Tuesday 27 November 2012

Forget Dawkins - Derren Brown is now the UK's most influential atheist

I'm a big fan of Derren Brown as an entertainer.  Who could deny his amazing talents as a hypnotist, magician and mind control expert, so often put into practise on his imaginative TV specials screened by Channel 4 over the last few years? He also had amazing stage presence - my wife and I were spellbound when we attended his "Enigma" stage show a few years ago.

As a teenager, Brown reports having been a Christian and part of a charismatic church.  At some point in his late teens, after discovering a passion for stage illusion, he lost his faith and (as far as I know) has described himself as an atheist ever since. 
And what an atheist!

Today Derren Brown wields more cultural influence for atheism in the UK than Richard Dawkins. Why?  Because Dawkins has increasingly been preaching to the choir in recent years.  His cultural capital as a serious scientist has waned, and he's now wheeled on as the "atheist" voice on any topical programme.  Brown, on the other hand is highly respected and sought after in his own right as a magician and entertainer.  His atheism is, to some extent, incidental, but that only make the critiques that he levels at religion all the more forceful when they do appear - and they reach a much wider audience.


Take for instance his most recent TV show, the second part in a series titled "Fear and Faith".
Having established in the first episode the power of the "placebo" effect on helping individuals to overcome their phobias by the power of the mind, Brown goes on to ask whether God is the "ultimate placebo".

During the course of the show Brown purported to demonstrate via various means that the idea of the supernatural continues to be a powerful motivational force to make people behave better, even if they consider themlselves "rational" and "atheist" (because those two terms are practically synonymous, of course).

At one point in the programme, with the help of a cartoon animation, he explains how these instinctive reactions can be shown to have an evolutionary explanation.  The idea of God was a useful notion among our ancestors to allow social harmony and group advancement.  This apparently is "where" the whole idea of God came from.  And the implication is "therefore, we can see its not actually true".


Now wait a minute. The explanation given strikes me as "provisional" at best, and probably one among a rivalling number of naturalistic evolutionary explanations of how religious beliefs developed.  But regardless of whether or not the description is accurate, its reeks of that old chestnut (so well known to apologists) - the "Genetic Fallacy".  
Showing how a belief arose (perhaps in some non rational way), does not thereby disprove the belief.  The belief may still be true for other (rational) reasons. So it is with belief in God.  People may believe in God for all kinds of different reasons, even wacky ones.  But the content of the belief can still nevertheless be true.  And of course there are indeed all sorts of good arguments that can be employed to show why belief in God is a rational position.


But this was not the real thrust of the programme - the finale of the show was an edited sequence in which Brown appeared to succeed in making an atheist lady have a religious experience, after speaking to her in a church setting for 15 minutes.  Afterwards this was held up as evidence that people's perceived religious experiences (and thereby belief in God) is, in fact, all a trick of the mind.

A couple of things worth noting:

Derren is a highly skilled illusionist and hypnotist - we know this. He had fifteen minutes to "convert" the atheist lady. But it strikes me that it would have been well within his power to make her believe that she WAS god, let alone just IN God. As much as he wanted to present her experience as evidence that religious belief is a product of our own mind, this was much more a demonstration of how good he is at what he does.

Afterwards he explained to her the psychological techniques of association and suggestion he used - at least the ones we were shown. (Even so, before he let her in on his techniques, she didn't seem to have renounced her atheism, just seemed to describe herself as someone one who had undergone a strange experience).


So we must ask, just because fake "religious experiences" can be manufactured through suggestion, hypnosis etc. does that mean that all religious experience falls into this category?
That's a big claim, and I suspect that there is a baby being chucked out with some bathwater by those who make it. Of course all religious experience will involve our brain at some level - chemicals, and neurons firing etc - that is just how we experience things generally. But the question is: "is that all that is going on?". That doesn't seem to have been shown at all from this example.

It would be within the power of a hypnotist or mind control expert to induce a feeling of me being in love with Napoleon, or the Prime minister, or my own feet (and such happens on regular basis at stage shows of performers).  But does the fact that my brain can be tricked into experiencing something like that invalidate my experience of actually being in love with my wife?  Is that ultimately reducible to psychology and neurons? 


By all means, let's allow Brown to educate Christians on the importance of recognising when psychological tricks (conscious or not) are being employed to make people "experience" something supernatural.  Evidently, Derren Brown came to see aspects of what was going on in the charismatic church he grew up in as precisely that. Of course we need to be careful of situations that could lend themselves to that criticism.  But I know of many, many Christians who would report experiences they believe had a supernatural origin, very difficult to dismiss in such a fashion (and miles away from the concerted techniques that Brown used on the lady in the show). You can read a very different report of an atheist experiencing a supernatural conversion here http://www.christianpost.com/news/former-dawkins-atheist-richard-morgan-continues-to-praise-god-49558/

Having watched the show I was left impressed (as ever) at Brown's extraordinary skills.  But I was also concerned that showmanship was being passed off as serious religious criticism.  Brown ended the programme stating that he thinks people believe in God "because it makes them happy".  I'm sure many do, but it's far from being the only reason people believe in God. Certainly I believe in God because I believe I have experienced his presence in a supernatural way in my life, but also because the existence of God makes more rational sense of the world I engage with each day and of the evidence I have investigated.  Its both/and.
Which all goes to show why apologetics is more important today in the Christian church than it ever has been.  Because when someone, having watched Derren Brown on TV, asks you where the hope of Christ in your heart comes from, how will you answer?

With thanks to guest blogger Justin Brierley is the presenter of the apologetics discussion show Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio


  1. I think most rational people understand that no one will ever be able to prove that God or gods don't exist, due primarily to the difficulty of proving a negation. However, it also is becoming more and more clear that what we perceive as religious experience also tends to have potential explanations outside the realm of the supernatural. There is mounting neurological research that suggests that the global success of religion is a result of its hijacking of our fundamental attachment and placebo responses. While some may see the take away of this as evidence that God probably doesn't exist, I tend to see it more as evidence that religion works and will continue to be part of human culture for the foreseeable future.

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  2. Given that his explanation of the origins of God plays right into the hands of Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism," I wonder if he's heard Plantinga's argument and what he thinks of it.

    The claim, which is possibly more developed than it is presented here, seems to have a number of fallacies. If it's true because evolution caused it, and we can't fight our evolution, hasn't evolution also caused his atheism? Does that mean his atheism is untrue also? That's the tu quoque fallacy and violates the law of excluded middle. I also wonder, if what the beliefs evolution causes are not true, what he thinks of those that argue morality came from evolution.

    Interesting article, Justin. Thanks for posting.

  3. "Brown ended the programme stating that he thinks people believe in God "because it makes them happy". "

    One can easily argue back by saying that some people reject God "because it makes them happy."

    I would want to see Brown debate William Lane Craig on the existence of God. Craig would trounce Brown without even trying too hard.

    1. shame on anybody who thinks that christian's are just a bunch of egocentric maniacs with grandiose delusions, after all it is obvious to any non deluded person that the fact that science can't explain why there is something rather than nothing can have only one inescapable logical conclusion, and that is that it must follow from this that the whole universe and everything in it was created by a perfect and all knowing omnipotent being so that people like Dr. Craig can live forever .... completely reasonable when you think about !!! the logic is just so powerful and overwhelming that one can do nothing to escape it's rational grasp.... it is without doubt the best explanation for everything :)

    2. I'm going to assume that this reply is sarcasm. Burden of proof. If you want to convince someone that your fairytale is true you'll need to give more than the atheist "without evidence I don't believe it."

  4. I met Him! I talk to Him! He talks to me. To someone with a true relationship, its impossible to convince them otherwise.


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