Is Christian Faith a Placebo? (Derren Brown’s Trick Too Far)

First published 1 January 2013

Celebrity psychologist Derren Brown is an extremely clever man. Having watched a few of his TV shows, I have to admit to being as amazed as anyone else at the things he manages to do. He uses hypnotism, NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and psychology to perform some marvelous magic and spectacular stunts. And I am not just saying that. Some of his tricks have literally made my jaw drop! But he is also arrogant, and his arrogance has led him to a direct assault on religion.

He recently produced a two-part TV show called Fear and Faith. The second part of the show focused on what he called “the biggest placebo of them all – god”. His aim was to show that, whilst religion claims to give experiences that have positive effects in people’s lives, spiritual experiences can be explained away. His claim was that if he could manufacture a religious experience then he could prove that religion is wrong to claim that the divine element is necessary.

So using techniques such as NLP, suggestion and association (subconscious linking of a physical trigger with an emotional response), he went ahead and (inside 15 minutes) caused an atheist to have a spontaneous emotional experience that made her reconsider whether the supernatural was real. She said, “In that moment I felt that all the love in the world had been thrown at me. It had always been available. But I’d somehow mistreated it by pushing it away and not letting it into my life. My spectrum of experience was broadened. It felt supernatural.”

He also showed that the mere suggestion that there is someone watching us, or that there are patterns and meaning in events, will cause us to change our behaviour. It doesn’t have to be real to make us act differently. Hence he asserts that the idea of god was invented in order to help keep moral order in society, and through the association of emotional experiences it has become ‘hard-wired’ through evolution into the human psyche.

His final summary was, “I think the most honest answer to the question ‘why do you believe in god’ is ‘because it makes me happy’. There is no reason to argue with that. We all find ways of making ourselves happy. And understanding religious experience as a human process is to me a far more resonant and a more beautiful approach because it’s real and it shows how astonishing we are, and what emotional riches we are capable of. We each live an extraordinary and improbable life.”

Very very clever. There is no need to doubt his integrity, or claim that he did anything underhand. Sure, it was all trickery. But that was the point. He explained almost every step of his trickery and manipulation. His lies and psychology brought about an experience that was real. But are his conclusions right?

There are several reasons why I don’t think Christians in particular should find this a credible challenge to their faith.

First, just because something can be mimicked does not mean that the original is fake. Just because I might be able to make a perfect copy of a Picasso does not make the original Picasso any less a Picasso! So just because Derren Brown can make a copy of a religious experience does not mean that real spiritual experience is not possible. His logic seems to be that psychology is everything, so psychology explains everything. It’s a bit like Pharoah’s magicians and Moses in Exodus 7:8-13. Moses performed miracles, and Pharoah’s magicians managed to reproduce them. Did that make Moses’ miracles less miraculous? No!

He also proves too much, in one sense at least. I’m pretty sure that a psychologist and hypnotist of Derren Brown’s caliber could make a man fall head over heels in love with any woman – a bit like the film Shallow Hal I guess (but it doesn’t really matter whether he sees her as she really looks or not). He could do effectively the same procedure as he did with the atheist to give the man loving emotions when presented with an associated trigger and the presence of a particular woman. Does that mean that all love would be proved to be unreal? If not, that would leave questions about what defines love, if someone can feel love under manufactured psychological conditions? We’d then start talking about free will, and whether actually love is just something that emerges when certain triggers and associations are present, whether manufactured or accidental.

Bottom line, if spiritual experience can be explained away by psychology, then so can love… and any other emotion or human experience.

Second, Derren Brown’s analysis of human motivation can lead to the devaluation or denial of the reality of altruism and humanitarianism. He thinks that we believe in god ‘because it makes me happy’, and says, ‘we all find ways of making ourselves happy’. But you see, if our own happiness were our highest goal – and that would apply to all humans in this worldview – then all acts of self-sacrifice, giving to the poor, putting others first, etc, would have to be construed as selfish. In other words, seeing people in danger or in need makes us unhappy, so helping them makes us happy. So we help people in order ultimately to make ourselves happy, whatever our stated motivation is (religious, altruistic or otherwise). If ‘making ourselves happy’ were the sum total of everyone’s motivation, our reasons for doing everything we do, then we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that self-giving and sacrifice was truly possible.

And that isn’t necessarily a problem directly, I admit, in an atheist worldview.  As long as poor and needy people are being helped, who cares whether the motives are selfish or not? I just see it as another example of where atheism will take its adherents where they don’t necessarily want to go. Consider, for example, that coupled with the atheist focus on the individual, selfish motives can be used to justify anything that makes me happy, even things that make other people unhappy.

But my final counter to Derren Brown’s attack is that true Christianity is not about raw experience. He acts as if debunking an experience is debunking religion entirely. People have emotional experiences for any number of different reasons, and with lots of different causes. One of those causes is spiritual, if there is in fact a spiritual realm as Christians believe. And it cannot be otherwise in a Christian worldview, because God created us with emotions.

But God also created us with mind and intellect. He created logic and order, so that we could understand the world around us, and seek Him. Christians don’t believe in God simply because He makes them happy. Most thinking Christians are aware that even emotions experienced in church may not be caused by God, or even a genuine response to God. The real reason we believe in God is because God is real, and there is no making sense of reality, knowledge or morality without Him. Arguing about the existence of God is like arguing about the existence of air (while we are breathing it), or arguing about the use of logic (while using logical arguments).

All Derren Brown is doing is using his own perspective on Christianity and generalizing it. I read somewhere that he was a Christian in his late teens, but lost his faith because he (incorrectly in my view) came to see it as intellectually flawed and based on circular reasoning. He came to believe that, in the absence of rational support, Christian faith (and any other religious faith) must be based on strong experiences which draw people in. Following those experiences, Christians continue to believe despite any evidence presented that they are wrong.

However, to conclude, what he has ended up doing is displaying the same circular reasoning that he was desperately trying to escape. He now believes that everything evolved, including human beings, and believes that behaviour and emotion is all explained by psychology. Hence in looking at emotional experiences that Christians claim to be of spiritual origin he immediately dismisses the possibility that they can be of spiritual origin. Instead he only looks for evidence that psychology can explain emotional experiences. Once he has found that he stops looking any further.

In my opinion, Derren Brown should stick to his tricks, his feats of memory and perception. I will continue to enjoy those. But, more importantly, I’ll also continue to enjoy the hope of glory, through the real Jesus, the Son of the real God, who really died and really rose again from the dead, and was really witnessed as risen by hundreds of people and testified as risen in the Bible. I’ll continue to be emotionally moved by the glory and majesty of my Creator, the grace of my Saviour and the witness of the Spirit who dwells in me. Sometimes I will laugh with elation, sometimes I will cry with joy or amazement, sometimes I will sit dumbstruck with awe, sometimes I will hide or weep with shame and guilt. I am not embarrassed about the emotional experiences we have as Christians. But I will also continue to make clear that none of that would be genuine, or even possible, if Christianity were not true, and truth is a rational category requiring rational belief. So I will continue to ground my faith deeper and deeper in truth, with a mind open to facing every challenge.

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