The Magical Moral Mystery

When I was thirteen years old, one of my favourite hobbies was conjuring. Every Saturday morning, I would faithfully trek across London to attend classes at Davenports Magic Shop, an Aladdin’s cave of a place which was all the more wondrous for being located in an underground mall deep below Charing Cross. There I learnt how to baffle people with card tricks, make money disappear,[1] and pull rabbits from hats.[2]

Of all the tricks I mastered, my favourite was the shell game. One of the oldest tricks known to magicians, its premise is simple: behold, three small wooden cups. Beneath one is placed a small ball. The cups are shuffled and some innocent bystander asked to guess where the ball is. No matter where they guess, their answer turns out to be wrong: the magician always wins.


For all of its audience-entertaining potential, the shell game is just a trick, merely an illusion. The ball was always somewhere, namely wherever the magician put it. Try as you might, you couldn’t actually entirely dispose of it: however cunningly you palmed it up a sleeve, stuffed it under a rabbit, or hid it in an assistant’s nose, you were always stuck with it: the ball still existed. Some things you simply cannot get rid of—the best you can do is to distract people and hope they don’t notice the bulge in your sleeve.

The same problem applies to metaphysical versions of the shell game. I was reminded of this when a contemporary magician, Penn Jillette, one half of the popular comedy double act, Penn and Teller, said this during an interview:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.[3]

Jillette is a well known atheist and his statement is an attempt to claim that it is the non-religious who have the moral high ground, atheists who are better people. Why? Because they’re good for the sake of goodness, unlike those terrible theists who are basically sexually rapacious psychopaths, only refraining from rape or murder because they believe that God is constantly watching them like a heavenly policeman. So, whom would you rather trust: the friendly atheist magician with the lovely smile, or the theist who is longing to start a land war in Asia and go pillaging and raping, only holding back because they’re afraid their Sky Daddy is watching them?

To give Jillette his credit, this is a clever piece of rhetoric. It’s punchy, it’s witty, it’s memorable, it’s tweetable, but it’s also a trick. Just like the shell game, Jillette has misdirected us with some clever shuffles of the cups and then, whilst we’re distracted, snuck out the ball and stuffed it up a sleeve. “Nothing to see here, mister,” he winks, turning over each cup. Now in this case, the ball is a question—a question that screams the moment you give Jillette’s statement a second read. And it’s this: who gets to define what good is?

Built into Jillette’s pronouncement is the assumption that rape and murder are bad, whilst helping old ladies across the road, giving money to charity, and rehoming kittens is good. But hang on a moment: who gets to decide? If atheism is true, then nothing is inherently good or bad—things just are. Rather, what we have are a set of labels (“Good”, “Bad” and “Neutral”) and a list of human actions. Who gets to decide which sticker gets stuck on what action? There are really only two choices: either every individual gets to decide for themselves what is “good”, or we have to defer to something like the state. But in either case, all we have are personal preferences: yours, mine, or the majority’s.[4] Thus Jillette’s bumper sticker of an idea (“Atheists Can Do Good Without God”) simply collapses into “Atheists Can Do Whatever They Want Without God”. All he’s done is a classic piece of misdirection, distracting us from the most important question of all: what does the good life actually look like?

Well, then, how then do we decide what counts as “good” in the first place? In most contexts, we answer that question by addressing the issue of purpose. Consider a watch, for instance. How do I decide whether my watch is a good one or a bad one?[5] Suppose I take my watch and try to hammer in nails with it, breaking it in the process? Does this make it a bad watch? No, because I have misunderstood its purpose, which is not to hammer nails but to tell the time. We determine whether a watch is a good watch by how well it tells the time, by whether it does what it was designed to do, by how successfully it aligns to its purpose.

So what about human beings? Is there something we were designed to, do we have a purpose? The message of Christianity is that yes, there is: our purpose is to know God, to be in relationship with him. As God transforms us, as we live out what it means to be a “new creation”, as the Bible puts it, then our lives and our character reflect that relationship. We become who we were intended to be: not good because we hope that God may then love us, but good because he loves us and has forgiven us. On the other hand, if the atheism to which Jillette adheres so passionately is true, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion of another well-known atheist, Lawrence Krauss, who remarked: “We are a 1 percent bit of pollution within the universe. We are completely insignificant.[6]” If Krauss is correct, it would seem to follow that rape, murder and pillage are perfectly okay: after all, what one piece of pollutant does to another hardly matters, does it?

Most people’s natural reaction when they see a good magic trick is to ask: “How was it done?” And the problem is that the answer is always mind-numbingly banal. The woman is sawn in two, right before your eyes, and you’re amazed. You then discover how it was done and you’re disappointed at the simplicity. The same holds for Jillette’s attempt to construct a godless morality, bashing Christians over the head in the process. It looks clever and sophisticated, but then the veil is drawn back and you see how it was done, namely by sidestepping the very question that matters the most: what do “good” and “evil” actually mean in the first place? When it comes to magic and illusion, a good trick is a good trick because it achieves its purpose: it entertains. But when a trick obfuscates, hides, or manipulates, I think it’s bad one. Excuse me, Mr. Jillette, but you appear to have a metaphysical ball up your sleeve.

[1]      Not something most teenagers need help with, I admit.

[2]      Successfully produce a rabbit  three times and you have a hat-trick.

[3]      “Penn Jillette Rapes All the Women He Wants To’, The Interrobang, 30 April 2012.

[4]      The atheist Arthur Leff explores this in his famous essay, ‘Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law’. Duke Law Journal 6 (1979) 1229-1249.

[5]      I owe the watch illustration to Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (New York: Dutton, 2013) 15-16.

[6]      Cited in Amanda Lohrey, ‘The Big Nothing: Lawrence Krauss and Arse-Kicking Physics’, The Monthly, October 2012.

Dr. Andy Bannister is a popular speaker, author and broadcaster. Andy is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and an Adjunct Speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Andy speaks and teaches regularly throughout the UK, Canada, the USA, and the wider world on issues relating to faith, culture, politics and society.