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.
Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life. — Terry Pratchett
11. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown
Amazing book. Derren Brown, and you really should look into him if you’re unfamiliar, is sort of the British version of Penn & Teller. I say sort of because his tricks are less illusions and more mentalist, but he is super skeptical and very honest about the fact that it’s all tricks. He’s also the best cold reader I’ve ever seen. And I hate that stuff when it’s played for serious, but he plays it as memory tricks and intuitivity and he’s kind of a dick.
12. Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett, read by Nigel Planer
I really liked this one, I think if you were just starting the series this would be one you could start with. It stands alone quite well. It delves into a lot of characters that I quite love the Librarian, who is an ape, Vimes, who is Dirty Harry basically, Sybil Ramkin, who is one of those crazy, not terribly attractive, flawed and delightful women characters, and the Patrician, who is evil in an efficient and good sort of way. The Patrician was originally intended to be played by Alan Rickman, in Mr. Pratchett’s mind, but was ultimately played by Jeremy Irons. We find that this suits our Gruber sensibilities.
13. Faust Eric – Terry Pratchett, read by Tony Robinson
Didn’t really care for this one.
14. Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett, read by Nigel Planer
This is a really good one if you’re into movies. A lot of what the Discworld books do is introduce modern technology into a magical world, and that technology is based on magical innovation rather than technical innovation. In this one, someone discovers how to magically record moving images, and the rise of Hollywood happens in a few weeks, culminating in the epic film about the civil war “Blown Away”. I enjoy all the references to things that are familiar with slightly bizarre names. Banged Grains instead of Popcorn, Clicks instead of Flicks. Also stand alone, if you’re a movie person looking to get into the Discworld series, start here.
15. Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett, read by Nigel Planer
Not my favorite. I like Death a lot, but there was something less than compelling about his story.