Sunday, March 26, 2006


A recent profile in Slate on Penn Jilette (of "Penn & Teller") reminded me that I never followed up on the promise in my Vegas post to relay my encounter with the man.

Penn is a novelist, a TV/film/stage performer, and a magician—well, more of an anti-magician. Penn runs with the Bright crowd--Michael Shermer, James Randi, Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, E.O.Wilson, and Lisa Simpson (Homer’s daughter reads Jr. Skeptic).

I met Penn while he awaited his car at the Venetian Hotel. Like a starstruck teenager, my mind turned to mush when I accosted the man. I blathered something to the effect that I admire him greatly. I think I then specifically noted that I drink only tap water, and he smiled knowingly....

Among their many performances, he and Teller produce a series on Showtime titled Bullshit that debunks superstitions of all kinds, exposing how easy it is to scam people. They usually demonstrate their point by pretending to provide some service or therapy, filming the satisfied customers. Episode after episode I would snicker at the ignorant primates who bought, praised and validated reflexology, hypnosis-recovered memories, magnetic therapy, UFO insurance, homeopathy, Feng-Shui, penis enlargement, after-life mediums, and, of course, the Bible.

But my warm sense of intellectual superiority yielded to naked shame as I saw myself in the victims of the Bottled Water craze. I watched a cast member, posing as a "water steward" in a California restaurant, present the patrons leather-bound menus from which to select waters bottled in Alaska, the Sierras, the Swiss Alps, and Antarctica. As the patrons sampled the various vintages, they readily celebrated the properties of each water--the crisp Alaskan glacier, the sweet taste of France, and the smooth Sierra rainfall. The camera then filmed the kitchen, where the steward filled all the glasses from a garden hose.

I learned that bottled water is a good idea when travelling overseas, but it's a $22 billion scam in the US. It costs anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times the cost of tap water. Unlike tap water, there is virtually no enforcement of health and cleanliness standards, nor is there flouride to prevent tooth decay. The healthiest bottled waters are bottled from tap. And the bottles themsleves pose an environmental disaster. Here's a 30 second clip from the episode for you to consider (click on the Watch Video Preview box).

Anyway, back to Vegas.... If I were thinking straight, I'd have invited Penn to speak at Kepler's. I would have interviewed him for the blog. I would have thanked him for his NPR interview, where he defended atheist ethics with a clarity of thought that I envy. In light of last week's study highlighting Atheists as the most hated minority in America (here's a disgusting example), I implore anyone suspicious of my motives to read this brief excerpt from the transcript of that interview.

But instead I just watched him drive off, wondering if the same license plate is available in California. (It isn't.)



  1. I think I'll have to disagree. The idea that Athiest is the most hated minority seems a little far fetched to me.

    In the one case presented, having known how divorces go, I doubt it had anything to do with his views. When parents use children as a football to get back at the other, they will use anything to do it.

    As far as the ruling, I wager there's more to the story than we are being told. The letter clearly had only one side. Anyone can be convinced of wrong doing when they are only given one side. I reserve judgement.

  2. Andy,

    I added a link in the text above to a report on the study highlighting Amercian attitudes toward atheists. It's good science, peer reviewed and published by the American Sociology Review. It's consistent with a study I read a year or two ago (for which I'm sorry I can't find now) that American would sooner elect a Black, Hispanic, Jewish, handicapped, gay or Muslim candidate for President than an Atheist.

    As for the custody battle, you are absolutley right that we heard only one side. And yet, without dismissing the story as complete fantasy, how do you explain the judge's own words, granting custody to the mother so that the child "could get the religious instruction he needs"? The judge allegedly ruled that a child *needs* religious instruction.


  3. David:

    In addition to the Univ. of Minnesota study you cite about atheists being the most-hated minority, a Pew Poll early last year found the same thing:

  4. Anonymous6:24 PM

    When did Edward O. Wilson die?

  5. My friend,

    Again, I reserve judgement. Too many assumptions here to make an informed response.
    A: we assume the father is telling the truth.
    B: we assume the quote is accurate.
    C: we assume it is not taken out of context.
    D: we assume the child is neutral in this case.

    All of these assumed true... then the judge is out of line. But can we say for sure these are true?

    What if the child wanted to be apart of the church, or something like Catechism, and the father was preventing the child to get the training he needed to be accepted? The judge may have removed the fathers Sunday visitation so the child could go to church and get the training he needed.

    Again, I resever judgement without more information. But if we have a bad judge, it would not be the first nor the last.

    I agree with the review of athiests, I still doubt they are as "hated". I see churches being burned down, not Athiests of American inc. buildings. Columbine? From my own experince, I have been shouted at for my beliefs, while I have yet to see any Atheists being belittled for their belief.

    Distrusted? Sure. Hated? I'm not convinced.

  6. When I was a kid, me and my friends would fight among ourselves, but when a kid from another block was involved we would all be do religions hate each other but unite in common haterd of atheists.

    Not sure if I am an atheist or not but religion surely needs reformation!

  7. Anonymous,
    My mistake. Confused E.O.Wilson in my mind with Stephen Jay Gould. I fixed the post.

  8. Anonymous6:46 PM

    With regards to bottled water not having an flouride; I thought that brushing your teeth a couple times a day provided more than enough flouride for your teeth. Unless you happen to live in Utah and don't want to put anything that says "Oral-B" in your mouth, my guess is that most people don't have to worry about it.

    Also, I must admit that I just love the extra zing from benzene in my Perrier!!


  9. Andy,

    I admire the reason and skepticism you bring to the discussion!

    You are right to question the objectivity of one angry custody-losing father. But how about a UCLA professor who documents actual cases of discrimination against atheist parents in custody battles? Refer specifically to pages 103 and 104 of this paper.

  10. I gotta disagree about bottled water. Lots of tap water just tastes bad. Bottled water usually tastes better. Yes, this is not a blind study. Yes, there might be junk in the bottled water.

    Tap water is inadequate for many purposes. I believe Starbucks filters all their incoming water -- otherwise the coffee doesn't taste as good.

    Ray Kurzweil also praises the benefits of high pH (basic) water which I also understand is popular in Japanese sports.

  11. Anonymous2:12 PM

    ...And until that license plate is available, I'll just have to be happy with my "One Nation Under God -- Iran!" bumper sticker.


  12. Remarkably, I'd never noticed Penn and Teller's Bullshit before. Thanks to the magic of Tivo, Amy and I have seen a bunch of episodes since this post and are salivating for more. I managed to make it through all of the ones we had, except the one of circumcision, which was just too much for me.

    I too like tap water, although I try to avoid ice due to occassional presence of fecal matter - maybe Penn and Teller will do a show on that.

    I've always thought it was ironic that an anagram of Atheist is Hates It. How about a license plate with this on it?

  13. Anonymous2:30 PM

    Spring water is the type of bottled water to get. In the #2 plastic jugs. And recycle them.

    Tap water in this country most of the time is not good for you. Fluoride was put in water because it is a by-product of industry and they didn't know what to do with it. Read more here:

    Maybe you will change your mind.

  14. Beurnstien8:13 AM

    Hmmm???? I'm going with the "double whammy": Jewish atheists... for nomination as most hated, based on events in the last few thousand years of history?

    Thank (God?/god?/fate?/chance?) that you (if)live in the USA, where you're just hated, not rounded up and snuffed!

  15. Anonymous11:48 PM

    Here's a few relevant facts for you to consider about tap water that can easily be researched:

    1. Fluoride is NOT meant to be INGESTED! Not only does it NOT protect you from tooth decay, but it is POISON to ingest! Why do you think it tells you to call poison control on the back of toothpaste bottles if you swallow it? And that's only a tiny bit of fluoride. Imagine that x8, and ingesting it... it's poison to the brain, especially for children.

    2. There is little, to no regulation whatsoever on what goes into your tap water. Many tap water sources are actually polluted with pharmaceutical drugs.