophical without at least consulting some decent sources or learning the ropes.
For example, “I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do.” No, Penn. Your enthusiasm for good definitions is admirable, but you’re wrong. You’re getting agnosticism or “weak atheism” mixed up with atheism. Atheism isn’t just the lack of belief in God. Here’s a quote from the very first (note, the very first) philosophical reference book that I could lay my hands on from my position sitting here at my desk, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.
Atheism (from Greek a-, ‘not’, and theos, ‘god’), the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.
A lot of people who lack belief in God claim that they are atheists, and then insist that they have no burden of proof. This is a mistake, since atheism carefully construed is a claim about reality. This weaker kind of claim about atheism is usually made in non-academic “I have a chemistry degree and that makes me a philosopher” circles. The appropriate correction is to point out that such people are either agnostics, or they are just atheists who are neglecting their epistemic duty.
The appropriate correction is not to just buy this silly “I’m an atheist and I have nothing to prove” line and just go one better by saying “well I’m more than an atheist, I believe there’s no God.” That’s not more than atheism, Penn. That is atheism.
Interestingly, even though Penn says he’s willing to go the extra mile and make a claim in need of evidence, the entire article in which he points that out doesn’t contain any attempt to provide such evidence. What’s the point of boasting about it if it’s so little?