There are few things more difficult for the skeptic to let go of than their faith in their own intelligence. After all, recognizing the untruth of something lots of people believe in (gods, psychics, bigfoots) does give one a sense of intellectual superiority. I've certainly been guilty of a sort of mental vanity that is borderline absurd — not because I'm not smart but because no one is smart enough to overcome the inherent fallibility of the human mind. Smart people are often just better at tricking themselves into believing whatever it is they wish to be true.
And this is why I so appreciate the work of Derren Brown, a mentalist and magician who captivated me last year when I read his book "Tricks of the Mind". He reminds me of Stephen Fry — brilliant, funny, atheist, gay and charming — like something from an Oscar Wilde play, not of this time. Derren's schtick is to do magic tricks while explaining why the mind falls for them — he's sort of like a psychologist of magic. It's similar to Penn & Teller, but his tricks are less sleight of hand and more sleight of mind. He has gotten some flak in skeptic circles because he usually has a trick or two he doesn't explain, retaining some of that appeal to mysticism that he's otherwise debunking, but it's all part of the show.
If you share with me a love of the horrifically compelling documentary "Marjoe" or the delightful Steve Martin film "Leap of Faith", or if you just hate swindlers, especially those abusing religion to take advantage of people, then you'll be interested in Derren's latest TV Special, slated to air in the UK on C4 Monday night at 9. It is called "Miracles for Sale" which is a rather tame title considering the subject matter.
The special will follow Derren's attempt, which one assumes was successful since it's airing, to turn an average Joe from the streets into a faith healer, using only tricks of the mentalist trade. Basically, he's going to see if people fall for obvious fraud. Derren claims that this is not about God, but about exposing fraud, though it can't help but paint religion and the entire idea of faith healing in an intensely negative light.
Although I don't hide my own lack of religious belief, my repulsion at this scam comes as much from my days as a Christian as it does from simply being a human being observing ego- and money-driven fraud.
As a former Evangelical, Derren manages to have street cred with Christians, although many others see his de-conversion as some sort of personal insult or, typically, a sign that he was never really a Christian in the first place. And of course he's already getting the kind of braindead responses you'd expect from the faith healing crowds. "U say there's no proof of genuine miracle? Where have u been looking?? I've personally SEEN the blind SEE the Deaf hear and many other miracles…" "Jesus heals people all the time. It is not faith healing though. When Jesus speaks to someone they get healed. Everything he does works."
So much for helping those in need.
How do you resolve the question of suffering? Why do so many people suffer for no apparent reason? Does anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus go to hell? If it’s “free will”, why are we made so poorly in the first place?
Do you think homosexuals are evil? Is the bible literal? Do you think that committing genocide is OK (the flood)? Do you think evolution is false? How do you reconcile contradictions in the Bible? How do you see revelation, do you think the world is going to end and Jesus is going to come back? Should women be silent and obey men? Is polygamy OK or not?
Why do you believe in a god? Why do you believe specifically in the Christian god? Why is Christianity different than the thousands of other faiths that are incredibly similar?
Do you believe that government should be secular or faith based? How do you feel about capital punishment? Was Peter right or was Paul when it comes to the question of following the old laws? Can you wear cloth of mixed fiber? Is slavery OK, because the bible says that it is?
How can a god who is so constantly described as being jealous and having other human foibles and flaws also be described as perfect? How can he commit genocide and destroy cities and people in wrath and also be all-loving and good?
Where did Cain’s wife come from? Was it incest all the way down the ages? Do you think the earth is 6000 years old, like Bishop Usher said?
Why did Jesus kill the fig tree? Why is Judas condemned for doing the one thing absolutely necessary to lead to Jesus’ resurrection?
Do you agree with the church’s policy of torturing and killing Jews? Do you agree with the church’s support of Hitler? Do you agree with the church’s murder of innocent women accused of witchcraft? Do you believe in witchcraft? How do you think the guy who owned the pigs felt when Jesus infected them with demons and drove them off the cliff?
Why do you think the texts included in the New Testament are true and the ones excluded are not? Have you read the lost gospels, have you read the early gospels, have you done any historical research on the origin of the books in the bible? Why would God send his son to a place with a bunch of illiterate desert people instead of to the Chinese?
Do you think it’s reasonable to kill dozens of children for making fun of a bald guy? Is killing all innocent firstborn in Egypt reasonable? Is rape acceptable? Why does Jesus say he will return in the lifetime of his followers?
How can anyone with one of these horrible, painful, easily broken and incredibly gross human bodies possibly believe in “intelligent” design? Everyone’s body sucks. They get sick, they fail, they get old, they get flabby, with hair in places you don’t want, and often no hair in places you do want, it’s easily poisoned, depressed, scarred, destroyed, and doesn’t last very long. Add to that the millions of common diseases that make people miserable — allergies, asthma, diabetes, cancer, heart disease — and the minor irritations we face almost daily — bad vision, imperfect hearing, imperfect memory, itches, aches, indigestion, heartburn, constipation, sore feet, smelliness, and moodiness — how can anyone believe in a good god?