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Fear and Faith: Derren Brown undone in 60 seconds by his own subject

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, Derren!  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.

And, crucially....

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.

57 thoughts on “Fear and Faith: Derren Brown undone in 60 seconds by his own subject

  1. myatheistlife

    Right, there is all the evidence and proof that we need that your wife exists... the credible evidence and proof for gods ... none at all. You make a category mistake which makes the entire post useless.

  2. Cal


    Your right if we hinged ourselves in McPlato land, a world of shadowy metaphysical concepts or gaming on Olympus to find Zeus.

    However, we point to the cross and the resurrection. Whether or not God existed is all around the man Jesus of Nazareth.

    Don't nebulize God into a bland theism with a distinct flavor. Deal with Christ or we'll just end up agreeing.

  3. Erik

    thanks for posting this (just to be most accurate - this was first aired on the 9th November, just so you're accurate, keep up the good work)

  4. Sarah

    Interesting post. I also watched the program and was left pretty unconvinced.

    I recently read Derren's book 'Trick of the Mind'- an fascinating read if anyone is interested in his methods, which go far beyond NLP.

    In the book Derren talks about the Christian faith he used to have and why he rejected it. He saw his faith as being based upon circular beliefs; first we have a belief, then we look for evidence that backs up this belief (discarding opposing evidence), this evidence then encourages the first belief. Circular.

    Am I the only one who sees this a lot in my own faith and the faith of my friends? We, as young and excitable evangelicals, are more than happy to tell anyone that will listen that there is lots of historical evidence for the life of Jesus. Have we actually found this evidence ourselves? No, we've just heard this from other Christians and are happy to repeat it as it confirms our own beliefs.

    I would be interested to hear other thoughts on the idea of circular belief.

  5. Glen

    Hi Sarah, welcome to the blog. I think you'll find circular reasoning in more than just your Christian friends. Derren's attacks on faith are full of them! Scientists call it 'confirmation bias' but the bible's been calling it 'self-justification' for millennia longer! It's how we are wired.

    This show is a great example of an otherwise very intelligent man making some pretty basic logical blunders, doing the shabbiest kind of 'experiments' and telling just-so stories to tie it all together with his naturalistic commitments. Fine, tell stories and be a showman Derren, but don't *then* tell me that this is the voice of reason. The entire programme was an appeal to emotion with a *very* thin veneer of "science."

    On the subject of circular reasoning, realise that everyone does it. The Christian looks at the world through biblical lenses, the atheist through naturalistic lenses. We cannot escape the lenses. What we have to do is weigh the explanatory power of those visions of reality. Do these lenses really help me to see?

    And when Derren wants us to prize the personal and the emotional, all the while telling us that the world is constucted from randomness and selfishness you have to conclude his lenses are abysmal.

    That's my two cents!

  6. Si Hollett

    ^^^ And given that the show was pretty much one long appeal to emotion, how is the show itself - the argument Brown gave - any different from what he was arguing against?

  7. julie inan

    I watched the show, dreadful little man. My son likes the hokum. I found this episode particularly disturbing because, as a refugee from the Charismatic Movement, it was so very familiar. This type of 'event' happens in churches all the time leading to false professions and many people mistakenly believing they are saved and therefore real Christians. Very sad and very dangerous - but not totally unexpected since more and more of us are basing our wants and needs on experience and what our heart tells us! Few of the population realise that the heart is deceitful and wicked above all things - but in fact they should because anyone of us, at any time, can convince ourselves of anything and, more worryingly, justify our behaviour and our belief system.

  8. Cal

    Julie Inan:

    In his own way Mr. Brown is serving the Kingdom by showing that this sort of manipulation, used en force ever since Finney, is a parlor trick. Maybe it will drive this sort of thing out of the Lord's Church. We can only hope!

  9. Marco

    Derren's behaviour strikes me as odd - I've been following Derren for years and he is normally quite careful with the "supernatural" themes. (Forgive the use of quotation marks, I will use the word supernatural to put together religion, ghosts and magic - I'm not being derogatory, I just needed a shorthand). In his series about seances for example, he claimed that while he cannot disprove that during some seances dead spirits might actually have been summoned, it is possible to obtain the same effects with trickery and deception. He did exactly the same thing in his series about faith healers - he said several times that some MIGHT be genuine, however the same results can be obtained with the usual mixture of NLP and tricks.

    I think the message here was the same. It might have been communicated badly this time, but I personally don't think Derren is on a mission to "disprove" God. He's not proving that it is impossible that God would touch our souls and make us see the light, simply that it is possible to obtain the same effect with NLP.

  10. Paul Austin

    I can't comment on circular reasoning but I did search out objective data on Jesus. I found the Archko Volume, which is the account of Jesus by his enemies. These accounts that Jesus did what the gospels say He did are by Roman soldiers, Roman officials, priests, Josephus and people from outside Palestine who were there for Passover.
    There are other books which document the details of the life of Christ, but after I read the Archko Volume, I didn't need any more proof.
    My question about circular thinking is, if all our opinions come from ourselves, how is it we have any concept of God in the first place? If God didn't exist, how could I ever think of Him?

  11. Chris

    He did say that he is not trying to disprove any sort of God figure. It was an exploration of why people believe, and of belief.

    I myself am not a Christian anymore, but I know a great many who choose to believe not having had any kind of 'religious experience' like the one manufactured at the end of the show. So a lot of the stuff that was covered early on in the show, about belief/faith being hardwired into us, makes a lot of sense. We want to believe what we are told.

    In one of your comments you describe them as the "shabbiest of experiments". I feel like you've missed the point. The majority of them are recreations of experiments, worked on a small scale for T.V. He even says so at one point in the show, like many other experiments. It is still entertainment, and to listen to the facts of a psychological experiment would be very dull compared to seeing an example of it.

    Also! You try and compare love, truth and beauty with belief. This feels very shortsighted. I feel love. I know that my love for a person gives me a desire to care for and spend time with that person. But it is an emotion, a feeling. Something I feel towards another physical human being. And yes, that is something that can be ascribed to ideas of natural selection, the continuation of a species. Without love, people would be less inclined to look after or care for another person. It creates a drive to form a family, a larger unit that is founded on love, further imbuing a comfort with love in further generations and so on.

    I am very tired, so some of my wording may be off, for that I apologise. I just felt that this was a very defensive piece of writing. It was a show of someone saying they don't believe in a God figure, but was an exploration of what belief or faith is. I felt it was affirming towards believers, or at least people who want to believe but are unsure, that belief could be an emotion. Even if you are wrong, it can make you happy.

  12. Glen

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks, the first episode (about placebos) aired 9 November. The follow-up (to prove that God is the ultimate placebo) was on 16th November. Both are fascinating in their own way.

    Hi Julie,

    Welcome to the blog. Yes you're right that there's a valuable warning we Christians should take from this. For that we can thank Derren.

    Hi Marco,

    Welcome to the blog. His declared intention for the programme was to prove that God is the ultimate placebo. That's how he set it up from the week previously and that's how he introduced this episode.

    Hi Paul,

    That reminds me of the old saying, If God didn't exist, then neither would atheists!

    Hi Chris,

    Welcome to the blog. Again, I'd repeat what I said to Marco - the express purpose of the two weeks was to prove that God is the ultimate placebo. in order to do so of course he's trying to show that 'placebo-effects' are in operation when people express experiences of God. But for him that fits into a bigger argument - that God is basically a sugar-pill.

    When I compare "love, beauty and truth" with faith - my point is that Derren wants an evolutionary explanation of the latter. But to be consistent, he's going to have to accept an evolutionary explanation of the former as well. And by the time he's told us that "truth" is also just a function of "survival of the selfish" then he's completely undercut the concept of truth upon which his arguments depend. See what I mean?

    If we are *simply* the product of slime + struggle + selfishness then it's not just religion that ought to be boiled down to its constituent parts but love, beauty, truth, personhood and those emotions he wants us to hold onto... they too are just sophisticated slime.

    Thanks for engaging me with grace - I realise I was very forthright in the post.


  13. Chris E

    I love how a lot of Christian commentary on the topic of these shows takes his stage persona and then goes all ad hominem. His non-show persona seems to be very much along the lines of the average middle-of-the-road charismatic-lite 'nice' christian - but then perhaps it would be too close to home to critique that.

    That said, I think the problem with this series is that he basically has two or three ideas and they are rapidly wearing thin. When all is said and done, it was a not particularly good send up of a particular christian sub-culture that we are all aware of.

  14. Glen

    Hi Chris, I'm a big fan of Derren's stuff. I've seen virtually everything he's done. But I don't mind pricking some bubbles when they get as preposterous as "God is the ultimate placebo, and I'll prove it with 15 minutes of mind-tricks".

    What other Christian commentary have you read on this? I haven't seen anything myself?

  15. Chris E

    Hi Glen - Sure, I agree with you as far as this show is concerned - though again we shouldn't ignore the fact that some of it raises disturbing questions for certain sections of the church and by extension for the rest of.

    I've seen various discussions of this series on christian boards like ship of fools etc. and the 'dreadful little man' sort of comments are reasonable common.

  16. Glen

    No absolutely, the application to manipulative evangelism certainly deserved longer than the few lines I gave to it. To be fair I think Julie's comment nailed that aspect of the critique! :)

  17. ADRIAN

    Your argument is all over the place.

    If you’re a Christian who defines their ‘religious experience’ as a feeling of love toward a deity, regardless of its reciprocation, you’re on your own. This is actually called “faith”. For everyone else, it tends to involve the feeling of being a recipient to their creators love in some way. Most theists WOULD measure a ‘religious experience’ by the love they felt from their God. When has Christianity ever proclaimed to be only a one-way communion? When did The Bible or a Christian last say “you might not feel any love from God”?

    I don’t even know where to start with your argument equating disproving evidence for God is the same as disproving evidence for the existence of your wife; you have deliberately chosen something which is beyond any doubt whatsoever as material fact requiring no faith, as if this is a balanced comparison. How about comparing it to disproving evidence of the existence of a long lost relative who never visits and no-one has ever seen? Then, a demonstration that you might have been misled in your communications with them, which you would have a right to know about, would inevitably affect your decision over whether this relative was actually real.

    Similarly, your equating evolution with randomness demonstrates a familiar (deliberate) lack of understanding of evolution, which no-one has ever claimed is anything to do with randomness; by definition, it has a progressive structure, constantly improving itself - though I suspect you know this, as do those people who claim it’s about a tornado somehow building a jet plane. It has randomness built into it in the same way that random interactions build a civilisation over thousands of years.

    And why exactly would it be a problem to suggest identifying love, beauty and meaning (let’s not start on “truth”) are not natural survival habits? I would argue exactly that. You’ve already said that love is at least partially about identifying a suitable mate. Most people find beauty in those things which happen to suggest good health eg happy children, fertile scenery and the exchange of caring gestures. There’s nothing “selfish” about those things, especially when not at the expense of anyone else. If for you it devalues those feelings, well, that’s up to you, I don’t have a problem with it if everyone comes out happy. To say it’s depressing; well, you may as well say you just don’t like the idea. You say it would make the whole endeavour collapse, but somehow forgot to finish your point.

    Though you acknowledge that the feelings were said to be based on real feelings, there’s nothing Derren said that was different from what Natalie said. There’s no mystery to where it came from; it was from the specific feelings and experiences she talked about beforehand, redirected, not conjured up by Derren. Neither thought that odd that emotions should exist any more than they did before the experiment . If you think the existence of emotions prove an invisible deity, that’s entirely up to you, but it’s nothing to do with this show.

  18. Glen

    Hi Adrian, welcome to the blog.

    The point with the wife illustration is simply that describing a subject's experience - even if in purely psychological terms - says precisely nothing about the existence or otherwise of the perceived object of their devotion. To point to a psychological explanation for religious experience - no matter how thorough - is entirely beside the point if you want to discuss the actual existence of God.

    To ascertain the truth or otherwise of God you'd have to (as you point towards in your first paragraph) look at the love that was coming down from God. At that point you're dealing with revelation. This programme has nothing to say about God's revelation and therefore nothing to say as to whether God is a placebo or not.

    To put my argument another way - what appear as "placebo effects" could also be explained as the proper effects of real and powerful drugs. Imagine in front of you stands a person in a drug trial who reports positive effects. The fact that placebo effects could account for it would indeed prevent you from *concluding* that they'd taken the non-placebo drugs. But to ascertain that truth you'd have to examine the pills themselves. That's my point - to say that placebo effects exist says nothing about whether the drug in question is a placebo.

    You say "let's not start on truth". Why shouldn't we start on truth?

  19. Glen

    On randomness... in the post I was just picking up on Derren's citing of pareidolia as the attribution of personality and agency to that which is random. If I've slid into speaking of randomness as the whole story when it comes to the neo-Darwinian synthesis I apologize. Every time I fall for that mistake, please do imagine a bracket next to "randomness" which contains the phrase "(when filtered through aeons of relentless selfishness in the struggle for survival.")

    Even with that caveat I think my points stand about beauty, goodness and truth etc. Especially truth. Any equation of truth value with survival value is suicidally disastrous for a belief-system. That's why I asked why we shouldn't start on truth.

  20. Paul Austin

    I think Adrian's response was just as diffusive as Glen's. All these arguments have no force to me.
    When Adrian says the Bible or some Christian does not say, 'you might not feel any love from God', I think he's just plain wrong. I have heard pastors and teachers say just that. That has been the experience of Christians throughout the ages. 1 John says the love of God is obeying the commandments, with no promise of warm feelings. My life got worse emotionally after I became a Christian because I no longer belonged to the real world of warm feelings and psychological suggestions; I was no longer of that world.
    Maybe a good question to ask is, how do you know you're a Christian. For me it was Eph. 1.4. I've never had warm feelings over being chosen before the foundation of the world, but if I ever do it will be because I believed in what that says. My 'warm feelings' won't make that verse true, the truth of it might eventually create some warm feelings, though.
    Ultimately it's not Darren's ability to recreate feelings in a church, it's about where I'm going through life and death because God declared it so. The proof of that? It will be my life and death and resurrection.
    Beyond that I have no answer to Adrian or Darren or anyone else.

  21. Glen

    One more time on Derren's bad logic

    Proposition 1: Placebo effects exist
    Proposition 2: This drug trial subject reports positive feelings
    Conclusion: This subject is taking a placebo.

  22. Paul Wright

    Somebody's argument is confused, but I haven't watched the programme so I can't tell whether it's Derren Brown's, or yours, or both.

    It's about evidence. We call some observation "evidence" for a proposition not only if it's likely we'd see it if the proposition were true, but if it's more likely we'd see it if the proposition were true than if it were false. The greater the first likelihood is than the second, the better the evidence is. We can dress it up in Bayes' Theorem if we're William Lane Craig or Eliezer Yudkowsky, but that's the basic idea.

    [So, for example, Craig says that if you're going to claim the evidence for the Resurrection is weak, you need to consider how likely it is that we'd have the observations we do if Jesus didn't rise from the dead. Craig thinks they're fantastically unlikely in that case, and that's the basis of his argument: the second likelihood is really tiny; the first is, conservatively, not tiny; and there's your good evidence.]

    Assuming Natalie wasn't a stooge, DB can make an argument that religious experiences are not evidence for the existence of God. Even though we'd most likely see them if there were a God, that doesn't mean they're good evidence. DB shows that we'd also likely see them if God wasn't involved, so it's not more likely that we'd see them if God exists than if God doesn't, so the experiences that DB can reproduce are not evidence that God exists.

    If DB claims that he has proved that God does not exist, he is mistaken. But if Christians are relying on these experiences as evidence, they're mistaken. Where you quote DB directly, that seems to be what he is saying ("don’t feel it has to be attached to something supernatural"). An awful lot of Christians talk about being strangely warmed as if that were evidence for God, and not just those unsound charismatics, either.

    The analogy to your wife doesn't work: it's much more likely that you'd have your experiences of her if she existed than if she did not, so your experiences are good evidence that she exists. I'd also guess that you saw and heard her and so believed she existed prior to having feelings for her, so the causality isn't backwards, as it is when Christians point to feelings from God.

    Your stuff about randomness makes no sense to me, I'm afraid (not least because, as others have said, evolution isn't random): why suppose that, if we evolved and there is no God, there can be no truth, beauty, or morality? If an outlook is bleak, is that evidence that it's false?

  23. Tom lake

    Entering ths very late, but just wanted to make a comment on Sarah's post of a few days ago.

    I totally agree that often we Christians are circular in our logic and ill thought through. In fact, for me, the whole 'I can show you proof for my faith' has never been compelling. I just don't think many people become Christians because of the reliability of the NT documents or proofs of the resurrection. These things are helpful once you become a Christian, but conversion is a spiritual activity. This is Paul's point in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians.

    As for circular logic, you're right, but everyone, including atheists (though they rarely admit it) operate with circular logic. Thus Derren has become an atheist, then he looks for proof of atheism (such as the experiment in his show) and then he claims atheism is proven. Evolutionary biology is another example of this, but getting atheists to accept that would require conversion! There is a difference though. At least we can admit that we operate with circular logic. Atheists never do, and, for me, that makes it dangerous.

  24. Glen

    Hi Paul,
    Welcome to the blog.

    That's a very helpful point about probabilities. If they can be ascertained in advance of examining the evidence, that puts you on a much surer footing.

    E.g. if you know that the great majority of subjects in your drug trial are taking placebos then you are much more confident that the subject in front of you (exhibiting a positive response) is simply experiencing a placebo effect. But if the majority are taking the real thing, you'd weigh the evidence differently.

    I fully agree with that, but I'd just say that in this case the probabilities involved are pretty much the point at issue! And DB didn't seek to address the likelihood of God's existence, he simply sought to show that God was the ultimate placebo.

    Your assessment is spot on:

    "If DB claims that he has proved that God does not exist, he is mistaken. But if Christians are relying on these experiences as evidence, they’re mistaken."

    DB set up the whole two part series to show that God is the ultimate placebo. So I think he does fall foul of your criticism. AND I'm very happy to say that Christians who rely on experiences that can be conjured by TV showmen are also VERY mistaken. And if DB simply wanted to show that there IS a placebo effect, then the Christian error would have been the one I majored on. The fact is DB wanted to argue from the existence of placebos to the non-existence of the real thing.

    On randomness - I didn't bring that up as a shorthand for evolution (my short hand for evolution is selfishness). DB brought up randomness when he said that pareidolia is "probably the biggest contributor to religious belief”.

    You say:

    "why suppose that, if we evolved and there is no God, there can be no truth, beauty, or morality? If an outlook is bleak, is that evidence that it’s false?"

    I'm just pointing to DB's own trajectory. He wants evolutionary explanations for religion and morality. I'm saying he must go the whole hog and have evolutionary explanations for truth as well. My argument is not so much that it's bleak and therefore false. My argument is that, on an evolutionary understanding of truth, we can't *have* "false" - only "maladapted for survival." Which isn't the same thing.

  25. Sarah

    Thanks for your comments on circular belief/logic/reasoning/thinking Tom, Paul and Glen.

    Good to know that we can acknowledge circular logic without it disproving our own beliefs.

  26. julie inan

    Chris E - Of course I know and understand we are all dreadful people - hence my remark about the state of our hearts, the comment I made was really my personal opinion of DB - he comes across as a kind of shady, slightly creepy snakeoil salesperson to me - I get the impression that he finds his deception of people for entertainment as a great, private joke. Not sure I have worded that properly, anyhow, I apologise if I offended you.

    Glen - thanks for the welcome I tend more towards lurking generally speaking.

    I agree with Paul Austin. One of the things I dislike the most about the Charismatic movement is it's reliance on good feelings - become a Christian and all your problems will be solved and disappear. Well, frankly that just isn't the case. In fact for very many of us when we become Christians life becomes quite hard - and even in dangerous. As the wife of a Muslim I can tell you that much of my own Christian walk has been filled with fear, anxiety and worry. I don't 'feel' the LORD in my life - but I KNOW He is in complete control of it and when I look back I see His guiding and protecting actions in it. The danger with programmes such as this particular DB episode is that the general public WILL associate being a Christian with the kind of emotional reaction we witnessed at the end. It's a bit like the Church of England and their debate on Women Bishops - this kind of thing detracts from what is really important - that is that this nation is, on the whole, godless and in need of reformation from the top down and that its population need Christ in all His loveliness.

    I hope I have made sense.

  27. Tim Coomar

    Paul et al. - on the subject of randomness and evolution...

    The currently accepted theory of evolution is all about natural selection acting on the variety generated by copying errors [mutations]... right? Well, *mutations 'always' occur at random*. Spin it however you like but at the heart of evolution is randomness. Natural selection itself might be mechanistic... but random mutations are the raw material of natural selection and without these the mechanism cannot work.

  28. Paul Wright

    Back again, having watched it.

    I don't think DB showed anything about religious conversion with Natalie at all. Here we are all assuming that a magician can convert someone in 15 minutes with NLP and arguing about what that means for God-belief. We've been taken in. It was a trick! Nobody can really produce a conversion experience in 15 minutes in the way we're supposed to believe he did. DB's tricks don't work by using NLP (because NLP doesn't work so dramatically, if indeed it works at all, which I rather doubt). The bit at the end of the trick where he shows you how he did it using NLP (though he never uses the phrase) to implant suggestions in people's minds is itself misdirection, part of his act. I should have realised that, because I've had a similar conversation about DB before, with an NLP believer.

    See also Ferretbrain's Derren Brown is a Liar and this discussion on the show: pjc229 has it right.

    That little "something doesn't make sense" feeling is something you want to train yourself to listen to: as Yudkowsky says, your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. At the point where someone claims to be able to produce religious experiences after 15 minutes of chat about fathers and tapping on the table, you should be feeling confused, not trying to defend religion as if the story DB's telling really happened and you had to explain how it doesn't really threaten Christianity (this is like Yudkowsky trying to defend the paramedics in his story).

    I must congratulate DB on getting me seriously debating whether he'd provided a contribution to the psychology of religion, though. The man's a genius.

    (None of which is to say that there aren't satisfying psychological explanations for religious experiences which remove the need to invoke gods, of course, just that DB hasn't shown that.)

  29. Tim Coomar

    Also, see Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker p.43:

    "Each successive change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its precursor, to have arisen by chance."

    And just to make it clear that I am not twisting his words, this is part of his argument in favour of evolution 'as a whole sequence' being non-random... but even he cannot deny that each incremental step is fundamentally based on chance.

  30. Paul

    Paul Austin: "If God didn’t exist, how could I ever think of Him?" I think the answer is simple: in the same way that you can think of a blue and pink monster with 10 eyes and wheels instead of legs from the planet Zupiturn. The power to imagine a higher being is certainly not proof of its existence, just as the ability to imagine ghosts is not proof of theirs.

    More importantly, you (and many others above) are arguing for existence of God on the basis of the existence of (and, specifically, the resurrection of) Jesus. But Christianity is just one of hundreds of thousands of belief systems humans have had throughout history. Long before Jesus, ancient Greeks were just as convinced about the existence of their many Gods as you are about the existence of yours. As a species, we have invented and worshipped and in some cases forgotten about thousands of Gods/deities and supernatural entities. We're fantastic at it!

    And to me, this is an important point. Like many of you, I was a passionate Christian for many years ... in fact until very, very recently. And the moment I realised my beliefs were a sham was when I forced myself to accept this fact. I realised that, however much my circular reasoning allowed me to believe the Jesus-centric story I'd been told, there are millions of other people around the world - and millions throughout history - who have used identical tricks of self-deception to believe in a completely different spiritual worldview that is not compatible with mine (3 Gods, 20 Gods, Gods who intervene, Gods who don't, compassionate Gods, vengeful Gods, Gods who bring rain if you dance to them etc. etc.). We can't all be right ... but we can all be wrong.

    I loved my life as a Christian. I loved the feeling of knowing I had God's love. But as I think Derren's show cleverly illustrated, these feelings come from within ourselves. Today, without my religion, I feel the love of humankind and the inherent goodness we possess. This is only my personal story and I know everybody is different, but losing my religion helped my see just how beautiful life is, divorced from any supernatural notions. Today, I wake up every morning knowing we only have one life ... and I embrace every opportunity I have to make it a better world for everybody I meet.

    Glen, that said, I very much enjoyed reading your post. Nice to get people thinking.

  31. Glen

    Paul Wright, thanks for those links, I'll enjoy following them up.

    Paul (the third!) - there is all the difference in the world between a super-being within creation and the Christian claim that there is an Eternal Father and *Source* of all being. Even just speaking philosophically, I hope you can see that there's an infinite qualitative distinction between "super being" and "source of being". Equating the two (as Dawkins constantly does with Flying Spaghetti Monsters and interplanetary teapots) is to misunderstand the entire character of Christian - atheist debate.

    I'd just say to you - be more sceptical. Seriously. If a believer in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (like a Muslim or Christian) can be mistaken, so can a believer in the Virgin Birth of the Cosmos (like an atheist). We all have faith positions and, metaphysically speaking, it's difficult to imagine a more absurd belief than materialism. Not least because the "love", "goodness" and "beauty" you speak of must, on a materialist account, be attributed, at bottom, to impersonal forces, random acts and selfishness.

    If you want an ultimate love, goodness and beauty you need the triune God - everything else is sinking sand.

    All the very best.

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  33. Rod

    Glen, I am coming from a similar place to Paul (the third!).

    You do realise, don't you, that an ancient Greek version of you might be saying "If you want an ultimate love, goodness and beauty you need Athena – everything else is sinking sand."

    Of course you are right pointing out the distinction between a “super being” and “source of being”. You and I might even agree on (the possibility of) a "source of being" at some level, but that would have no value in discussing a "super being". You have argued that God "meets us where we are", in the natural universe, but if that is true he would become a "super being", either in the person of Jesus or by intervening in our lives now. That is where we differ because I see no proof of that happening outside of your feelings or the collection of old books that you put so much trust in. Bringing a "source of being" into it does nothing to support your position.

  34. Glen

    Hi Rod, welcome to the blog. One essential difference between Athena and Jesus is the Source of Being encountering us not in a Dreamtime mythical realm but born of a virgin and suffering under Pontius Pilate. In other words, the Word (Source of Being) became flesh and made His dwelling among us and was seen, heard and handled by eyewitnesses.

    If Jesus isn't the Source of Being I don't have any interest in defending the concept of God. But with Him I see every reason to expect a reality where love, beauty, truth etc are ultimate values. A universe in which father-hunger, awe and regret might trigger 'a religious experience'.

  35. Adrian

    Religion goes against common sense and reality . , already having that. Derrens show shows how the minds can be fooled

    Fools believe in god

  36. Si Hollett

    Yes, indeed, Derren's show has shown how minds can be fooled. He showed that placebos can exist and nothing more. However, the show - using NLP (or just working with prejudices) - set out to convince people that (fallaciously, so against common sense) the existence of placebos therefore automatically discredits any real experience (so against reality)...

  37. Louis

    You talk of how materialistic explanations do not account for the 'personal nature' of the experience yet try and make more out of the claim that there is a divine explanation for them. To an atheist such as me that is a poor argument since you overlook the obvious neurological and psychological explanations that Derren and other researchers in this field have given. Trying to make out that God is ultimately responsible is to teach one not to think and critically consider a whole range of far more viable options than you have given

  38. Glen

    Hi Louis, I don't overlook the neurological/psychological explanations at all. I even link to Wikipedia articles on them. More than this, I don't even deny the psychological account. I just make the point that boiling down the personal appearances of these things to fundamentally impersonal processes is - to disagree with you - a far less viable option.

    I'm not arguing for something less than a psychological explanation, I'm arguing for something more - i.e. that our appreciation of reality in such deeply relational terms is not a gloss on an impersonal, underlying reality, but that the personal goes 'all the way down'. To put it another way - love is ultimate because God is love.

  39. MVW

    I think Brown's closing remarks about why people believe in supernatural parental beings - that it makes you happy - is summed up, inversely, in the attitude that you, and this is not just you but also runs throughout all religious apologetics, showcase in your article.
    Quite evidently, a universe without a super-dad at the head of the table scares you.

  40. Glen

    Hi MVW, To what evidence are you referring when you say "Quite evidently, a universe without a super-dad at the head of the table scares you"?

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  42. Luke

    youve chosen to play a pun on the phrase 'religion can be explained by psychology'. What Derren means is that it seems possible that peoples experiences of God, one of the main things that give people faith in His existence, can come about without God existing (and thus people should look at all the other evidence before saying God filled them with the Holy Spirit as opposed to there being no God but they believed in a God and so they self induced the feeling). Dennet is saying the same thing. Youve chosen to conveniently interpret the phrase to mean something redundant.

  43. carl vagg

    the fact that rabbi yeshuah [or "GEEzuz" using the made up name]
    did apparently exist and was apparently killed by the romans, etc,
    which i happen to accept, is self evidently irrelevant to any of the
    thousands of 'gods' worshipped by man in numerous societies
    before, yeshuah existed, and after that time, until today..

    while i accept that yeshuah existed, does not mean, accepting that
    'YHWH' created the universe in six days or made humans from dust,
    other than in the minds of men.. just like the thousands of other
    creator god myths in numerous societies worldwide..

    to understand god concepts as meaning only, your, god concept,
    is just as illogical and meaningless as would be a radical muslim
    telling you that you 'really believe in almighty allah'...
    or a hindu telling you that you are really worshipping sri krsna...

    the reality is that all creator god concepts are basically
    similar manifestation of assumptions based on ignorance..

    by relating mr browns examples [in english for tv broadcast]
    as being only about YHWH, you are jumping on that same
    bandwagon of unrealistically narrow focus of meaning...

    another distraction from yeshuas deeper teaching
    such as 'for behold, the kingdom of [] lies within you'..

    lost, or wandering in, the external distractions...

  44. Henry

    If we do indeed live in a deterministic universe - the current ontological dogma of western science - then everything is determined a priori, (roll back everything to the big bang 100 times and it will be identical each time, including the "values of randomness" at any particular node in the chain of causation). That includes everything of human experience including Derren Brown doing that show and you reading this post.

    In such a system we can only be products of evolution and therefore belief in God, the flying spaghetti monster or even free will is a product of evolution, along with this conversation, and it could not have been any other way.

    Takes faith to believe that!

  45. Dr Brigette Francis

    NLP is what all preachers use. It's how they get their message across to the audience. Hypnotists use it to a certain degree. A friend of mine is one, he also did the reading at his friends funeral. After the service the minister came to congratulate him on a such a fabulous reading and speech and wondered if he had ever had the 'calling' to which he replied no, I've being doing hypnosis for so long - it's just the way I speak now.
    You see as part of the hypnosis training they study preachers and use them as examples of how to deliver NLP.

    The Derren Brown simply exposes how susceptible we are as human beings to believe something we may want to believe in, and then when the delivery happens - in this case with dramatic effect by Derren Brown - it is no wonder we have people who believe they are born again - when truth be known - it was just a very very clever trick.

  46. Si Hollett

    Dr Brigette, your use of the phrase 'with dramatic effect' makes it seem to me as if you are even conscience of the fact that Brown was trying to manipulate you into believing his believe that religion is all a lot of hokum, but you let him succeed at using NLP on you.

    Of course, there could be a case that a charismatic speaker might not use psychological tricks to get you to believe what he says. And it could be Derren. However, my money is on (most) preachers rather than Brown for not using the tricks - they don't get taught NLP or hypnosis*, whereas Brown is considered a master of that sort of thing - a renowned trickster who makes his living messing with peoples brains!

    *unless those that taught me homiletics used NLP/hypnosis on me to hide the fact they taught me how to manipulate/hypnotise people. And if I could manipulate/hypnotise people, I'd be in a well-paying, low-effort job that I love and married: neither is the case!

  47. Charlie Harry Smith (@Chazodude)

    Of course, the main caveat here, as said numerous times, is that there is empirical evidence that you have directly experienced, that can be corroborated, that your wife exists... unfortunately, the same can't be said of God, or Christ, who historically (as shown by Quest Theologians) is nothing more than a poor, politically active zealot. There is very little historical evidence of any of the actually 'magical' or miraculous things claimed to be Jesus actually taking place.

  48. Glen

    Hi Charlie,

    I wasn't saying that the wife/God analogy holds at every level - not at all. I was merely saying that psychological explanations for our experiences say nothing about whether there exists an external cause for them. No-one should argue that a psychological explanation explains *away* an external cause (i.e. God).

    If you want to look at the historical evidence, you can do a lot better than the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Here's an introduction to Tom Wright on Jesus' resurrection:

    A longer explanation here: .

  49. Patrick

    Our capacity to love and feel love is a psychological and biological circuit in the brain .... like any circuit this can be stimulated by our thinking process .... and often we can provide the stimulus and effect through thought alone .... people can take this to extremes in fixations on celebrities...or their work colleagues... to do it with an assumed deity is no different but is frowned on less by society ... so yes your love for your wife is completely from your mind and is representative of the accumulated feelings and mental responses you have experienced in her presence ... A fixation and faith in a God is the accumulated experience in religious contexts often bound up with personal emotions that have intertwined themselves along the way often borrowed from familial love, desires to be loved and not left alone and a general yearning for our existence to mean something

    In short what Derren set out to point out.

  50. Glen

    Hi Patrick,

    I'd say that both my wife and God exist and their prior existence is the ground of my experience of them. Additionally, the prior existence of God is the warrant I have for thinking that love, truth, beauty, meaning, etc correlate to something beyond "biological circuits in the brain" and the survival value that produced them.

    From your point of view, does our existence mean something?

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