Penn Jillette, the resonant half of the magic duo Penn & Teller, is the master of meander. A carny in love with the carnival, he wants to make damn sure you see every glittery exhibit down every side aisle in the joint. He knows which games are rigged—he knows you know which games are rigged—and he gleefully points out the too-small basketball hoops, the blunted balloon darts, and the skewed sights of the target rifles. He can’t help it. It’s his worldview. He wants us to appreciate the glorious and farcical spectacle that is life with our hearts and our minds.
In essence, Jillette takes the scenic route to get to his points because this old-school vaudevillian wants you to get your money’s worth. You deserve a show. And if the censors are feeling generous, they’ll slap an R rating on that show; Jillette is honest—and revealing—to a fault, and he delights in making even the bawdiest of us blush. Whether he’s pontificating or titillating (sometimes simultaneously), Jillette has no time for winks and innuendos.
So step right up and get your ticket! Jillette’s joyful skepticism is on parade once more in his latest book, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday! This wonderfully blasphemous collection of essays is loosely structured around the lineup of popular American holidays, similar to how his previous book, God, No!, was framed around the Ten Commandments. It’s an artificial but effective construct that keeps these boisterous and wandering tales from, well, running away with the circus.
Throughout Holiday! Jillette intersperses libertine tales of onstage and backstage exploits with earnest life lessons and the dismantling of religious conceits. He dishes on his appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice (“It’s Schrodinger’s showbiz: it’s all fake and it’s all real at the same time”), creative uses for Thanksgiving turkeys (make sure you’re up on all your shots if he has you over), and how he was mistaken for a Klansman when he showed up in a ghost costume to read to his six-year-old daughter’s class on Halloween. There are hilariously disgusting details about an allergic reaction to bees, bizarre “sextortion” attempts, and an adventure in semi-nudity at the Beat Museum, perhaps one of the few occasions in which Jillette showed a degree of uncharacteristic modesty and kept some of his clothes on (just not in their usual places). Actors, comedians, magicians, porn stars, and other personalities whose orbits have collided comically with his make frequent cameos.
Jillette’s atheism is, of course, on full display. He sees religion as the ultimate sleight of hand, practiced with good intentions by a misguided many and with malice by a few. The title comes from his disbelief: If you take God out of the equation, there are no holy days. Every day of one’s life deserves, by default, to be cherished for the amazing privilege that it is. Thus, to an appreciative atheist, every day is holy. Jillette is in lockstep with the many humanist philosophers who have said this world is all and enough. (But to be clear, he is no fan of “humanist” in lieu of the “atheist” label: “It’s like if gays tried to pretend that sex wasn’t really part of who they are.”)
It goes way too far to say this work is Jillette’s Age of Reason, but Paine would recognize a bit of himself in Jillette’s efforts to demolish the belief without destroying the believer. If Jillette has an issue with a person, it’s not because of that person’s religion; it’s because of the foibles inherent in that person being human. (Which, incidentally, is also why he loves them.) He reserves his barbs for nonsensical traditions and hypocrisies. Opening the book with a semantic dismantling of Christmas carols, he shows the overlooked meanings that are actually in plain sight:
The thing about religious holidays is that they aren’t about how good and happy life is. Far from it. Religious holidays are about how bad life was, or how good the way-distant future or even the afterlife is going to be. The “Joy to the World” is going to come at the end times. Jesus was born in a manger and his heavenly father forced his horrible tortured death so that anyone who believed in him would experience joy either after they died or right when everyone else was going to die and suffer. It’s not joy in the world, it’s joy to the world, and that joy gets here in the future. Way in the future … like never is way in the future.
Easter gets a roasting too:
Easter is really just a beautiful spring festival about glorious fucking that’s made creepy by adding in grotesque torture and capital punishment caused by a supposedly loving god whose holy book is heavy on rape, genocide, infanticide, slavery, hatred of family, but pretty light on the love. Creepy creepy creepy, with no sense behind it at all, and chocolate rabbits. That’s Easter.
But Jillette’s best material isn’t about lambasting stupidity or being provocative. It’s when he shares scenes of joy and respect, usually in the context of his fierce love for family and friends. In relating his mother’s death from cancer, his overwhelming and involuntary love of his children, and his grief at the loss of Christopher Hitchens (and others), Jillette emphasizes the art of living in the moment and embracing the joy of life while we have it. It’s an appreciation for being fully in our one and only life, which he finds achingly and wonderfully sweet.
Although he makes an art form out of irreverence, Jillette has his patron saints, so to speak—Harry Houdini, James Randi, Bob Dylan, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name a few—whom he writes about with unabashed affection. Ruminating on King’s holiday, he offers an analysis of the “I Have a Dream” speech, which he puts forth as evidence that the religious and nonreligious can find common ground and co-exist harmoniously: “King’s speech has more wisdom, bravery, humanity, compassion and love than the whole Bible and that is damning it with faint praise.” To Jillette, religion may be “bugnutty” (the only G-rated adjective he uses to describe it) but the religious are just like the rest of us, striving earnestly for a worthwhile and fulfilling life.
A remorselessly crass yet entertaining cultural guidebook, Holiday! is not for the easily offended, but they aren’t his audience anyway. His tribe will sit back, strap in, and enjoy the ride. Just don’t ask him to show you pictures of his adverse reaction to bee stings, because he will.
David Feld is a journalist and the creator of the Humanist Resource Connection. He’s the president of Myrtle Beach Humanists & Freethinkers and is currently enrolled in the leadership program at the Humanist Institute.