Teller speaks about Margaret and Dawkins

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.