I’ve blogged before about my admiration for the remarkable talents of Derren Brown. However, I’ve just finished watching his latest TV offering, Fear and Faith, (Episode 2, first broadcast on Friday 16 November 2012) and I find it deeply flawed.
The show is pitched as an experiment. In particular, I’m going to discuss the segment in which “an atheist [Natalie] is given a religious conversion” via what Brown calls psychological techniques. The results of the experiment are very striking – I encourage you to watch the video, if you can.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of what an experiment is. Very simply, an experiment is a controlled attempt to link a particular cause to a particular effect. If you want to know whether morphine can relieve pain in humans, you might think that you just give people in pain morphine and then ask if the pain went away. However, this experiment cannot tell whether it was really the morphine that did it. Thus, we must use a control.
The idea of a control is to use two experiments that differ only in the presence or absence of what we’ll call the active ingredient. We must be able to control both the active ingredient and the other variables. It is crucial that in every other way, the experiments are as identical as possible. In medicine, one crucial variable is the mental state of the patient, which is why the trial must be double blind – to factor out the placebo effect, patients and even their doctors cannot know whether the pill is real or fake.
Thus we come to Derren Brown’s experiment. I have four criticisms.
1. There is no control.
An effect is caused, but in the absence of a control, it isn’t clear to what it should be ascribed. This points to an even deeper problem.
2. The active ingredient is not supposed to be belief in God.
That one can produce a religious experience in the absence of belief in God is not an interesting conclusion. Plenty of religious people claim that a religious experience caused (and thus preceded) their belief in God. In fact, it would be much more embarrassing to the religious cause if religious experiences only happened in cases where the subject already believed in God, since that would make it seem as if the prior belief created the experience. Brown excludes this hypothesis.
3. The active ingredient is supposed to be God.
Tonight I’m going to investigate what I think could be the biggest placebo of them all – God. … This innate hardwiring we have really can give a powerful experience of God, without any need for Him to exist.
God himself (if you’ll allow the traditional masculine pronoun) is the active ingredient. Brown is claiming that he can create a religious experience in the absence of any action of God.
Let’s repeat the experimental logic, as we applied it to morphine (cause) and pain relief (effect) above. To adequately test the causal connection between religious experiences and God, Brown would need to control God. At the very least, he would need to perform an experiment in the absence of God. He would need to build a divine Faraday cage, to shield the possible effects of God.
Obviously, this is not what Brown has achieved. The experiment only proves that God is not required for a religious experience if there is no God, for only then is the active ingredient known to be missing from the experiment. Brown cannot exclude God as the cause of the experience without begging the question. The most he can claim is that he can do it “without mentioning God at all”. And that, clearly, is not the same thing.
4. That a phenomena is natural or can be produced by natural means does not exclude the action of God.
What Brown has in mind when he thinks of God causing a religious experience is a miracle – some suspension of the laws of nature, angels on clouds, a voice from the heavens etc. But this assumes a distinction between God and nature to which theism does not subscribe. If God exists, and the knowledge of God is a good thing, then we would expect God to create a universe in which belief in God is readily available to the masses. One way of achieving this end would be to create a universe in which belief in God comes naturally, in some sense. Thus, we might expect a religious experience or a sense of the divine to be evoked by sunrises, newborn babies, the night sky, beautiful and powerful music, great art, a feeling of smallness, awe, the numinous (Otto), “the sense of absolute dependence” (Schleiermacher), a reflection on moral experience, the sense of and a need for love and joy, etc. It would be an intentional, designed feature of human psychology that purely natural (internal and external) stimuli could evoke such an experience.
In short, Brown’s claim to show that religious belief comes “from us, not from the divine” is a false dilemma – if theism is true, then we (ultimately) and everything else comes from the divine. A religious experience need not be a supernatural experience. It would be a rather slapdash universe which never hinted at God’s existence, never evoked a sense of his presence, and relied on God to stick His finger in every time He wanted someone to ponder their Creator.
Further, Brown’s experiment involves evoking Natalie’s own memories, which are of external phenomena, so the claim that the religious experience is entirely internally created (“all from you”) is unjustified. Natalie herself makes this point quite well.
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 …
Brown rather revealingly jumps in to cut her off at this point.
Perhaps the best known Christian quote outside the Bible comes from St Augustine:
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
If you showed Augustine an experiment in which thinking upon one’s own moral condition and one’s experiences of love and awe created in an unbeliever a religious experience involving a spontaneous expression of repentance and thankfulness, a longing for forgiveness and healing, and a feeling of “all the love in the world” (Natalie’s own words), he would surely say “that’s exactly what I was talking about!”. As Brown says, “even atheists … are born with an inbuilt, hardwired tendency to believe”.
The Apostle Paul would agree.
God [so ordered the world and its people] so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being [Epimenides].’ (Acts 17:27-28)
Keith Ward agrees.
The chief mark of a religious sensibility is well portrayed by William Blake when he speaks of holding ‘infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour’. The religious sensibility is the apprehension of a deeper reality known in and through some finite reality, and conveying a sense of overwhelming value and power. Such a sense can be conveyed by the beauties of the natural world, by the elegance and complexity of physical structures, and by great works of art, literature and music. It may be called a ‘sense of transcendence’, of beauty, power and goodness, which communicates an apprehension of a reality underlying the appearance of space, time and sense. (Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, emphasis added.)
C.S. Lewis would agree.
Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy…. The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. … If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. … [E]arthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. (Mere Christianity, Pg 118. See also the last chapter of The Problem of Pain.).
My point is not to defend Lewis’ inference – make of the argument from desire what you will. My point is that Brown’s experiment in no way creates a problem for religion. In fact, Paul, Augustine and Lewis would be positively thrilled with the results of Brown’s work. A few reminders of a caring parent and the subject spontaneously, heart-breakingly cries out for “all the love in the world” – a better example of sehnsucht could scarcely be invented.
No religion believes that every religious encounter must result from God visibly sticking His finger into the universe and creating an experience completely independently of the laws of nature and the environment, culture, personality, and life-experiences of the individual involved. Brown’s experiment fails to support his conclusion. He has no basis for concluding that the experience “didn’t come from God”.
Postscript. One lurking problem with the entire show is that Brown could have tried out the exercise on large numbers of individuals, and only shown us the ones that worked. The experiment only takes 15 minutes. He has made precisely this point on earlier shows. His shows are based on deception, as he has stated. The best example of this is the lottery episode, which was pure bunk. Entertaining, yes, but a clear indication that Brown is perfectly willing to use and abuse scientific (sounding) explanations to his own ends.