Penn Jillette on Theism vs Atheism

This is an interesting take on what I’ve always considered to be an argument I didn’t want to be involved in even from a mile away, but I thought I’d share nonetheless.

Full disclosure, I consider myself a Buddhist/Quasi-Atheist in a way. I’m not wholeheartedly part of the Buddhist faith although I’ve retained a lot of the principles. If you need to what “religion” I belong to (if you must stereotype), take a gander at one of my earlier posts.


The Price of Atheism

This is not how most Christians behave. This is an exceptionally bad case of segregation in a small town. Though we do see occasional cases of discrimination among the wider public.

I got an email today with this clip…

I’d like to invite people to see the comments for that video as well. It’s hipocritical psudo-Christians like this that give true believers such a bad name.

Christians vs Atheists in Prison

These are very interesting statistics collected in 1997 by Rod Swift.

Response		Number	%
Catholic		29267	39.164%
Protestant	26162	35.008%
Muslim		5435	7.273%
American Indian	2408	3.222%
Nation		1734	2.320%
Rasta		1485	1.987%
Jewish		1325	1.773%
Church of Christ	1303	1.744%
Pentecostal	1093	1.463%
Moorish		1066	1.426%
Buddhist		882	1.180%
Jehovah Witness	665	0.890%
Adventist		621	0.831%
Orthodox		375	0.502%
Mormon		298	0.399%
Scientology	190	0.254%
Atheist		156	0.209%
Hindu		119	0.159%
Santeria		117	0.157%
Sikh		14	0.019%
Bahai		9	0.012%
Krishna		7	0.009%

I’m not quite sure what to make of this.

On the one hand, I suppose the population of Atheists in the United States is already low (around 8%-16%) and many inmates will turn to religion after being incarcerated. On the other hand, I don’t know how many Atheists renounced their previous religions before or remained so afterwards. So this information is still incomplete.

I should note that Rod makes a few cheeky comments toward the bottom of the page so be prepared to have a sense of humour. ;)

I was a bit surprised to find Buddhists and Hindus in there. Then again, along with Islam, Buddhism is one of the fastest growing religions in prisons.

I am now officially an Atheist… Apparently

Or so say a few family members. Let’s dig into this particular path of reasoning, shall we?

For the record, my family is Buddhist.

I don’t enjoy going to temple. Nothing wrong with the temple or the monks or anything with the atmosphere.  In fact the monks were more than kind and inviting and were very sympathetic to my situation. I just despise the people going to temple with me. Which I do know, also goes against Buddhist principle.

The Buddhist temple I go to (I would rather not disclose a specific name) in New York is frequented by ugliest, most petty, jealous, busybody and wretched creatures I’ve ever had the displeasure of encountering. Oh they look wonderful on the outside. But on the inside, they’re as putrid as rotting corpses. Many of them are also fellow Sri Lankans (I somehow doubt this is a coincidence).

As one monk put it succinctly. “If they insist on sinning here, they might as well stay home.” And I couldn’t agree more.

Now I have an, admittedly, terrible flaw where I rarely succeed at preserving someone’s feelings when it comes to pointing out an obvious error upon request for correction. I was asked to say “what’s wrong”. When I replied, I could have sworn, I turned into Hitler incarnate. Or so it would have seemed at the expressions I was getting. I am by far the perfect Buddhist, but I do make a point to be as honest as possible. Sometimes I may, unintentionally, be rude. But I’m trying, damn it!

When being asked the question “is she married to an American” (which, incidentally, has no bearing whatsoever on what we were there to do), pointing out that “marriage to one’s own race isn’t a prerequisite in Buddhism” shouldn’t evoke such hatred. It was a perfectly reasonable and restrained response. Or so I thought.

Well this bear trap eventually got into a theological discussion that culminated with the following statement. “You’re an Atheist!”

I’d like to evaluate this assumption.

a·the·ist [ey-thee-ist] – noun
A person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

In that regard, I’m technically an atheist as I count on myself for everything. But we all know this label isn’t applied technically. It’s a blanket label for anyone who rejects the supernatural, based on lack of evidence, in everyday use. Well then, I’m obviously not an atheist as I believe in such ridiculous notions as reincarnation and karma (at least from an atheist’s perspective). But why is it considered such a stigma? Why has it become an insult?


Fear of truth, fear of those who search for the truth, and fear of those who reject anything based on flimsy or contrived evidence. The latter sends chills down the spine of religious adherents because it implies everything they belive may be all for naught.


I have not now or ever taken much of anything at face value. I didn’t become Buddhist (or rather reaffirmed my moral center and philosophical doctrine) because of stories of the Buddha, of his followers or those who follow the same path. I’m a Buddhist because of the lessons in those stories.

Lord Buddha lived 2500 years ago. Of course his words would have been tampered with, as would have happened to many other religious or philosophical teachers in antiquity. It’s entirely possible that everything that has ever been written about him and his teachings are false. If that’s the case, then one must shed all of those teachings for true Buddhism does not fear truth. This is, however, unlikely as most of Buddhism is based on grounded sense and objective reasoning rather than specific doctrine.

That came later with the creation of different sects.

As the old saying goes :

If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha
– Rinzai

The moral isn’t to commit or condone murder, but to remind us that enlightenment comes from within. Not without. Doctrine and scripture mean nothing. They are just words. What matters are the lessons carried within those words. The ultimate goal of any Buddhist is the attainment of truth in regard to the nature of existence. Once we “get it”, we will know how to correct all other aspects of our lives and need not return here. That is the nature of Enlightenment.

Now, back to the “atheist” epithet. This was all due to the mere rejection of a completely arbitrary and unfounded basis for relationships and hypocrisy combined with ignorance of a staggering level considering the age we live in. Something that deeply hurts us to a degree yet to be defined and, I believe, contributes to the conflict taking place in Sri Lanka to this day.

I think the term she should have used is “Apatheist“. As in, I really don’t care as it has no bearing on what it should mean to a Buddhist. Rejection of stupidity or silliness doesn’t necessarily make one an atheist.

Belief in reincarnation or karma doesn’t necessarily make one a Buddhist either.

Update 09/18/08

I found more evidence that online “assessments” are woefully inaccurate and, in the end, pointless.

You are an Atheist

When it comes to religion, you’re a non-believer (simple as that).
You prefer to think about what’s known and proven.
You don’t need religion to solve life’s problems.
Instead, you tend to work things out with logic and philosophy.

The Case Against Buddhism

Warning, will contain foul language and not for the thin skinned.

I had a good chuckle at it. Obviously, he had certain points mixed up, but I thought it was a good effort at explaining some of our own shortcomings.

Note to all Buddhists :
Don’t get offended or injured when someone criticises your beliefs or attacks any of your positions regardless of severity.  Forgive them and move on. If possible, try to educate them in a calm and well collected manner. Do not respond the same way his critics did. It reflects very poorly on our character.

We should find better ways to explain our beliefs or stay silent if unable. Above all else, remember we’re imperfect as well. Before correcting others, correct yourself. You might even learn a thing or two from your critics so don’t dismiss it all out of hand.

Try not to take yourself too seriously, or you’ll pull a muscle ;)