I’m 9 days late to this, but last Friday Derren Brown’s “Fear and Faith” aired – watch here.
It was 10 minutes of fascinating viewing padded out by some seriously underwhelming logic by way of explanation.
The show centres on the challenge Brown sets himself to elicit “a religious experience” from an atheist. To be fair the emotional “conversion”, when it came, was indeed dramatic. In a candlelit church, Derren spoke to atheist Natalie and through various NLP-type techniques evoked feelings of father-hunger, a sense of awe at the mystery of the world, regrets over her past, that kind of thing. Having anchored those feelings and established some triggers, Derren left and – BOOM – the “conversion” was dramatic. There were tears and exclamations of both sorrow and joy, almost simultaneously. Alone with the candles and the stained-glass images, “I’m sorry”s came flooding out along with “I love you”s. It was a salutary warning of how prone we are to emotional manipulation. This woman was an avowed atheist and her discussion with Derren contained no “God-talk” whatsover. He simply spoke about feelings of love, awe and regret in a “religious” setting and his techniques produced a “conversion” the envy of many an evangelist.
So lesson number one – beware Christian evangelists using manipulative methods!
But then lesson number two has got to be: Beware atheist evangelists too. Because Derren’s preaching was seriously misleading. Throughout the programme he put two and two together and made 600. First came the trivially true assertions: “religious experience can be explained by psychology”. In the same vein he asks “Can our experience of religion be explained by psychology alone?” And he expects the answer yes.
Well of course the answer is yes! Of course “our experience of religion” can be explained by psychology! Even psychology alone. My experience of falling in love with my wife could be explained in entirely psychological terms. And if Derren did it, I’d be all ears. I’m sure there’d be insights – certain needs from my childhood met in ‘some sort of spouse figure’, yes, yes. All useful, all true. And, I suppose, such psychology might – at another level of explanation – be put down to biology, and biology reduced to chemistry and chemistry explained by physics… or something. I’d be genuinely interested in all such analyses. But…
A) the further we “progress” into those materialistic explanations, the less satisfying they are as an account of what is, irreducibly, a personal experience.
B) the claim that, because there might be a perfectly satisfying psychological explanation, my wife doesn’t exist needs unmasking as the rank idiocy that it is.
Yet Brown’s whole show is set up on precisely this absurd foundation. Derren says he’s out to prove that “religious belief comes from us, not from the existence of the divine”. Which is exactly parallel to saying my love for my wife comes from me and not from the existence of Emma. Well of course it comes from me – my religious and my marital experiences come from me. But what’s that got to do with the truth or otherwise of the object of those feelings??
David Bentley Hart nails this in Atheist Delusions as he turns his withering wit upon Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”. Dennett, a philosopher and one of the four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse, similarly attempts to describe religion as an entirely natural phenomenon. Against this Hart writes
Not only does [Dennett's project] pose no challenge to faith, it is in fact perfectly compatible with what most developed faiths already teach regarding religion. Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that…
…It does not logically follow that simply because religion is natural it cannot become a vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented towards ultimate reality (as, according to Christian tradition, all natural things are)…
…As for Dennett’s amazing discovery that the “natural desire for God” is in fact a desire for God that is natural, it amounts to a revolution not of thought, only of syntax. (David Bentley-Hart, Atheist Delusions, p7-8)
How else would you measure a religious experience anyway, if not via natural methods? What else could provoke such an experience, if not natural phenomena? The God who meets us in a Jewish carpenter, a library of ancient texts, men and women of faith, water, wheat and wine… His encounters with us do not happen in the 7th dimension. He meets us where we are. (That’s the meaning of Christmas by the way). But since He meets us where we are then He meets us in naturally measurable and naturally explicable ways. Neither Dennett nor Derren will have any objections from Christians at that point.
Where we might raise an eyebrow is during the galactic leaps of faith they employ to tell their naturalistic story. Derren speaks of pareidolia whereby the human brain naturally sees personal significance in randomness – seeing “a man in the moon” when really there are only craters and shadows. This is, according to Derren, “probably the biggest contributor to religious belief” in our evolutionary story.
Notice the irony though. Derren is trying to tell you a story – the naturalistic evolution of all things, including belief. His story is all about going from randomness to personality. And now, here we are, persons at the end of a random process, telling other persons not to read personal significance into randomness. Eh?
The only way you could take that move seriously would be to reduce everything personal down to randomness. That sounds bleak, but Derren makes other such moves in just that direction. He happily gives accounts of morality and religion entirely based on the survival benefits they bestow in the grand evolutionary scheme. But if he were consistent I suggest he should also add love, beauty and truth to that same heap. And at that stage of course the whole endeavour collapses.
Which is very depressing. And the show was indeed very depressing. But for me it was saved by the last few minutes in which Derren interviewed Natalie. He revealed that her conversion was all a psychological trick – the emotions were real, but God was not, yada yada. Yet in my view her response, completely unscripted, torpedoed Derren’s whole enterprise. And I think he knew it.
When asked whether she now viewed her experience in the church differently, she said
It has added a kind of artificial element to it for me now… But inducing an emotional reaction to something, if it’s through external influences, is always artificial in a way… If I’m listening to an amazing piece of music, that’s an emotional stimulus that’s come from an artificial source…
Amen Natalie! Preach it. All emotions come from somewhere beyond us. To explain the feeling doesn’t explain away everything to be said about the experience. At this point Derren talked right across her and didn’t let her speak again. He forcefully asserted…
The emotions are real, that’s the point. It’s just important to me that you don’t feel it has to be attached to something supernatural or superstitious. Because it wasn’t. And it’s not even like it came from me, it certainly didn’t come from God, it came from you. They were perfectly real emotions, they are things you can carry with you for the rest of your life but you don’t have to attach them to a superstitious belief.
Carry the emotions Natalie – that’s Derren’s take home message. Keep hold of the emotions. Emotions that can be conjured up in 15 minutes by a TV showman. Emotions based entirely on our ancient and selfish survival instincts. Emotions which probably reduce down to randomness anyway.
And don’t ever ask yourself why you live in a universe in which father-hunger, awe and regret can trigger such feelings. Boil it down to selfishness in the struggle for survival, that’ll satisfy. That and the emotions. Induced for entertainment. As a trick of the mind. Take that away with you Natalie. Cos that’s all this evangelist can offer.