Last night I saw Penn & Teller do their magic show. It was lots of fun. In addition to their stage 'magic,' they are also known for exposing quacks, frauds, and claims of the supernatural. In addition, they are big believers in doing the moral thing. That’s what Penn says since Teller doesn’t say much of anything.
They are libertarians and atheists. According to an article in Wired magazine,1 Penn has Nevada license plates that are customized to read “ATHEIST” and “GODLESS.” “Sometimes they’ll even sign autographs with ‘There is no God.’” As one would expect, Penn believes that we got here, not by a creative act of God, but by the process of evolution. He believes in evolution. It’s his religion.
Penn has published two books on atheism” God, No! and Every Day is an Atheist Holiday. Even while trying to escape religion, Penn is dependent on religion. He must borrow moral capital to make his moral worldview work since there is no basis for morality in an atheistic evolutionary worldview. As Cornelius Van til often said, "Unbelievers can count, but they cannot account for counting."
One of the statements made during the show is that they want to do the moral thing as magicians. There are charlatans out there who claim to have supernatural abilities to read minds and contact the dead. Penn makes it clear that they are frauds who are doing immoral things. But if every day is an atheist holiday, then every day is a day without God and a moral law to go along with it.
There’s no one beyond me who will judge, so why should I care if I’m ripping people off in the name of ‘supernaturalism.’ Penn might find it wrong, but there is nothing in his worldview that says it’s wrong. It’s what he personally believes. A psychic who claims to read minds is just trying to make a living. Who says he or she can’t lie, cheat, and steal? Penn Jillette? He’s just a 6’ 7” “bag of meat and bones” animated by electricity.2
There is one thing that Penn does know: There is no such thing as magic. He and Teller do not make objects appear and disappear. Everything they do is a trick, sleight of hand, prestidigitation (“quick fingers”), legerdemain, or any other word of phrase you might want to use to explain their act. There’s also some mechanism known to them but not known to their audience that lets them fool the observer into believing that something seemingly magical took place. Nothing magical ever takes place. To claim that they have special powers would be for them a grave “sin.”
As believers in evolution, they must believe that matter appeared out of nothing and life came from non-life. Penn & Teller would never claim that they could make a single molecule appear out of thin air, but they must believe that the birds, the bees, the trees, and you and me came into existence and evolved from nothing into a superheated, ultimately sterile chemical soup.
Penn & Teller could stand on stage and shake a jar of these origin chemicals until the hell they don’t believe in freezes over, and the stuff inside would never come to life.
Of course, there is the more fundamental problem of accounting for the stuff in the jar, but we’ll give them that much. What they so cleverly debunk using their illusionist principles, they have not applied to the evolutionary worldview that makes fantastic claims that in any skeptic’s dictionary would be defined as magical. Consider the following on “Probability and the Origin of Life” by Robert E. Kofahl:
For roughly fifty years secular scientists who have faith in the power of dumb atoms to do anything have been carrying on scientific research aimed at finding out how the dumb atoms could have initiated life without any outside help. Since they believe that this really happened, they believe that it was inevitable that the properties of atoms, the laws of physics, and the earth’s early environment should bring forth life. More sober minds, however, have realized the immense improbability of the spontaneous origin of life (called “abiogenesis”). Some have made careful investigations and mathematical calculations to estimate what the probability is for abiogenesis to occur. Their calculations show that life’s probability is extremely small, essentially zero.3
As magicians, Penn & Teller know that their tricks are designed, either by them or someone else. They also know that those who design and build the equipment for their stage magic use existing material. Those who develop tricks don’t create their tricks out of nothing, and Penn & Teller wouldn’t expect it to be any other way. In fact, if some seller of magic tricks came to them and claimed that he could teach them how to make a rabbit really appear out of thin air, they would dismiss him as a kook. But they have no problem believing that the cosmos and life as we know it did appear out of thin air with no intelligence behind the process.
It was still a great show, even though their disdain for the supernatural is fraudulent. They really do believe in magic.
- Geoffrey Gagnon, “Faces of the New Atheism: The Illusionists,” Wired (November 2006). [↩]
- “Kill Switch, X-Files (Season 5, Episode 11). [↩]
- Robert E. Kofahl, “Probability and the Origin of Life.” [↩]