Today we were at the Atheist Alliance International convention at an LAX airport hotel
(good place to fly to for a convention; and none of the Mormon-owned hotels offered special group
rates for atheists). Margaret Downey, the ever-exuberant cheerleader for atheism and reason paved
the way for the Alliance to give us their top award: The Richard Dawkins.
We had come in very late the night before, and so I arrived at the morning's
activities as a Jefferson re-creator was finishing his Q&A. After that, some
announcements and a parade of children being brought up atheist, Margaret came
on to do the presentation. She started out with a review of the Penn & Teller
career. I rarely think about this stuff, except when Penn and I are telling
stories or on panels. But just sitting there listening, I guess we've done a
lot over the last thirty years.
Richard Dawkins, celebrated Oxford professor and author of numerous
international bestsellers that bring scientific thinking to the public,
then stepped to the microphone. He's a tall, lean, Englishman, hair
touched with gray, full of verve, eloquent and witty in a measured way,
and fueled equally by his passion for science and hatred of ignorance.
One can't help feeling that Dawkins views religion with about the same
enthusiasm that Churchill viewed Nazism.
Dawkins talked about the importance of being willing to "be offensive"
if being offensive is the right thing to do. He talked about how
important it is for people in a position of visibility to be honest
about their beliefs, especially when they represent a minority point
of view. Then he started to talk about us. I believe my mouth was
hanging slightly open. Dawkins spoke as though we were important to
him, important to the world. He said thinking of us inspired him to
decline to shake the hand of a member of the christian coalition and to
call him "an irrational bigot," which is, by its Dawkinsian precision, a
condemnation infinitely deeper than the worst cuss word. He said -- and
forgive me for actually noting this on a scrap of paper because I wasn't
sure I'd ever see the whole text of the speech -- that to his eye our
tricks looked "100 times more supernatural than any biblical miracle."
And he explained how powerful tricks honestly presented as tricks take
the "oxygen" out of religion by dwarfing "piffling little miracles like
changing water into wine."
That boy can talk. Seriously, if these were the only words left about me
at my demise, I would not feel I had wasted my time on earth.
When Dawkins finished his speech, he "noticed" there was only one award for
the two of us to share, and had an impromptu conversation (which he read
from his script) with Margaret Downey, in which he asked whether there should be a second award.
Margaret responded by pulling out a top hat, and extracting from it numerous stuffed rabbits
(which she tossed to the children) -- and one bloody bunny leg (which she tossed to me).
Then she reached under the table and brought out a second award.
Let me pause to describe the award. It was a half of a fossilized ammonite, which went
extinct 65 million years (that's a bit before the creation per the bible, by the way),
the shell sliced along its central axis to reveal a spiral of chambers, some filled with
stony fossil material. The shell was on a stand affixed to a wooden plaque with a brass
plate engraved with the legend: 2005 Richard Dawkins Award: The Magician's Tale, Presented
to Penn & Teller by the Atheist Alliance International. Margaret had found the fossils at
Maxilla and Mandible in New York, chosen the color carefully, and created the awards herself.
She and Dawkins called us to the stage and we loped up to say our thanks. Penn spoke briefly from
his heart, saying that the name "Dawkins" is the password of every computer in our company and
anybody we respect. It was touching to see the man who talks for me so tongue-tied, but that
left me no choice but to resort to blasphemy. I added, "I want to thank Margaret, and Richard,
and all of you of the Atheist Alliance. I want to thank Penn, for bringing me out of the closet
as an atheist. I was raised without god, but didn't have the words for what I was until Penn
taught me. And finally, I want to thank my personal lord and savior, jesus christ, who came to
me in a dream last night and told me I should spend the anniversary of his fictitious resurrection
in a room full of militant atheists."
They laughed and we took our awards and sat down. The rest of the proceedings
were fun, with an atheist Gilbert and Sullivan patter song takeoff, but I confess
these nice things passed in a blur. We posed for pictures and signed books, but
what sticks in my mind is the image of Dawkins, concernedly leaning over to me at
the table, to make sure I appreciated how the ammonite had functioned; how it had
moved from chamber to chamber as it grew, and how it secreted gases into its chambers
to provide the buoyancy that allowed it to float in the water.
I also noticed one other thing: The half-ammonite that makes up each of our awards
is an exact mirror image of the other, because they are matching halves of one
fossil sliced in two. It's Margaret's final poetic touch.