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.
FEAR AND FAITH
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".
RED HERRING ALERT
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.
THE ATHEIST CONVERT
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).
IS RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE A DELUSION?
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?
LESSONS TO LEARN
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,
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 www.premier.org.uk/