Friday, September 24, 2010
The other night I watched a Derren Brown special on demystifying magic and miracles. For anyone who does not know this entertainer, he produces illusions of consummate skill. Where others might saw a woman in half, Derren Brown would quarter her, where others might suspend themselves in shackles from a rope, he would do it in a pool full of piranha. But where he really scores is in the psychology of deception. He beats top class poker players and chess players at their own games but not by their rules.
He is also a hypnotist. In his programmes, conservative people have conducted themselves outrageously, whether in bizarre social behaviour or by undertaking fiendish or seemingly impossible challenges. Whole groups have ‘seen’ ghosts in ancient buildings. Taxi drivers are suddenly unaware of a landmark like The London Eye which towers above them, in full view. I read recently that he ‘persuaded’ the passenger on a plane to take over the controls because the captain and co-pilot were struck down by illness. The man, unknowing, ended up in a flight simulator but believed, totally, he had undergone the heroic act of bringing down the plane and saving his fellows.
Back to magic and miracles. In the programme he set out to show that faith was a trick of the mind, only and bore no relation to evidence. He passed himself off to well known protagonists in a range of fields and was accepted by them as a great purveyor of their arts. Ufologists, spiritualists and the like found him demonstrating extraordinary, supernatural powers. Then there were the atheists.
Gathering together a profoundly irreligious group of individuals, within ten minutes he had them believing in God. Rather like all priests of the smack em on the head and dump them in water, brigade, Derren Brown placed a hand on the forehead of an unbeliever and the individual would experience a profundity unlike anything he or she had ever known. They fell, one after another, into their chairs and woke up announcing that they now believed there was a god. What struck me pleasingly, as an academic who likes the notion that evidence should guide human action, was Brown admitting that he had been a devout Christian until, in his twenties, he had reviewed the historical evidence and realised that it didn’t add up. Synchronous viewing, on my part, had me watching programmes on how the Christian church developed in the early days, how the New Testament was formulated by men who eradicated women from power within the church, vilified Judas (the disciple closest to Jesus and chosen by him for the dastardly deed) and created the patriarchy of the priesthood. I also watched, on Euronews, a chief honcho of the Vatican saying, brazenly, that it was the Catholic Church that was responsible for civilised behaviour in the world. Very little appeal to evidence there, then!
Here in Ghana, conversions are every day events. The preachers have big churches, wear their gold neck chains and drive chauffeur driven cars. They encourage prayer for consumer items. They are very much like Derren Brown. Only he shows us that there is nothing mystical or magical in all this. Just sad, vulnerable people who would rather subordinate themselves to belief than face the evidence that there is probably nothing out there and our lives are (as a priest said eloquently) flights of butterflies through the front door of a building and out of the back.