Sunday, August 18, 2013

Penn Jillette's Hermeneutically Unthinking Atheism

Lake Erie sunset, from Kelleys Island, Ohio

Illusionist Penn Jillette says he has read the Bible through several times. Jillette is an atheist. In today's nytimes he's asked about his favorite books. The interviewer asks him:

You’re in charge of setting a college student’s freshman-year curriculum. Your list of required reading on religion?
Jillette responds: "The Bible — cover to cover, without someone alibiing it. Just read it. Nothing will turn you into an atheist faster."
There must be something wrong with me, because the opposite has happened. Reading the Bible through and over and over and every day has worked to strengthen me as a theist. How could Jillette and I have such different responses to the Bible? Why do Jillette's threatening scare tactics have no effect on me?
It all lies in Jillette's unthinking, irrational idea of reading the Bible (or anything for that matter) "without someone alibiing it. Just read it." Sorry, but no one "just reads" a text.  (I want to call this "Jillette's razor," blunt though it be.) All texts (even the world-as-text) are "read" through an already-existing, prethematic framework. "Sense" and "meaning" find their sense in a worldview. Jillette's worldview is philosophical naturalism, hence he finds the Bible ridiculous. But of course. 
Jillette's hermeneutically thoughtless atheism is seen in his suggestion that the one book President Obama should read is Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great. I also suggest it be read (I have read it), but as a philosophically naive and uneducated book. The idea that "religion poisons everything" is absurd and even rejected by a number of more philosophically sophisticated atheists. Jillette is apparently still hitching his wagon to the thankfully dismissed "Four Horsemen."
I am not a philosophical naturalist, nor could I ever be one upon reflection. Therefore I read the Bible differently. (While Jilette was working on card tricks I was doing textual and hermeneutical studies.) If Jillette thinks he "just reads" the Bible or any text, then he's prereflectively bought into the big lie that such miracles as the miracle of "just reading" are even possible. They are not.